Remarks at VALIDATE 2nd Annual Conference November 5-7, 2018, York, England

Let me begin by thanking Professor Helen McShane, Co-Director of the Validate Network, and Rebecca Powell Doherty for their kind invitation and the privilege to share these thoughts with you today. I would also like to thank Samantha Vermaak for her excellent work on travel arrangements. Her efforts were and are much appreciated.

As you have seen, my topic today is “Exploring Leadership as Ethical Practice: The Role of Imagination and Wonder.” As you may also have surmised, that subject is to considerable degree counter cultural today in the United States and many other societies. Consider, for example, that a recent analysis of the public statements of U.S. President Donald Trump found that more than 70 percent of them varied from misleading to outright lies. I suspect that were that analysis to be undertaken today and to include his recent campaign rhetoric, that total would increase smartly. Most of us would agree, I hope, regardless of our views of Trump’s specific policies, that lying is not ethical, and therefore that leading with lies as Trump has practiced, would not constitute ethical leadership. Beyond his penchant for mendacity, Trump has likewise played on a broadly held cultural belief in the United States that “real” leaders take charge and exercise control over those with whom they work. In Trump’s case, this propensity has taken the guise of name-calling and epithets, designed, as he has said repeatedly, to illustrate that his opponents (and all who disagree with him on any particular question or subject are so labeled) are “weak.” And once successfully tagged as “weak,” as Trump well knows, it is extremely difficult for any would-be leader to garner support in the United States.

If there is a disposition to believe that leadership constitutes control and strength in the U.S., there is likewise a view, arising from the hegemony of neo-liberal thinking, that virtually every form of relation or tie can be made to be transactional in character, just as the capitalist market rests on quid pro quo relationships. This set of beliefs underpins the widely held view that leadership should be exchange-based. As one leading text on leadership has defined a transactional approach to leadership: “Transactional leaders exchange things of value with followers to advance their own and their ‘followers’ agendas.” At its most basic, this conception of leadership rests on leaders gaining follower acceptance of their preferred course by rewarding them with desired goods or services. Put simply, it rests on a “you scratch my back and I will scratch yours” frame.

I suspect that it surprises no one here that this view would be popular in a consumer drenched culture as its exchange fundaments fit neatly that perspective. Indeed, considering this issue from a theological perspective nearly 20 years ago, the eminent religious studies scholar Walter Brueggemann observed that consumerism and its deeply commodifying results constituted a malignant social force:

Robert Wuthnow, sociologist of religion at Princeton University, has studied stewardship in the church and discovered that preachers do a good job of promoting stewardship. They study it, think about it, explain it well. But folks don't get it. Though many of us are well intentioned, we have invested our lives in consumerism. We have a love affair with ‘more’ — and we will never have enough. Consumerism is not simply a marketing strategy. It has become a demonic spiritual force among us, and the theological question facing us is whether the gospel has the power to help us withstand it.

Given these social dispositions, it may come of something of a surprise that the most influential and widely studied theories of leadership in the last 40-50 years have been developed on the basis of assumptions and values antithetical to the views of leadership as control and as transactional in character. Indeed, it might be argued that the approaches that leadership scholars have most widely adopted and examined are fundamentally counter cultural in character. Perhaps the most famous was originated by Harvard University historian and political scientist James MacGregor Burns in 1978 in a book, aptly titled Leadership, that won the National Book award in the United States. In that text, Burns called on scholars to rethink their view of leadership and developed a construct he called “transforming” leadership (since relabeled transformative leadership by later scholars) that has perhaps been the single most influential conception of leadership in the decades since its publication.      

For present purposes, it is significant that Burns established very high ethical expectations of would-be transforming leaders:

Transforming leadership occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality. … Transforming leadership ultimately becomes moral in that it raises the level of human conduct and aspiration of both leader and led, and thus it has a transforming effect on both.

