Raymond L. Wheeler

Musings about leadership

The Practice of Servant Leadership is an Ethical Exercise

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It All Started With a New Friend

questionAn attractive young woman, Samantha, started attending Sunday services in my first congregation. I noticed her one Sunday in our second service – she appeared deeply engaged in every aspect of Sunday morning. She asked questions of those around her – exhibiting deep curiosity and deep pain.  She was searching.  She attended for several weeks and then she indicated that she wanted to meet Christ.  Those who had journeyed with her made this introduction and her response to Christ deeply moved the entire group.

Several weeks later I noticed Samantha on my appointment schedule but did not recognize who she was.  “Becky,” I called out from my office into the lobby, “who is Samantha on the appointment scheduled for ten o’clock?”

Becky walked into my office and said, “You know that attractive young woman who started attending several weeks ago and then met Christ?”

“Do you mean the woman with the long brown hair who was so earnest in her search of faith?” I asked.

“Yes,” Becky said, “that is Samantha. She has some questions about what it means now to be a Christian.”

The time came for the appointment and after introductions I asked how I could help. Samantha talked about her search for meaning, how she happened to meet some people in the congregation and arrived on a Sunday to investigate.  She described meeting Christ personally in faith and she seemed to light up with joy in talking about her new sense of purpose, release from the pain of her past, and hope for the future. I was thrilled until she came to her question – then I was dumbfounded.

“So,” she transitioned, “now that I know Christ, do I have surgery again and return to being a man or do I remain a woman?”

I was not ready for Samantha’s question. I found myself floundering in my own biases, ignorance, and convictions without a way to structure and organize a response much less find the root of my struggle.  Was I even asking the right questions in my mind?  I relate this experience in every class on servant leadership when I talk about how leaders grapple with ethical reasoning.  I ask the students what they would say to Samantha.  What would you say?  What kind of ethical reasoning would you use? Is the model you use the most effective for the issues involved?  Does the model you use result in direction for the question Samantha raised?  Does the model you use effectively bring you and Samantha closer to Christ and the image of God?  Or are you unable to even frame a model? Remember that leadership capacity directly correlates to a leader’s awareness of his or her mental/theological models, biases, experiences, and cultural points of view.

Samantha’s question illustrates the impact of the preserving and purifying effect of God’s grace – she entertain new questions about her future as a result of engaging Jesus as savior and Lord. Samantha’s question also pushed me to step up in my ethical reasoning. Leaders cannot ignore moral issues. As Northouse writes:

…leadership is not an amoral phenomenon. Leadership is a process of influencing others; it has a moral dimension that distinguishes it from other types of influence, such as coercion or despotic control.[1]

Ethical reasoning and decision-making address moral issues. Ethical reasoning and decision-making depends on the moral principles that govern a person’s behavior and define right and wrong.  Generally speaking, there are three approaches to ethical reasoning.  These approaches divide into two domains namely guidelines to conduct and guidelines to character.  Ethical models offer a way of talking about the character and conduct of leadership in something other than esoteric terms.

Guidelines to conduct include:

  1. Teleological Theories e., working from consequences or ends
    • Ethical Egoism: an individual should act to create the greatest good in himself or herself i.e., do what’s best for yourself.
    • Utilitarianism: an individual should act to create the greatest number of good for the greatest number of people.
  2. Deontological Theories, working from a sense of duty or moral law. Deontological theories subsume egoism and utilitarianism under the necessity of fulfilling moral law.

Guidelines to character includes:

  1. Virtue-based Theories focus on who the leader is as a person. The leaders strive to live out core virtues such as:
  • Courage
  • Temperance
  • Generosity
  • Self-control
  • Honesty
  • Sociability
  • Modesty
  • Fairness
  • Justice
  • Substitute Galatians 5:22-23 for this list of virtues.

I Just Do What the Bible Says – Really?

