Ethical leadership and the passions for just change

By Tim Soutphommasane

Tuesday June 28, 2016

In reflecting upon ethics in leadership, I thought about what Gough Whitlam said in 1967. Then the leader of the opposition, Whitlam called for reform of his party, only to find resistance from those who found in constant defeat proof that their principles remained pure. Whitlam’s quip: ‘Only the impotent are pure.’

To speak about ethics in leadership is not about a call for purity. It isn’t about turning leaders into saints or bishops.

Nor, for that matter, is ethics about cold moral reasoning. An ethical leader isn’t a bloodless, cerebral philosopher. I am reminded of the British politician Nye Bevan, who once sardonically described the right kind of leader for his party as:

” … a desiccated calculating machine who must not in any way permit himself to be swayed by indignation. If he sees suffering, privation or injustice he must not allow it to move him, for that would be evidence of the lack of proper education or of absence of self-control. He must speak in calm and objective accents and talk about a dying child in the same way as he would about the pieces inside an internal combustion engine.”

Tonight, I would like to share some reflections on the role of passions in leadership — and how it shapes the conversations we have about race and cultural diversity.

The passions are frequently overlooked aspects of ethics and moral reasoning. But any notion of ethical leadership would be impoverished, were it to leave no place for the passions. To nourish an ethical life, we must draw from the wells of our emotions. Too often, we think about our moral intellects, without also thinking about our moral energies. We forget that a good society feels compassion for loss and anger at injustice. We forget that a good society is moved by ambition and moved to generosity.

Ethics, discipline, and economism

The idea of ethics implies a sense of discipline. Whether it is the following of rules, or adhering to the path of virtue, it implies a habit of doing what is right and good.

When we speak of unethical conduct or behaviour, it is often cast in terms of people failing to exercise the proper discipline. We speak of people tempted by greed or malice, or succumbing to envy or resentment.

Taken to its extreme, this notion of ethics implies a certain austerity, even a terrifying sterility. Those of you who are students of history may think here of that terrifying figure of Robespierre during the French Revolution. You think of ascetic, idealistic, incorruptible virtue — the demands of which are delivered in clipped, fastidious tones. An abstract virtue that would be pushed to its fullest logic without remorse.

There can be something all too clinical about ethics. When embodied in a Robespierre, it can be, if not utterly terrifying, rather insipid and uninspired. Robespierre may have spoken about virtue and sacrifice, but those of us who have blood pumping through our veins will sympathise more with a figure like Danton. Here was a more human picture of living: a revolutionary who loved to eat and drink; an imperfect man who pleased the people by his indulgence and eloquence.

Perhaps I can make my point more simply. Ethics can feel too much like Mr Spock and not enough like Captain Kirk. Too much like Sherlock Holmes and not enough like Watson. Too much like Rafael Nadal and not enough like Roger Federer.

This is especially true of our public ethics today. Our contemporary expressions of virtue and discipline ring hollow. With the scrupulous observance of the rules of the market, our public life is becoming defined by a relentless economism. Here is how the late historian Tony Judt explained it:

“Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring a better society or a better world?’”

Consider our default when we debate things. Whether a public policy is the right one is invariably judged according to whether it is good for economic growth. We find it hard to draw the line between a market economy and a market society. Our first instinct is to ask whether an innovation can be monetised; whether a policy will be acceptable to the abstract will of the markets. Even public spending money on education — something with a social goal, if ever there was one — is now being redefined as in fact an economic act. There is no such thing as a social reform anymore; only an economic reform.

Saying this doesn’t mean that I’m dismissing economic concerns. Far from it. A prosperous economy provides an engine for a good society. But when you begin to see the economy as an end in itself, when you begin to apply economic logic to realms other than the economy, your view of the world becomes rather radically different.

The insidious grip that economism has on contemporary thought is hard to shake. Much of our social and political life today is ruthlessly measured by numbers. For example, we tend to focus more on whether a new policy idea has moved opinion polls, rather than whether it is a good for the country. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, not when merit and popularity are not the same thing.

Or consider the weight that markets and quantitative information now have in shaping our view of what is reasonable and feasible — even our social reality itself. Betting markets are relied upon as predictors. Wisdom comes from the mining of data and the crunching of numbers. Ideas in politics becomes secondary to running tested messages pitched at targeted demographics identified by research.

