Filosofía y educación

Leadership and Ethics

Juan Gabriel Ravasi


First International Leadership Education Conference

Model of Ethical Leadership for a Changing World

Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs

The University of Texas at Austin

 January 2001

Before I say anything, I would like to thank Doctor Howard Prince and congratulate you all. Thank you Doctor Prince for inviting us to take part in this event and also for being, from the very beginning, one of the reasons for the origin and existence of the CLC-Argentina. Ever since we first met in 1993 until now, Dr. Prince has kindly stimulated and generously supported surpassing our expectations, the project of opening a leadership center in Argentina.

We warmly congratulate the sponsors and those responsible for organizing this conference. We need to humanize our global village and the creation of bonds that strengthen the life of this community that seeks to play a helpful role in the field of Leadership and Ethics is of great value and importance to achieve that ever lasting ideal.

Secondly, I would like to concentrate on the ideas and questions about the topic that brings us together today and that we would like to share with all the participants in this conference.

How do we educate in order to obtain an ethical leadership at the service of society?

For how long now have we been listening to the claims for an ethical leadership?

We are aware of this challenge in our own culture since the beginning of the history. If we follow one of the lines we could go as far back as Socrates. And if we follow another line we find the bible story from the very moment when man was sent away from paradise. In the middle and around these two moments we have oriental wisdom. They all show how man has been worried about ethical leadership.

Ethical leadership is a vocation of man, a natural vocation, we only act differently when we loose our common sense and we are defeated by the demands of our ego and we generate a contra-natura culture.

If there is goodness in human creation, if there is truth in human creation, if there is beauty in human creation it is because it is inspired in nature and because it imitates nature. If he walks away from this road, man can only find suffering due to the moral evil generated by him. Natural or physical damage purifies and makes blossom that which is superior in man; moral evil on the contrary darkens life, burying time and works under the cover of sorrow and the shadow of anguish where songs and laughter do not have any room.

If we think about HOW we do it, HOW we make it possible to educate people for an ethical leadership, we believe that the contemplation of BEAUTY is the foundation of the ethical formation of all human beings.

But before trying to make my proposal as clear as possible, I would like to explain what we mean when we use some of the words we use in the context of leadership.

What does Leadership mean?  What are we talking about when we talk about Leadership?

We believe that to be a leader or to lead means to make possible what is desirable and therefore, when we talk about leadership we refer to matters that lie within this field of desirable and possible things.

If we say that: To lead is to bring into reality what is desirable, we are already confronted with two questions: What is desirable? And how do we make it possible?

We believe that the second question concentrates the practical aspects of all teaching for and about leadership.

The HOW we do it, normally refers to the ways we do things, the methods we use to do things and in this case it refers to an art; the art of exercising power. This involves mastering a discipline and some techniques. Discipline will make it possible to develop the required capabilities and the techniques that help the leader to materialize a particular goal or purpose.

The art of exercising power is called Politics. Politics taken as the art of exercising power in order to achieve common good tells us what we must do to carry out or materialize what is desirable. Politics taken as the actual exercise of power makes it possible or not what was mentioned above.

It is in these two dimensions of what HAS to be done and what IS ACTUALLY done where we find the most serious problems of today politics and this conflict becomes the greatest challenge for leadership in our days.

This is the main problem of today leaders, and we see it as the challenge we have to face at the beginning of the 21st century: we must work non-stop for making a society where common good becomes common will.

Consequently, the answer to the question of HOW we make it possible what is desirable from a social and individual perspective should be the specific content of all leadership teaching.

If we are to educate for the development of an ethical leadership at the service of society we must know, practice and teach all what is referred to the ways of introducing into the life of our communities that what brings about the greatest possible development of their potential. This potential will put at the service of humanity will bring common good into reality.

Common good in society is not always what is expressed, as common will. We repeat here, that this may be so, is the greatest challenge of this century and history is giving us Americans a great opportunity.

Within the actual concept of democracy and particularly in America taking America as the geographical, social and cultural area that goes from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska, there are basically two different traditions in relation to power and government. On the one hand we have the Anglo-Saxon concept that privileges a pragmatic vision of government as the main responsible for executing the common will, and on the other hand we have the Latin cosmovision that emphasizes a social perspective by supporting an idea of government responsible of common good.

Democracy as we all wish it should be, where individual freedoms and equality of opportunities are guaranteed for everyone is the newest political order in the conscience of humanity. Because of this and because of the tensions that those guarantees involve, it is a very unstable way of life that requires very high human qualities to be maintained and properly exercised.

The human virtues that make it possible to live together democratically and above which lies all Ethics at the service of society, must be the central preoccupation in all programs or curricula of leadership teaching.

Going back to the first question: what is desirable? The answer lies in the contents of Ethics.