Ethical models are attempts to explain in simpler terms the complex dynamic of human behavior and thus aid in decision-making. Often students in my leadership courses reject these ethical models as though they were somehow anti-biblical. Their response to Samantha’s question is, “I simply do what the Bible says.” What becomes clear as I ask questions of what the students mean by, “doing what the Bible says,” is that they are treating complex situations through an ethical lens, but are unable to explain or define the lens they used. The problem with this is twofold.

First, an inability to show and define the basis for an opinion or decision typically results in blind spots stemming from aspects of a decision or situation rooted in the leader’s unconscious frame of reference. Blind spots contribute to poor decisions and it is poor decisions that set up inconsistent and toxic behavior by leaders.  In the Samantha story my students typically want to debate the merits of gender identification and gender surgery.  Typical, they missed Samanatha’s question because they did not hear it. Their inability to show the basis for their convictions results in tirades against moral collapse in the nation.  Such responses are not helpful nor do they give leadership.

Second, the inability to show and define the basis for an opinion or decision makes it non-reproducible. How do new leaders assess the situation to arrive at an outcome consistent to the work of God and the greatest good?  If a leader cannot train others in how to think then they will not develop leaders; they will develop super followers who do what they are told and nothing more. Leaders must have an ability to manage complexity in decision-making and in analysis. The need for ethical reasoning in a story like that of Samantha is clearly evident. But what model?

A deontological model would be like closing the gate after the cows got out. A deontological model asks her to repent for actions already committed – which by the way she had.  But now what? Is it ok to shift one’s physical attributes to match one’s gender identification? Is the way we define gender in the first place ethically and theologically sound? I often have students create a list of male and female attributes. I then have them share their lists.  I teach in a university that is broadly diverse culturally speaking. The discussions become intense at multiple levels as differing cultural views play out. But, what shakes my students up most is that I have them take that same dimorphic list and mark the characteristics that describe Christ. Consistently to their great surprise Jesus demonstrates characteristics they assign as both male and female. What is right in the discussion? Where does your answer start? Perhaps Samantha’s challenge would be completely different had she met Christ before her surgery. But even then, what kind of ethical reasoning would have helped her think about her gender identification?

A virtue model could shed light on how to live going forward. What kind of character should she show as a believer?  But this also does not answer her question about surgery. Is it possible that she could live a spirit-filled life as a woman who has come to know Christ? What is at issue in a virtue model is how she decides to move forward and the degree to which her behaviors reflect the character of Christ.

A teleological model might explain why the future held promise for Samantha. She was not rejected by Christ but grafted into the body of Christ with the gifts and talents that are hers by creation and redemption. Regardless of how she decided to act or not act on surgery she gained a purpose in life and meaning in life in her encounter with Christ. Does her existence as a woman (formerly a man) rob her of the imago Dei that makes us human? No.

Grappling with what being a disciple looked like for Samantha used all three models of ethical reasoning.

Ethical Models in Biblical Case Studies

What if we apply these models of ethical reasoning to biblical case studies? What do we learn?

Character or virtue ethics works off the notion that good people make good decisions.  The strength of this approach is its ability to consider various situational factors in determining what makes for a good decision.  The ambiguity leaders often experience requires an approach to ethical decision-making that takes account of the situation.  For example: while the Jewish Scriptures are very clear about not worshiping other gods, the prophet Elisha faced an interesting cross-cultural ethical question from Naaman after being healed of leprosy and made a confession of faith in the God of Israel. While Naaman committed himself to only worship the God of Israel, he was often required to go with the king in idolatrous state rituals. Elisha apparently recognized the shift in Naaman’s perspective and acknowledged that Naaman’s position could fulfill this role without compromise to his faith.[2]

Elisha used character ethics in sending Naaman off to live a different kind of life and leadership expression than he had prior to his meet with the living God.  Naaman’s healing from leprosy would not be unnoticed. It placed him squarely in a discussion about the reality and efficacy of God’s works. From the stand point of the law of Israel (a deontological view), there was no room for Elisha’s response.  But notice, Naaman had already committed to worship only the God of Israel. Naaman had to deal with the complexities of living in a culture that had no frame of reference to the law of Israel other than Naaman’s own character.