This is to say nothing of how our social life is becoming merely the cumulative product of algorithms. Philosophers have asked through the ages, of course, whether our choices are in fact ever ours — whether we have free wills — but never before have our choices been shaped by marketing so carefully curated through data and algorithms. At least, that is what we are approaching.

All of this bears upon ethics, because ethical thought and ethical leadership are nothing if not qualitative in nature. They are concerned with uncovering and understanding our purposes. They are about how we discriminate between reasons and motivations. These are matters where the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.

Yet, increasingly, we are allowing black boxes and predictive quantitative models to define our social reality. What are seeing, to return to my opening point, is the triumph of a certain reason. A quantitative, sterile reason. A form of reason that leaves little room for the human passions.

Passions and sentiments

It was the Scottish philosopher David Hume who wrote that ‘reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions’. Reason ‘can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them’. Hume didn’t accept the supremacy of universal reason. He believed it was the sentiments that shaped our ethics.

Social psychologists have recently explored this. Against the background of increasingly irrational political debates and polarisation — where evidence and facts can play second fiddle to feelings and prejudices, or what the millennials would call ‘feel-pinions’ — there is an urgent need to understand the psychology behind disagreements.

The American psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains it through the metaphor of the rider on an elephant. Consider the elephant as the representation of all the unconscious processes of the mind; and the rider conscious reasoning. According to Haidt, our mind is like a rider on an elephant, with the rider’s job being to serve the elephant. Reasoning matters, but it is always up against the powerful forces of the intuitions and the passions.

The point here isn’t that reason has no importance. It is only to say that reason alone cannot move us to action; often, intuitions and passions come first, and reasoning comes second.

And sometimes, different reasons can come to bear upon intuitions and passions. Consider the sense of loss and anger felt by many in Western democracies who feel anxious about economic change and cultural identity — a constituency we have seen grow with alarming speed. I’m talking about the predominantly white working-class constituency that has supported the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump in the United States; those who have rallied behind the cause of Brexit in the United Kingdom; and those who have been drawn to far right-wing populist political parties and movements across continental Europe.

Such discontent is a product of loss and anger. It is given expression as hate and fear, though it is rationalised as an expression of identity and sovereignty.

It is interesting, just briefly to focus on how all this has been playing out in Britain. There, a few hours ago, people began casting their vote on whether the UK will leave the European Union. The result is deeply uncertain; it’s anyone’s guess just what will happen, let alone the full consequences of the British people’s decision.

Yet if people have been surprised by how closely run this referendum campaign has been — how it is that the Leave case has attracted so much support — just consider the different messages that have come from the respective campaigns. The Leave case has been one full of emotional power: fear, anxiety, but also a healthy dollop of English patriotism. Its campaign says to people that the 23 June will be ‘our independence day’; its more negative message, appealing to fears about immigration, warns people that things are at ‘breaking point’, with the flow of refugees coming into Europe.

The Remain case, meanwhile, has been made largely on economics: Remain advocates say that leaving the EU would come at a great economic cost. The case for Remain: more jobs, lower prices.

It is revealing that the most powerful case for Remain, which I’ve seen, said nothing about jobs or prices. It came from former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. In his post-premiership life, Brown has been known to produce the stirring oratory, for which he was once known, but which deserted him while in office. He produced a fine speech during the dying days before the Scottish independence referendum, calling for his fellow Scots to remain in the British Union. He has produced some stirring stuff again for this referendum.

In a recent video, which went viral, you see Gordon Brown walking through the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by Nazi warplanes during the Second World War. Consider, Brown says, the history of Europe: of a thousand years of war and violence; in every century but this one, the nations of Europe vying for supremacy. But now, a Europe at peace:

” … a Europe where decisions are made by dialogue, discussion and debate; a Europe where the only battle is the battle of ideas; a Europe where we fight with arguments and not with armaments; a Europe that is at peace because of what Britain did to establish freedom across the whole of the continent … we shouldn’t just be a member of the European Union, we should be a leader in the European Union … what message would we send to the rest of the world, if we the British people, the most internationally minded of all, were to walk away from our nearest neighbours? We should be leading in Europe and not leaving it.”

And so Brown concludes, as the camera pans away to an aerial view of him walking through the Coventry ruins, with the Cathedral spire reaching up towards the clear blue skies.