Burns’ quintessential example of a transforming leader was Mahatma Gandhi. He argued that Gandhi addressed himself “to his followers’ wants, needs, and other motivations,” as well as his own and “thus served as an independent force in changing the make-up of the followers’ motive base through gratifying their motives.” And for Burns, transforming leaders accomplished these formative ends by force of example and not via transactions or control. So, one can see why Gandhi would be an exemplar for him. In short, transforming leaders are preeminently ethical leaders and the call on individuals who would seek so to serve is quite large. They are expected to model behaviors that not only shape their followers and encourage them to adopt uplifting moral and ethical claims, but also in so doing continue to elevate their own behaviors and capacities. Simultaneously, in organizational terms, Burns expected leaders and followers alike to come to common claim concerning their shared aspirations for the entity with which they were engaged. In some sense, then, transforming leaders would elevate themselves ethically and professionally, provide support and conditions that would encourage their followers to do the same and meanwhile work to engage the capacities of themselves and their followers in a shared conception of their joint undertaking. No one should understate the ambitiousness of this vision of leadership.                                 

While Burns’ book and conception occasioned a virtual torrent of interest and scholarship, a business man and thinker, Robert Greenleaf, was almost simultaneously developing another compelling ethical vision of leadership, which he dubbed servant leadership. Greenleaf was a long-time executive for A T and T- some 40 years, actually-and also consulted with universities and churches concerning leadership and organizational issues. His conception of leadership, particularly striking as it arose from a corporate leader, was also counter cultural. Like transforming leadership, and actually antedating that conception by roughly a decade, servant leadership called for a great deal from those who would espouse it. Here is how Greenleaf described his understanding of the servant leader:

[Servant leadership] begins with the natural feeling that one wats to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead… The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test… is; do those served grow as persons, do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous and, more likely themselves to be servants?

The similarities in responsibility and ethical claim between servant and transformative leadership are perhaps obvious. And like its close kin, servant leadership has continued to grow in popular adoption since Greenleaf first advanced his conception in 1970 in a modest book of essays based on his organizational experiences.                                                                                          

It seems important to point out that each of these ethically freighted conceptions are rooted finally in constructs that view human beings as ends in themselves rather than means for other people. Likewise, these views understand individuals as free, endowed with reason and equal with respect to their dignity. These views come to this conclusion on the basis in turn of a view of humanity as preeminently a moral concept and value. It is worth pausing for a moment too to contrast these assumptions with those of Donald Trump as a leader, for example. The differences are stark and the distinctions powerful. Trump sees human beings as disposable and manipulable and has systematically sought to demean and degrade specific targeted groups so as to rob them of their inherent dignity.                                                

And perhaps still more deeply, these views of leadership, which I am using illustratively to explore the characteristics they embrace, also echo or reflect a long-lived debate about the fact that humans have exhibited nearly infinite capacity for empathy and goodness and an equally unfathomable capability for cruelty and hate. Transactional leadership implies a view of human kind whose potential excesses are at best checked only by a continuous stream of specific negotiated material benefits. Transformative and servant leadership, meanwhile, suggest that humans can discipline their worst impulses and behave in ways that dignify and uplift all. Such choices are both deep-seated and fundamental.       

So, why, as an early career individual, take on the admittedly difficult responsibility and self-awareness and discipline that ethical conceptions of leadership require of their adherents? Here are several propositions for your consideration:

  • Perhaps most importantly, these theories are consonant with views of human and civil rights, the underpinnings of democratic and free societies, because they accord individuals dignity simply because they are human. That is, they recognize the fragile foundations of freedom by valuing each person for his or her own sake and not for any instrumental or other purpose.

  • They aim to elevate the moral standing of both leaders and followers and

  • They recognize the nexus between professionalism and personhood. That is, one’s capacity to lead does not magically arise, it is rooted in who you are as a person and your specific capacities.

  • They demand strong self-knowledge and self-awareness; an essential if leaders are to share aims and aspirations and to work in close relationship with their followers to craft shared purposes while also modeling behaviors that result in different and higher norms and conduct for themselves and their followers.        

But while these conceptions are attractive and I hope compelling, they are necessary, but not sufficient for effective ethical leadership. Fundamentally, such leadership also requires two attributes that are elemental to all democratic (at least) leadership: wonder and imagination. As a practical proposition, followers ask leaders to help them make sense of the contexts and circumstances in which they find themselves-to provide plausible explanations for those scenarios. They can do so ethically by offering reasoned and factual accounts that hew to reality and that help followers both understand the possibilities and constraints confronting them and/or their organizations and the deeper reality that there can be no certainties in existence.  Leaders who can evidence imagination foreclose intolerance by showing their followers how they can live with the uncertainty that arises from existence and the ambiguity of knowing that there is no single comprehensive explanation of life. Rather, such leaders demonstrate that there are always possibilities inherent in exploring the manifold opportunities that life presents and doing so with empathy, compassion and openness.

