Is ethical leadership an art?

By Brett Beasley

Leaders who want to do the right thing can find help from an unlikely source: the imagination.


[Note: This article is the first part in a series on "moral imagination." Stay tuned for parts two and three.]

"The great instrument of moral goods is the imagination."

—Percy Bysshe Shelley

Most of us are comfortable saying—to quote the title of Max De Pree's famous book—that "leadership is an art." But what about ethical leadership? Is it an art, too?

When we think of someone who is "moral," "ethical," or "virtuous," we tend to think of an unimaginative rule-follower. Mention "artist," on the other hand, and we conjure up an image of someone who "colors outside the lines" both in their work and in their life—someone like Jackson Pollock, for example. Pollock lived and painted "volcanically." He broke with all of the artistic conventions of his time by flinging or pouring paint directly onto his canvases. And in his relationships he was similarly erratic and explosive.

Recent research has found, however, that morality and the imagination are not as separate as these images would suggest. It reveals that there is something of the artist in the ethical person after all.

Creativity + Moral Identity

To investigate the relationship between ethics and creativity, Sejin Keem (Portland State) devised a series of experiments along with colleagues at Georgia Tech and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Keem and her team surveyed and tracked groups of college students and food service workers, measuring participants' creativity and unethical behaviors. They observed that creativity was not an ethics liability. In fact, for many people, it proved to be an asset.

The people who engaged in the least unethical behavior had a unique combination: creativity + moral identity. Moral identity refers to the fact that these people took ethics personally—they saw it as a core feature of their selfhood. When creativity and moral identity combined, they led to what researchers call "moral imagination."

What is Moral Imagination?

Moral imagination is not a new idea. As far back as our oldest written artifacts, we can find evidence that human beings used imaginative tales, practices, and images to convey moral messages. Since the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, interest in the concept has intensified. Philosophers and other writers began to suggest that dominant approaches to ethics had become narrow and overly dependent on the role of reason and rules. They have insisted that the imagination has an important part  to play alongside reason in helping us do what is right.

In 1759 Adam Smith argued, for example, that the imagination helps us develop “moral sentiments.” He pointed out the importance of imaginatively switching places with others in order to understand their behavior. He also suggested that in order to judge our own actions, we should imagine we are observing them from the position of an “impartial spectator.”

Contemporary philosopher Mark Johnson agrees. As he puts it, "We human beings are imaginative creatures [...] Consequently, our moral understanding depends in large measure on various structures of imagination such as images, image schemas, metaphors, narratives, and so forth."

Students in Notre Dame's Meyer Business on the Frontlines program rely on moral imagination in some of the most challenging situations of all: in countries struggling with conflicts and deep poverty. These students use an approach to moral imagination developed by longtime Notre Dame Peace Studies professor John Paul Lederach.

Lederach became convinced that “violence is the behavior of someone incapable of imagining other solutions to the problem at hand.” Moral imagination, he found, was the key that could unlock conciliation and transformation. Students find that moral imagination is relevant not just to their work in vulnerable communities but also to their life beyond the MBA. As Notre Dame management professor and Business on the Frontlines Co-Founder Viva Bartkus writes, "The students gain a visceral sense that the imagination and creation of common ground is both possible and worthy of the effort. They take this lesson into their professional careers and personal lives."

Research suggests that moral imagination can help each of us all handle three persistent features of the business world:

Conflict. A person with moral imagination can empathize with others to find the possibility of cooperation where others might see only the possibility of conflict or competition. As philosopher Martha Nussbaum puts it, "Vividness leads to tenderness, imagination to compassion."

Calculative Mindsets. Researchers suggest that a person with moral imagination is able to generate new, insightful solutions to ethical dilemmas and move beyond old ways of thinking. This is especially important when we are in an organizational environment that limits our thinking to analytical, economic, or financial frames.

Uncertainty. People who practice moral imagination are better equipped to make ethical decisions when facing uncertainty and ambiguity. A recent study examined this phenomenon in entrepreneurs. Moral imagination led to a less rigid mindset that helped the entrepreneurs stay the course when they did not have established norms and laws to guide them.

Put it in Practice

Lederach cautions that there are no shortcuts on the road to moral imagination. Nevertheless, Lederach offers several practices to help us build moral imagination over the long term:

Interdependence. Conflicts and competition can cause us to see others in narrow terms—as adversaries and not allies. Ethical leaders need to acknowledge their interdependence with other people, and they do this by developing the capacity to "imagine themselves in a web of relationship even with their enemies."

Curiosity. A person with moral imagination knows there is always more to every story than first meets the eye. We need to avoid "immediate conclusions" and snap judgments about people and situations in search of a "value beyond what is currently known."

Creativity. When we make decisions, we often choose from a "narrow and rigidly defined range of choices" that are determined for us in advance. But a person with moral imagination knows that "there exist untold possibilities capable at any moment to move beyond [these] narrow parameters."

Risk. If moral imagination is not easy, neither is it safe. It involves vulnerability and the willingness to "step into the unknown without any guarantee of success or even safety."

For too long, we have allowed words like "moral," "ethical," and "virtuous" to become synonyms for "stale," "boring," and "dry." But by recognizing the role of moral imagination, we can begin to reclaim the idea that a virtuous leader is much more like a virtuoso.

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