My point: the Remain case sounded and felt strongest, not when its advocates recited the economic evidence for why Brexit would cause harm, but when then were able to fight fire with fire; to fight passion with passion; to give voice to a patriotic reason for why Britons should remain in Europe.

We will no doubt draw many lessons from the Brexit referendum. There is an obvious one with leadership, at least when it concerns the passions and reason.

Leadership must be fired by passion. In our economistic age, we often make the mistake of thinking that leaders must speak a certain way, and be versed in economic managerialism, in order to have credibility.

However, the surest thing you can do to squander moral authority is to resort to the enervating strictures of managerialism. Talking about getting the optimal ‘outcomes’, hitting your ‘KPIs’, applying the latest ‘learnings’, becoming more ‘customer-oriented’, or calling for people to become ‘change agents’ or ‘thought leaders’ will never win you any genuine respect. Managerialist can’t strips away all feeling; it reduces everything to technical calculation; it leaves no room for passion or belief or commitment. Leaders should tread carefully — and remember that, a technocrat does not a leader make.

Race and cultural diversity

So how does all this play out with respect to race and cultural diversity? As we all know, race is a topic that can attract passionate and polarised responses. Often, they are not sentiments fair-minded people would wish to endorse.

This brings me to one point about the motivations behind racism. There are some who believe that racism involves, at root, a belief born of doctrine. Moreover, some believe that something only warrants the description of racism when it is accompanied by malice.

Unfortunately, this stance can prevent meaningful conversations about race. For it means that only the most vile or violent of racist expressions merit the label of racism. It means, for instance, that we must turn a blind eye to what Martin Luther King called the soft bigotry of low expectations — the kind of racism that can be accompanied as much by good intentions as by malicious ill-will. And it means that we must want for any subtle or insidious prejudice to become fully formed into malicious discrimination or incendiary hatred, before we even deign to condemn it.

When we talk about passions and race, hatred and fear aren’t the only ones that matter. Envy and resentment also matter. And prejudices born of ignorance and arrogance matter too.

Demonstrating leadership on race is often about putting certain passions in their place — about ensuring that they don’t contaminate our communities. Here, the setting of tone is crucial. When we have leadership on racial matters, it means that the tone of our society is civil and respectful. It means that we don’t glorify or celebrate the denigration of others.

From time to time we are reminded that, when leadership is missing, the consequences can be ugly and violent. Turning to Britain once again, it is salutary to note how the nasty climate of xenophobia unleashed by those campaigning for a Brexit has contributed to the murder of Jo Cox MP. A pro-remain campaigner, Ms Cox was killed by a man with apparent links to far-right nationalist extremists. The writer Alex Massie, in the Spectator, summed it up best. While UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage and the Leave campaign weren’t responsible for Ms Cox’s murder, they must bear responsibility for the manner in which they have pressed their argument:

“When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged. You cannot turn around and say, ‘Mate, you weren’t supposed to take it so seriously. It’s just a game, just a ploy, a strategy for winning votes.’ When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks. When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised if someone takes you at your word.”

As Massie highlights, rhetoric has consequences:

“If you spend days, weeks, months, years telling people they are under threat, that their country has been stolen from them… that their problem is they’re not sufficiently mad as hell, then at some point, in some place, something or someone is going to snap.”

Indeed, the trouble with telling people that they have a right to be bigots, is that such a right will be exercised. Licence to bigotry must never be given. Because you can never undo the damage you inflict.

Setting the tone concerns what leadership must look like from the outside. There is another sense in which the passions bear upon leadership on race and cultural diversity. It concerns what leadership must feel like from the inside. Let me explain what I mean.

Australia’s cultural diversity is something of which we can all be proud. Fewer countries can boast such diversity, and yet enjoy such harmony. We are, without doubt, one of the most successful multicultural societies in the world.

Yet our multicultural success remains incomplete. Our diversity isn’t yet reflected in our institutions and organisations — particularly within the echelons of leadership. Whether it is our government ministers and members of parliament, our chief executives and board directors, our secretaries and directors-general or government departments, or our vice-chancellors and deans in our universities, we simply do not see anything resembling contemporary Australia. The default of our leadership remains overwhelming Anglo-Celtic and European.

Last year, I established a working group to look into this issue — the group comprises the University of Sydney Business School, Westpac, PwC and Telstra. Next month, the group will be launching a blueprint on cultural diversity and inclusive leadership, which will provide not only a snapshot of what senior leadership in Australian organisations looks like in cultural composition, but also provide practical guidance on how organisations can do better.