Elisha does not express a use teleological ethics specifically.  However, we can analyze the text from this perspective as well. The ethical end in this situation was the placement of a living witness to the power of the God of Israel in a culture in which God was not yet known as God was in Israel. From a teleological perspective Elisha’s blessing infers a teleological utilitarianism in that a concern for the impact of Naaman’s life changing encounter on the populace around the king’s court was in view.  If Naaman’s question was motivated by mere teleological egoism, Elisha certainly could have counseled against participation in idolatrous rites.

Virtue ethics allow for situational flexibility. Situational flexibility or consideration is helpful in many cases even though it can lead to relativism and subjectivity. How is this weakness avoided?  Virtue ethics requires a guide to decide vice from virtue. Aristotle first evaluated actions or virtue as the mean between excess and deficiency.  Admittedly, this does not escape the problem of subjectivity or moral relativity. Aristotle used the mores of society to anchor his definition of virtue.  Obviously, social standards slide sometimes toward excess and sometimes toward deficiency on earlier positions (just think about how we define vulgarity today versus how it was defined in the 1950s).   However, using Aristotle’s model is still helpful if we allow a relationship to God to be our starting point.  For Aristotle, a virtue expressed excessively or a virtue expressed deficiently, ceases to be a virtue and becomes a vice.  For example, what if a parent refused to discipline a child out of a claim of love?  Would we say that love ceased to be a virtue in this instance and became a vice because it became excessive?  Or we could say that discipline ceased to be a virtue and became a vice because it was deficient?

Second, Aristotle observed a variety of situational impacts by describing voluntary and involuntary acts.  Voluntary actions are those a person chooses to do.  Involuntary actions are something a person is forced to do by some outside coercion. For example; murder is a vice.  But what if an individual was forced to commit some vice to save their friends and family be killed in front of them?  Would the vice then become a virtue because it resulted in a greater good in sight as an involuntary action?

Look again at the case of Naaman – the king coerced his participation in ritual idol sacrifice yet Naaman did not compromise his faith. Contrast the situation of Naaman with that of Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego who faced a furnace for refusing to take part in ritual idol worship.[3]  What are the differences between the situation Naaman faced and that of Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego?  How did their situation impact the decisions they made?  The context of Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego is different. Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego lived within the covenant community of Israel in exile. This exile was the result of a failure to stay in relationship with God. In this situation, the test of covenant integrity summoned a deontological declaration that the core values of covenant with God cannot and would not be violated.

Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego used a deontological foundation for their decisions. The strength of deontological ethical decisions is that they work to simplify right and wrong – deontological perspectives help to clarify complex situations and give a starting point that avoids the slide into subjectivity. The Decalogue (e.g., the Ten Commandments) provides an illustration of a deontological foundation.  Laws and regulations for example offer a deontological starting point for decisions in business.

The law provides some guidance but cannot anticipate every situation so that even in the clarity of the law people must still make moral decisions supplemented by something more than a deontological commitment.

Aristotle noted that involuntary actions must be qualified as meeting some greater good, such as avoiding a worse evil to be considered a virtue not a vice, or if not a virtue a pardonable act and not an unpardonable one.  Before we dismiss Aristotle as being simply an ancient Greek out of touch with good biblical reasoning, we need to consider another well-known event in the Scripture.  Mordecai’s destiny words to Esther are often quoted without regard to the fact that in Esther’s case she was involuntarily placed in the Harem of Ahasuerus. Her presence in the harem and the favor bestowed on her after her courageous confrontation of Haman and his plan for ethnic cleansing is considered a virtuous act of faith and is celebrated in the feast of Purim.[4]

