Ethical leadership

A good leader has an idea of goodness and respective goals and is willing to hold on to these goals even in difficult times.
Clemens Sedmak | 8 July 2011
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"And this is what leadership is also about: being comfortable with oneself, being able to develop a sense of interiority, of inner depth and complexity that leads to self reflection and self respect.” Clemens Sedmak, Director of the Ethical Leadership Programme at King's College, London, has been thinking a lot about the need for new elements in teaching the future elite of decision-makers. Martin Kugler, of the Vienna-based Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians, talked to Professor Sedmak a few weeks before he launches a new Masters Programme at King´s College.

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Martin Kugler: Professor Sedmak, there is a saying that leading is special form of serving. But it seems that nobody cares about such thoughts in the establishment of big business. Is the current economic crisis a crisis of leadership?

Clemens Sedmak: It is basically a matter of bad manners, some recklessness, greed, some stupidity and, yes, a lack of control and ethical leadership. If leadership is about motivating people to invest in the maximization of short term advantages it is neither prudential nor ethically sensitive.

What is the main problem the Western world faces today with regard to leadership? Is it a crisis of authority or lack of leaders among young people?

It is always difficult to talk about “the main problem”. But there is something which I would like to call “moral Alzheimer’s”, a tendency to forget about standards of decency and trustworthiness, a certain way of losing points of reference for “what should be done”. The American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah mentions the “code of honour” as the driving force of moral revolutions. This idea of honour, of self respect and respect for others, seems to be the key challenge in our day and time.

What are the most important characteristics of a good leader?

A good leader has an idea of goodness and respective goals and is willing to hold on to these goals even in difficult times. With this sense of clarity a leader is prepared to master new situations. A good leader is authentic, cares strongly about certain ideas that deserve robust concern and is a person of prudence. Prudence means long-term planning, attentiveness, an ability to learn from the past. Hence, a good leader is a good listener as well.

You are currently preparing a new master’s programme in Ethical Leadership in one of the world’s leading universities. What does leadership have to do with academia? Can you really teach such qualities?

It is part of the beauty and the challenge of academic leadership programmes that we cannot teach what is essential to leadership – namely the person of the leader. We can communicate certain ideas, good practices, conceptual and motivational frameworks and a sense of orientation. But we cannot teach what leadership is about. This is a journey towards personal development and personal growth that is entrusted to each individual person. We can, however, create an environment and a learning community and offer experiential challenges that foster and nourish this sense of personal growth. In this sense, leadership can be taught in an indirect, non-linear way.

What is the new element in ethical leadership in comparison to leadership as commonly understood?

The point is not innovation, but what is not offered and what is needed. We need ethically sensitive leadership in the middle of climate change, financial crises, global injustices. I am not hosting a programme because it is simply “different”, but because it is necessary. I would not advise any company or institution to hire people for leadership positions without a sense of moral clarity. So in comparison with other leadership programmes we explicitly reflect upon “ethical literacy”, the ability to reflect upon ethical challenges and to make justifiable decisions.

The new master’s programme is embedded in the Department of Theological Studies. What is the relationship between the two? Does religion help people to lead?

Religious traditions as well as philosophy have a lot to offer for ethical leadership issues. They instil a sense of the development and the stability of a person. They provide examples of leadership in critical times. But most importantly, the help us understand the importance of virtues and personal traits, they help us to see the importance of what we care about. They ask the big questions and they invite a culture of reflection – they build a culture of interiority. And this is what leadership is also about: being comfortable with oneself, being able to develop a sense of interiority, of inner depth and complexity that leads to self reflection and self respect.

Professor Clemens Sedmak is FD Maurice Professor of Moral Theology and Social Theology. Clemens Sedmak has been visiting professor at the Jomo Kenyatta University in Nairobi, at the Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, at the University of Notre Dame (Indiana), at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. Clemens Sedmak is married with three children. For more information: MA Programme in Ethical Leadership.

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