To date, it has been interesting for me to see how leaders, in different industries and organisations, respond to the issue. Some say that any under-representation of diversity will be fixed with time. Others acknowledge that the issue should concern anyone who believes Australia should be a country that takes the idea of a fair go seriously: it isn’t good enough if there may be some barriers to equal opportunity faced by those from diverse cultural backgrounds. Others indicate that cultural diversity as an issue might have to wait: either that there is only enough bandwidth to deal with one form diversity at a time, or that it’s more important to deal with gender diversity first.

What has struck me, though, has been observing the moral psychology behind different leaders’ responses. It’s no surprise that those who have the best grasp of the issue tend to have some personal connection to cultural diversity: they may come from a non-Anglo-Celtic or non-European background themselves; they may have a spouse or partner from such backgrounds; they may have adopted a child from another country.

A similar point can be made as well of those leaders who are most responsive to other dimensions of diversity. My former colleague Liz Broderick established, as many of you will know, the Male Champions of Change. It’s a program comprising male chief executives and leaders who are advocates for gender equity and diversity. What’s fascinating is hearing just why these men are committed to being ‘champions’. For many of them, the issue is important because they think about the opportunities that they daughters will enjoy. Think about that. You can interpret that to mean that caring about diversity, if you’re not directly affected by it, might require some skin in the game. Once again, we see that having reason on your side mightn’t be enough.

But what if you don’t have skin in the game? What if there’s no obvious personal reason for a leader to care about cultural diversity? What if a leader should be insulated from cultural diversity? What if they don’t feel passion for cultural diversity?

Being right doesn’t mean having might

It is about context. Exercising leadership is never done in a vacuum. Leadership will always be shaped by one’s resources, one’s followers, and the resistance one faces. Being right doesn’t mean having might.

It is always sobering for me to reflect on the question of leadership on matters of race and cultural diversity. There remain many obstacles to progress.

We see it whenever a controversy involving racism emerges in public debate. There continues to be great resistance to even talking about racism — there will always be a section of society that refuses to countenance the idea that racism still exists, or that would prefer it for those who fight racism to remain silent and not disturb the peace. Sometimes, you can get the impression that calling out racism is a worse offence than perpetrating racism itself.

The solution, in one respect, is very simple: if you don’t want to be called racist, then don’t do things that involve racism. That, though, would be the rational response. As we have seen, sadly, reason may not always be enough.

Then there’s that other obstacle I alluded to earlier. Within Australian corporate and organisation life, cultural diversity remains a poorer cousin in the diversity family. It can be relegated as a secondary concern. Yet, imagine if you are in an organisation and are told that you will have to wait — or that you are not as important as others. This is the often the message that is sent today about cultural diversity. As I’ve said, setting the tone matters, but unfortunately the tone being set is often the wrong one.

So what kind of passions must guide us on race and cultural diversity?

Too often, we confuse passion with enlightened self-interest. This includes advocates in the human rights community. Some lapse into the kind of enervating economism that believes only a business case will be heard. Some forget that, well, sometimes you should do something not because you will stand to profit from it, but simply because it is the right thing to do.

Just stop to think about that. What does it say about today’s leadership? What does it say of us that we think our leaders can only be moved to do things because of self-interest, corporate or personal? When will it be possible again to imagine that leadership should do some things because it is the right thing to do?

Justice can be a passion. It must be a passion. It must be one that we channel on race and cultural diversity. If in doubt, you need only think about Martin Luther King — that is what the cause of justice looks and sounds like. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

But perhaps the most powerful passion we have is one about our country. Patriotism can be a vice. It can be nasty, when used to exclude people, and when it is married to hatred. Yet patriotism can also be virtue. When it is generous and uplifting, it can motivate citizens to work for others, to do the right thing. When I think about fixing the wrongs on racism, and about doing better on our cultural diversity, it’s no accident that I think not of what it would do to our gross domestic product, but of how much better and stronger our country would be if we did things right.

This is an edited version of the Vincent Fairfax Ethics in Leadership Oration, delivered by Dr Tim Soutphommasane at Ormond College, University of Melbourne on June 23.

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5 years ago

Thank you for bringing philosophical insights into your discussion. To my mind, every prospective piece of legislation should be subject to philosophical discussion too. Thanks Dr Tim Soutphommasane.

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