Ethics, morality and leadership: On point of principle

A drawing of the children's cartoon character the cat in the hat, balancing whilst holding numerous things in the air.Last month Meridith Alexander, the Ethics Commissioner for the Olympic Games, resigned over the continued sponsorship of the Olympics by Dow.

In June 2011, Anish Kapoor cancelled British Council plans to present his sculptures at the National Museum of China in Beijing in protest of China’s continued detention of the artist Ai Weiwei.

I’m becoming quite obsessed with these moments of principle; moments where cultural leaders defy convention and stop playing the game.

Much of leadership appears to be about balancing pragmatism and political expediency, of being able to recognise the strategic moments to advance and withdraw. I have become intrigued with this question of at what point one stops ‘playing’. Is it when you dislike the game, disagree with the rules, or simply when you can’t see a way of winning?

The author Leonard Seet describes himself as “an imperfect man living in an imperfect world, trying to weave through the chaotic interactions of semi-causal events with linear logic, contradictory emotions, dialectic wisdom, and mortal integrity” (it’s in his book, The Spiritual Life: Living a Fulfilled and Empowered Life).

I love his description. It perfectly captures for me that tightrope, with us all trying to apply hard and fast rules to an ever-changing carousel.

I’ve been reading about leadership a great deal this year, and another author – Joanne B Ciulla – nailed it for me too, in a book called The Nature of Leadership:

“In leadership we see morality magnified. It’s about right and wrong and good and evil…power and/or influence, vision, obligation, and responsibility”. She considers that central issues in ethics are also the central issues of leadership – the balancing of authenticity, self-interest and self-discipline alongside the moral obligation to justice, duty, competence and “the greatest good.”

I agree. I expect the leaders I follow to do good – the greatest good.

As cultural leaders, especially in the current financial climate, the pressure for expediency is strong. All around I can see people compromising; bending away from their initial positions to suit others around them. I think flexibility is great – don’t get me wrong – I’m just interested in where people draw the line.

Within the cultural sector, I think careers are determined by the decisions people make more than the profits they produce. For me, there is a moral need to do the greatest good. I think this means I expect more of the cultural leaders I follow to stop playing the game. Or at least take a moment to look again and check which side you are on.

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