The case of Mordecai and Esther also illustrates a proper use of a teleological ethical egoism (an individual should act to great the greatest good in himself or herself, i.e., do what’s best for yourself). Consider that upon her entry into the harem of Ahasuerus, Mordecai counseled Esther to keep her ethnic identity secret.[5]  Had Esther not done this, it is unlikely that she would have lived to be in the place she was to expose Haman’s plot of ethnic cleansing.  Mordecai understood the banal character of evil.  Discussions of ethical decision-making are often derailed by the inability to acknowledge the reality of evil. Mordecai could have held a firm line and told Esther to reveal everything about herself out of a misguided definition of integrity. Esther never denied her identity – however it turns out that the timing of her admission meant the difference between death and salvation.   When the time came to declare her ethnic identity and act for forestall Haman’s genocidal plot Mordecai used a teleological ethic to encourage Esther’s intervention. Look at how Mordecai framed the situation,

…Do not imaging that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?[6]

Mordecai not only appeals to a teleological ethic but emphasizes the need for Esther to take responsibility as a leader to serve her people. Reviewing stories like that of Shadrach, Meshack and Abed-nego or Mordecai and Esther illustrates how the use of theological reflection.

Sound Ethical Reasoning Consists of Three Interactive Components

The point is that a model like Aristotle’s is helpful yet limited in that it does not reflect the impact of God’s revelation which serves as an anchor to limit moral decision-making from devolving into an exercise in subjectivity. The exercise of ethical reasoning by servant leaders attentive to God’s self revelation requires a leader’s self awareness in three interactive components: theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience.

Theological reflection is the anchor that continually refocuses and sharpens the moral reasoning of a servant leader so that she or he avoids the trap of subjectivity and the haze of situational overload. Theological reflection assumes that the use of the Scripture requires decisions about the mode of ethical discourse contained in Scripture. In other words, when we read the Scripture it is important to differentiate whether the text has:

  • Rules: direct commands or prohibitions (deontological approach).
  • Principles: general frameworks of moral consideration e.g., Mark 12:28-31(teleological and virtue approach).
  • Paradigms: stories or summary accounts modeling exemplary or reprehensible conduct (blend of approaches).
  • Perceptual categories: symbols by which we interpret reality e.g., nature of human condition or character of God or kingdom reign of God.

These various categories of literature each offer a different kind of biblical warrant that function authoritatively in making moral decisions. A leader’s formation as a servant leader requires utilizing a mode of appeal and sources of authority.  (A warrant is a justification for an action or a belief).

Worldview. Consciously or unconsciously people formulate a grid by which they make particular ethical decisions that blend their cultural perspectives/traditions. A worldview is how a person sees or understands the world in which he or she lives. Servant leaders work to make their worldview assumptions, allegiances, and values explicit. Servant leaders understand that the process of discipleship is a process of transformation and learning and that some of their deeply held cultural values or perceptions may in fact work against the kingdom of God. Assumptions, allegiances, and values of a worldview defined:

  • Assumptions: a fact or statement taken for granted. For example many in the western world, “…assume that the only personal beings in a given room are the ones we can see, we are following a worldview assumption taught us as we learned our culture.”[7]
  • Allegiances: the loyalties that define what is important for example: family, job, friends, country, organization, and etc.
  • Values: something intrinsically valuable or desirable and useful and important for example: freedom, loyalty, high mobility, interpersonal competitiveness or interdependence.

Personal experience generates the practice needed to refine or develop. Personal experience includes: the conceptualization of self, experience of social change, family history, and lessons learned or avoided in the consequences connected to decisions and actions. Personal experience does something with the feedback generated by action. Feedback accepted creates a learning cycle. Feedback rejected creates a gap between behavior and the consequences of behavior as illustrated in Figure 1.

Engaging ethical reasoning with a conscious awareness of the interaction between theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience expands a leader’s capacity to manage complexity. When a leader exercises awareness the possibility of change through learning occurs. The way theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience interact provides a mental model for interpreting situations. A mental model is a unique and personal generalization, mental picture, or image that influences how one understands the world and takes action. The importance of defining one’s mental model rests in the fact that learning does not take place without a conscious awareness. See Figure 1.

