What does it mean to be an ethical leader?
From our discussion last class I have been thinking a lot about the difference between values, morals, and ethics, and how they fall into my life both as an individual and as a part of society. While all three play an important and often-distinct role, none can stand alone.
This, I think, is even truer for people with authority over others, or people who lead. We talk about whether or not a leader is “ethical”; but I would argue that we must consider also whether they have strong values and hold true to their personal moral beliefs as well. As Mr. Nayor noted in his lecture, a leader has to a) do what’s right—not necessarily what’s popular; b) be fair and consistent; c) lead by example; and d) admit when he is wrong. I think these expand further than ethics alone: they consider personal morals and values too.
That said, an example of a great historical leader is Alan Paton. He is most noted for his ant-apartheid activism in South Africa in the 1940s-1960s, as well as his seminal—not to mention heart breaking and beautiful—novel, Cry, The Beloved Country. He founded the South African Liberal Party in opposition of the apartheid legislation in 1953, and was known worldwide for his commitment to peaceful activism.
First, he did what was right for the greater good, though it certainly was not popular: he suffered at the hands of the separatist National Party because of his efforts. However, over time the influence he created eventually swung the pendulum and exposed the corruption of the National Party to the global audience. Next, he maintained fairness and consistency when the opposition did not; he practiced what he preached. He even denounced the actions of his own colleagues when some turned to violence to oppose the apartheid. Certainly, values and morals such as integrity, respect, commitment to personal beliefs surrounding freedom, and empathy drove his actions as well as ethical considerations defined by society. Thus he achieved his goals via ethical, moral and value-oriented means.
More common throughout history we find unethical leaders. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pinochet…of course, the obvious examples, probably take home the cake here, but I see unethical practices happening everywhere I look, whether I’m looking in a History textbook, today’s paper, or at an FDA-approved nutrition label. So because it seems rather obscure (although I argue that it is the opposite) I’ll take the example of the FDA. The FDA is a vastly influential agency, essentially overseeing the regulation of one-quarter of the nation’s economy, as well as having a very direct influence over us individually with each bite of food, each pill, each prescription, and each piece of health advice we take. Thus the authority of the FDA comes with enormous responsibility. Not only does unethical behavior in the agency have momentous consequences, but also inaction—failure to take progressive, honest, and purely ethical action—is likewise a crime. The recent history of the FDA has shown leadership that has either acted on a personal—and thus unethical—agenda, or has failed to take action at all, supervising the degrading health of our nation with utmost apathy.
The FDA Commissioner in 2005, Lester Crawford, was one of the worst offenders, ultimately charged by the U.S. Department of Justice for violating conflict-of-interest laws and falsely reporting his ownership in stock by companies regulated by the FDA. Among other offenses, he falsely stated in a 2004 government filing that he and his wife sold their shares of Sysco and Kimberly-Clark, when they actually continued to hold them. Further, he opposed progressive policies such as non-prescription contraceptives in the light of his own popularity with the Republican Party. For the cherry on top, Crawford was also involved in investigations surrounding an extra-marital affair with an FDA Board member. Obviously, moral and ethical considerations were forgotten.
Succeeding Crawford was Andrew von Eschenbach. In fact, he was listed in the Times’ Time 100 “People Who Shape Our World”, writing that as head of the FDA, which "wields enormous influence on American lives", von Eschenbach "could make a signal contribution to the public's health" by focusing on issues of diet and obesity in addition to drugs and disease. Too bad he failed to do so. Under Eschenbach as well as his predecessors, the FDA has done very little to proactively address the descent of the public’s state of health. In fact, the agency does not even seem to acknowledge much of a problem, much less a plan for solving it. The leaders of the FDA have allowed this toxic approach in the interest of Big Pharma, Kraft and Monsanto. Last on their priorities is the interest of public health. Ethics here are not merely forgotten; they are denied.