Ethics, in a general sense is the cultural perspective from which we regard, or morally consider all human actions; it is the result of one particular way of looking at reality. That is way there is not actually only one Ethics. Due to the fact that there are different ways of seeing things in life, every culture has its own code of Ethics. Some times, this has made us believe that Ethics is subjective when it is really cultural. If we say that Ethics is subjective, we are going back on our steps in relation to the democratic ideal that we imposed ourselves. Beside, we are giving a negative resolution to the tension created by the conflict of values that emerges when two cultures are confronted in the frame of today’s globalization process.

The new global reality we are living in these days leads us to rethink, once again in man’s history, the possibility of formulating a universal Ethics.

In the same way as in each particular culture Ethics implies to overcome individual subjectivism and makes it possible to put real order within the community, a universal Ethics should make it possible to overcome regional subjectivism and should become the main condition for the existence of a global community.

Is it possible to formulate a universal Ethics?

Yes, it is, and in fact, there is an Ethics based on natural principles that prevail or exists over and above the limits of any cultural scheme. This Ethics is the one expressed by natural rights as the origin of positive rights.

The soundness of this Ethics is proportional to the coherence it has with natural principles, its cultural recognition is tied to consensus, and how long it may last for is related to the existence and respect of the laws that it involves. What can never be subject to consensus is the value of the natural principles above which Ethics is founded.

For example, in logic, for an argument to have logical coherence, it is of little importance that we may accept or not the non-contradiction principle; the principle functions anyway. If we admit it, we can express a judgment and this judgment has a value independently of who has stated it. If we ignore it, our judgment is just an opinion.

We can also see that human rights are not valid just because there is a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are valid because they are based or founded in man’s nature. What the Declaration does is just to declare them a law and what enforces or not this law is the real power on which depends its implementation. Nobody doubts that honesty is a virtue but when it comes to practice it, the ambition for power and particular interests generate nuances and confronted positions about any particular case.

This is an old problem for man; as old as man himself; and the old answer that is still a sound answer says that law cannot achieve what man’s heart does not want. For that reason we are here today and the question about how to educate in Ethics has all the weight of history and all the value of this historical moment.

Now, if human behavior is ethically conditioned by the cultural context and we recognize that there are principles that have universal value, then to undertake the task of educating in those principles has to be the first step towards the formation of people that will practice ethical leadership at the service of society.

Consequently, we must recognize that each one of us “sees” reality according to the cosmovision in which he or she has grown up. Our perception is only partial and selective: we see according to what we know. Therefore, to learn to see what things are like outside our cultural frame and individual subjectivity is the condition that makes dialogue possible as well as the formulation of a shared cosmovision and a shared Ethics.

“To learn to see” in the sense of achieving an appropriate education of our sense organs and of our perceptions appears as the primary task on which an ethical growth can be founded.

We believe that education in and for beauty is the foundation of Ethics. To learn to discover beauty facilitates the understanding of good which is the objective of Ethics.

In order to achieve that, we recognize four basics steps:

1 First and most important the knowledge of beauty that appears in the natural order of things because this is the parameter to know what is beautiful and that men may or may nor reflect in their own creations.

2 Then, we must develop the necessary discipline to make our own subjective evaluation of things capable of recognizing the objective reality to which it refers as a guiding parameter.

3 In the third place we must learn to shape our own cultural realities always respecting the natural principles that we discovered in the first step.

4 This process builds up character, in the sense that its first fruit is some kind of disposition of the spirit, which allows the individual to solve existential tension in direction of the greatest possible good. And it also prepares the person to act according to what things really are and not according to his or her own personal inclinations.

All human existence is marked by the constituent tension of a wandering being and our personal lives’ balance lies in the correct resolution of this tension and not in its annulment. To learn how to live in tension, whish’s to say to be responsible of our own intentionally, is the basis of a morally qualified life.

Can we wonder about what is totally unknown? Do we wonder about what is totally known?

Every question and all human communication navigates in unknown seas, in the vessels of already acquired knowledge. We cannot reach in any way what is unknown to us except through what we already know. What is totally unknown cannot enter our perceptions; we always see what we know. To resign from the tension that implies this existential situation is like resigning from being human.

A true ethical leadership has to deal with the tension and insecurity that brings the fact of renouncing to know the future. What pertains to human beings is to choose the sense of their lives, their natural end is subjectively in their hands, but it is also objectively foreseen: death does not ask for a date, she gives it to us and well before hand.

A true ethical leadership is both the fruit and the process of discovering the instrumental aspect of life. There is no room for a good ethical leadership without a vocation for serving others. Only those who discover that their lives acquire a real sense when they are at the service of others will be able to exercise a true ethical leadership. A really ethical life starts when man wonders about the sense of his personal existence. If his answer comes from his discovery that being a person involves others and from the acceptance that the real sense of life comes from the service he may give to his fellow men, not only does he begin the ethical stage of his life but his Ethics will also be a morally based Ethics.

