Value Systems : Principled Leadership in an Age of Cynicism

John Hawkins

President of Leadership Edge Incorporated"In its essence, leadership is a lifestyle, not a position." 

John Hawkins, President and Founder of Leadership Lifestyle and Leadership Edge Inc. has helped corporations, university students and organizational leaders across America wrestle with the issue of developing a leadership lifestyle.  John believes that this is essential for effective, long-term leadership in today's chaotic organizations and corporations.

Contact John via e-mail jhawkins@lead-edge.com or visit his website www.leadershiplifestyle.com


"The value system is being torn apart. Your stockbroker has just been thrown in jail and your priest is being accused of child abuse. Where do you go for a source of values?"

Dee Soder
Industrial Psychologist
As quoted in Fortune Magazine

The American public is in a schizophrenic quandary over principled leadership. Many people wonder if they can really trust those who put themselves forward as ethical leaders. In moments of honest reflection we realize an inner desire for competent leaders who display moral rectitude. Not only is this a desire, it is also for many of us fundamental in our understanding of leadership.

This desire and expectation for morally driven leaders is too often crushed by those who present themselves as such, and yet prove to have a reckless disregard for a consistent, principled lifestyle. At a time when many believe we are in desperate need for persons of high ethical standards to lead us, we become immediately suspect when such persons step forward..

Our suspicions sometimes arise from hurts or wrongs that we have received as a result of placing our trust in disingenuous leaders and their misguided endeavors. Human hopes and efforts can be crushed when leaders prove themselves to be mere images of the virtues that they espouse. This breach of trust often results in an unwillingness to believe the best about any leader again.

Others express skepticism toward principled leaders because of a general fear of losing control. These persons see "followship" as an untrusting arena in which no one is to be trusted. For those who view "followship" in this way, even the most moral leaders are viewed as suspect and possibly threatening. Regardless of the leader’s ethical track record, the fear of losing control can often greatly tinge how others view them.

At the foundation, the cynicism that many have toward our contemporary leaders is a result of the erosion of the meaning of values in our country. Simply put, in our country, values are not near what they used to be. Whereas at the time of the founding of our nation, values were based upon universal, moral absolutes, they have gradually lost this foundation. Values have become individualized preferences that are determined by the circumstances and contexts within which one operates.

Noted historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her book The Demoralization of Society, puts forward the argument that there is a categorical difference between the concepts of values and virtues. She argues that "values" are based upon the "assumptions that all moral ideas are subjective and relative, that they are mere customs and conventions, that they have a purely instrumental, utilitarian purpose, and that they are peculiar to specific individuals and societies."(The Demoralization of Society, page 11).

Ms. Himmelfarb contends that the concept of "virtues" of the late 18th and early 19th century meant "fixed and certain standards against which behavior could and should be measured … And when conduct fell short of those standards, it was judged in moral terms, as bad, wrong or evil – not , as is more often the case today, as misguided, undesirable or ‘inappropriate’." (The Demoralization of Society, pages 12-13).

When values have been separated from a foundation of morality, they come to mean nothing because they mean everything. In a culture where all values are deemed to be equal, the notion of being a values-driven leader comes to mean very little. The basis of cynicism toward principled leaders today is a result of the diminished meaning and authority that today’s values have in our lives and in our choices.

Leadership in a society that has separated values from morality requires clear and reflective thinking. Before a leader puts himself forward as an ethical leader, he would do well to determine his basis of understanding ethics and morality. Does he understand his behavior as being molded by standards of virtue and thereby evaluated by these standards? Are his life and leadership based upon moral absolutes or upon cultural and managerial expediencies?

The cynicism toward credible and ethical leaders places these leaders in a quandary of their own. How is it that one wins the trust and respect of their constituents in this age of cynicism? These leaders affirm the importance of taking time to evaluate the character, competence and commitment of those that you follow and support. And yet they also realize that in its essence, the process of leadership and "followship" is a process of trust.

Three thoughts that will guide those who desire to be moral and credible leaders are:

Virtuous leadership must be demonstrated in speech and actions, publicly and privately, 24 hours a day. No leader will ever become a spotless moral paragon. And yet each must be committed to doing what it takes to do what is right. What a leader does in private does matter, and will decrease or increase his scope of influence.

The test of time is compelling; it also builds patience and in some, a rich humility. Time proves both the value of one’s virtues and the consistency with which they are displayed. Time is the acid test that determines the credibility and morality of any leader.

Media exposure is of limited value in putting forward and establishing one’s virtue. The establishment of one’s moral authority is a result of building a credible reputation in a relatively small culture. From this culture there is the chance of multiplied influence as one’s reputation becomes legendary.

The antidote to cynicism is reality. It is the challenge of every leader today to put forward the reality of a life that is built around virtuous standards. This will be a lifelong process of personal and spiritual reckoning. And in this process there is the possibility of becoming the kind of leader that we so desperately need.

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