In Figure 1 the mental model (the interaction of theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience) results in a moral decision. When the process of ethical reasoning is conscious a person moves from decision to recognizing the outcome of their decision. The outcome allows responsible reflection to decide whether the outcome was desirable or undesirable. It is important to see that regardless of the outcome the feedback loop illustrated by the solid line process results in learning. Learning results in a realignment of theological reflection, worldview, and personal experience to account for new data.

Figure 1: Ethical Decision Making Grid

Wheeler Ethical Decision Model

Conversely if the process of ethical reasoning is unconscious, the chance of working out of bias and blind spots amplifies and the risk of becoming a toxic leader grows. Figure 1 illustrates the risk of blind or unconscious action in dotted line loop titled, “externalized loop.” This process avoids analyzing the outcome of a decision and results in a failure to learn. Instead of accepting responsibility for the outcomes generated by one’s decision or behavior this person fixates on events outside themselves as either the reason for success or failure. A leader in this situation would simply condemn Samantha and leave her with few options to move forward in her life other than existing in some second class state.

A person who lives in a disconnection between their mental model and the outcome of their own behavior and decisions creates a learning gap. This gap contributes to the process of denial and the development of a mental model that effectively insulates the leader from the consequences of his or her behaviors and decisions in their own mind. Notice the gap between the dotted line loop and the mental model in use represented by the three interactive boxes (theological reflection, personal experience, and worldview). This illustrates how a leader can insist on the same ineffective action or perspective repeatedly despite a negative result obvious to those outside that leader’s mental model.

For servant leaders the ethical decision-making process always results in reflection about the outcomes of decisions and behaviors as well as the process that generates the decisions and behaviors in the first place. As is clear in Figure 1 the outcomes of any particular decision or behavior either confirm and/or challenge our mental models. Hence, feedback is extremely important.  Feedback, whether positive or negative, is the essence of a learning process that sees the outcomes of decisions in an exercise of intentional reflection. Reflection considers how the servant leader made a decision in the first place, and the degree to which it is consistent to one’s ethical commitments and the degree to which Scripture forms one’s ethical commitments.

Feedback is also important to recognize because it represents cultural, familial or organizational norms. The summons to live together as resident aliens even within our own cultural setting is a summons to engage the world around us from the perspective of God’s working. This perspective can set up cross-currents with the moral assumptions and value choices of our own culture or of our organizational culture.  But more importantly, the summons to live as resident aliens allows us to use a wider perspective in our ethical reasoning.

Conclusion

Making moral and effective judgments based on a process of ethical decision-making is unavoidable in leadership. But more, ethical decision-making provides a means for early intervention to forestall either personal or organizational disaster.

Ethical decision-making is a process of responsible action based on explicit moral imperatives and values requiring that servant leaders be capable of explicitly defining the basis of their ethical reasoning.

Samantha did not answer the question of whether to have surgery or not in our time together. She did understand that the reconciliation she experienced with God was contagious and provided a basis for her to hope she could be reconciled to her parents. She returned home and began to work through what it meant to be a believer reconciled and transformed by the grace of God. How do you make ethical and moral decisions?

[1]Peter G. Northouse. Leadership Theory and Practice, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2004), 313.

[2] 2 Kings 5:1-19.

[3] Daniel 3:1-30 relates the incident of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego and their refusal to worship a golden statute set up by Nebuchadnezzer.

[4] Esther 4:14.

[5] Esther 2:10.

[6] Esther 4:13-14 (NASB)

[7] Charles H. Kraft. Anthropology for Christian Witness (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 2003), 11.

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Author: Ray Wheeler, DMin

Ray Wheeler - executive coach, confidant, mentor, leader, and friend. Ray is the author of, Change the Paradigm: How to Lead Like Jesus in Today's world. He is also an adjunct lecturer at LIFE Pacific College, Bethesda University California and Azusa Pacific University in cross-cultural leadership, leadership development, leadership ethics, administration, church growth, and mission in today's world. Certified leadership coach, certified Birkman Consultant, and certified in the iOpener Assessment (happiness at work).

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