Ethical existence implies two dimensions from which moral tension is determined. On one hand the paradigmatic idea of what means to be a man articulated and conformed by virtues and on the other hand as a necessary contrast the awareness that human existence can’t find it’s final resolution at an individual level, neither is it exhausted in the coordinates of space and time within which individual existence goes by. Without transcendence there is no chance for ethical leadership.

Man, for what he is, does not have a relationship of immediateness with nature like animals whose vital movements are always within the limits of natural harmony. On the contrary, man’s life can be ordered or not according to nature.

Nature is all that has been given to us, all that is according to a certain mode or way of being. Do not understand by this that nature is the world of animals and plants but nature is what things are and how they express themselves in their tendencies and actions.

Somehow, man doesn’t find his place within natural order but he has to make it for himself. And it is this “building” of his own place on earth, which is to build the world, to make that the world may be his home that is essential for his life, to the point that he is called a man for this. We call culture the resulting order that man achieves by his actions. A movement that goes from what is natural to what is cultural affects the entire human existence.

Then, culture is in a general sense, what man has done, is his own doings, and in a stricter sense culture is the works of man according to his own nature. We can see this very clearly in the fact that man is capable of carrying out actions that are not humane. We make the distinction between actions of man and humane actions. What we call culture is the set of humane actions even when the so-called actions of man are also conditioned by culture.

This movement with all its steps forwards and backwards that finally makes history in a personal and social dimension, is nothing more than the process of cultural creation and has its origin in two moments mutually conditioned.

The first moment is the action by which man takes distance from nature. This proves the fact that man does not exhaust in nature he is within nature and outside nature at the same time. His ontological place is at the border of nature. Man confirms this particular position in his cultural actions and it is through them that he acquires freedom for a conduct that is not possible for animals. The previous requisite is called spirit.

The second moment is that act by which man walks towards nature and captures it to his service. He is not doing away with the above-mentioned separation; this second moment implies that first separation.

When man captures nature he is able of using the natural energies, it gives him power and we can make here a first distinction. We talk about energy as something natural, as a tendency, capability or operations that turn into effects without any previous initiative or will power in between, but really it is the opposite. Energy only becomes power when there is a conscience that knows it, when there is a capability to make decisions to use it and lead it to definite goals in ways that are not previously determinate.

When we talk about power in relation to natural energies, we are speaking from a religious perspective. It is more appropriately a mythical formulation that has its origin in a very primitive religious understanding of natural phenomena. Power is also sometimes mentioned in relation to moral laws but this is a mistake because moral laws have soundness not power. An idea does not have power but it is sound or valid. Power is the ability to change reality to move reality and the idea is not capable of doing that by itself.

In order to speak about power in its real sense, we need two elements. 1) Real energies that may change the reality of things, know their states and their mutual relations, and 2) a conscience that may lie within those energies, a will power that may give them a goal, the faculty that may put into motion all forces in direction to those objectives.

Even more, what is this thing that is able of making decisions from itself, about itself and in relation to reality? It is the spirit. Only the spirit can unbind itself from the ties with nature and decide above it and about it. It is only a being gifted with a non material dimension, gifted with a living body but who can carry out non corporal actions of a spiritual order, the one who will be able to take a distance from the environment and from himself and then throw himself forward.

We can see now that power is a specifically human phenomenon, and the sense that it may acquire comes from the man that uses it. Power is something you can use and the initiative that exercises that power is the one that gives it sense.

Sense and value affect power as long as it is based in a human person responsible for it. There is no power of which no one is responsible for. The effects of power are always an action, or at least a laisser faire, in which case the human responsibility also exists and this is so even in the case that the person does not want to accept responsibility.

We are always responsible for the power we have. That is why we have already said and maintained that responsibility is basically the ability to give an answer and this is something that belongs inherently to human nature. We are responsible: we cannot choose to be or not to be responsible. What we can choose is the answer that we give to the reality that calls us. Besides, we are all responsible in proportion to the power we have. This power doesn’t come from a public position or something like that it comes from the mere fact of being human.

The anonymous exercise of power is a way of perversion that has very destructive effects. In itself, power is neither good nor bad, it is merely the possibility to take action and the characteristics of that action come only from the freedom that directs it and is behind it. Power always has a face otherwise it is not power but chaos.

And when it is not freedom behind power which gives it an objective destiny, that’s to say when man does not want something and leaves the capability generated by him abandoned to its own chances then, either nothing happens or chaos emerges. This kind of danger is bigger when power is bigger.

Every human activity involves power in one form or other. All actions, all creations, possessions and joys produce immediately a sense of power.

Power taken as a capability that man has to conduct a situation and change reality is something always present all along his life, in his experiences, his knowledge and his inventions. Even there where power doesn’t seem to be present -in suffering, inferiority or loss- the conscience of power is implied. There is as much power in lack as in availability. Then, the conscience of power has a universal and ontological characteristic; it is the immediate expression of human existence and it unfailingly escorts human beings’ self-conscience.

If that power is to be used for good we must learn “to see beauty”.



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