In contrast, unethical leaders and demagogues lie, scapegoat and blame cast and do all they can to undermine the dignity of members of targeted groups. They ask their followers to absolutize specific conceptions and claims and to loathe, hate and fear while imagining a constricted and ugly world. For their part, ethical leaders celebrate imagination and imagined possibilities. As the poet, priest and essayist John O’Donohue has argued:

Imagination never pretends to know it all. It never demands or claims an absolute standpoint, but it always relishes and celebrates the fact it is on the threshold where it cannot see everything.  The kind of knowing that is in imagination is knowing through exploration. It is not predetermined concepts or ideas.                                                                                                      

The English poet David Whyte, a close friend of O’Donohue’s, has put this insight of opening possibilities this way in a poem entitled, “Just Beyond Yourself.” Here is a portion of that poem:

Just beyond Yourself.                                                                                                           

It’s where                                                                                                                             

you need                                                                                                                                

to be.                                                                                                                                               

Half a step                                                                                                                             



and the rest                                                                                                                      


by what                                                                                                                               

you’ll meet.                                                                                                                             

There is a road always beckoning.                                                                                         

When you see                                                                                                      

the two sides                                                                                                                      

of it                                                                                                                                   

closing together                                                                                                                        

at that far horizon                                                                                                                 

and deep in                                                                                                                                

the foundations                                                                                                                              

of your own heart at exactly the same time,                                                                              

That’s how you know it’s the road you have to follow…                                                        

Just beyond yourself., It’s where you need to be.

Whyte’s poem is a nice metaphor for the role of imagination in the dialectical unfolding of ethical leadership, in which leaders and followers alike venture into the yet to be imagined and explore those possibilities as each grows by grappling with their individual and shared discoveries.

Imagination is closely linked to possibility and wonder as it opens the door to new or alternate experiences. To nurture a capacity for wonder is to leave one’s mind open to experiences and alternatives and to avoid the omni-present possibility of variants of dogmatism and fanaticism. The modern Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski has put this point well:

It is important for us to be uncertain about the deep motives for our own deeds and the grounds of our convictions, since this is the only device that protects us against an all justifying fanaticism and intolerance.

Or, as O’Donohue argued:

All thinking that is imbued with wonder is graceful and gracious thinking… If you look at thought as a circle and half the arc of the circle is the infusion of wonder, then the thought will be kind, it will be gracious, and it will also be compassionate, because wonder and compassion are sisters.

Taken together these reflections on the character of ethical leadership, and on the need for imagination and wonder it implies, suggest the compelling need for leaders who can nurture an openness to possibility, can remain receptive in the face of ambiguity and who can take seriously the responsibility that such claims (disciplines really) represent. These individuals must be reflexive, empathetic, responsive and capable of coping with paradox and systemic and enduring tensions. More they must cultivate patience, forbearance and humility. In today’s calls for false certainties, manufactured anger and rapacious scapegoating, these are doubtless countercultural capacities. But the freedom of your generation and those that succeed you actually will depend heavily on individuals just like you developing and practicing these capacities in your leadership roles, and doing so with deep self-awareness. You must, recognize the danger that O’Donohue described this way:

One of the sad things is that so many people are frightened by the wonder of their own presence. They are dying to tie themselves into a system, a role, an image or a predetermined identity that other people have actually settled on for them …

As young leaders, I hope you will take on the challenge of helping those you would serve avoid the sad fate of fearing the wonder of their own presence, and thereby you will not only work to elevate them, as Burns and Greenleaf both argued, but also yourself while preserving at the same time the possibility of wonder, freedom and the potential that your relationship as a leader with followers can represent. It is an awesome privilege and a necessary one freighted with the need for moral courage, openness and humility. Such leadership has never been more necessary in our world, and you, individually and collectively, surely represent its future possibility.

Thank you very much.

 - Max Stephenson