Vol. 17 : No. 1< >
Editor’s Note: This is Dr. Brent Muirhead’s 16th
submission in the past three years. Dr. Muirhead is not only a regular
contributor, he is Journal Editor for Online Learning and Reader for
refereed articles. His theme this month reflects the distress in the
business and political sectors that also impacts education and distance
learning. It is an opportune time to put our personal and political
differences aside, to evaluate ourselves and revisit our responsibility to
learners and the distance learning community.
Ethical Distance Education Leaders
The focus of this discussion will be on the importance of having ethical distance education leaders who creatively empower their employees to promote greater productivity. Educating adults is a vital business that requires capable leaders who are conscious of their need for continuous professional growth.
Why Do Companies Fail?
The American business failures of major Fortune 500 companies like Enron during the past year and a number of business scandals have generated an increase in public concern about the quality of today’s leaders. A basic question people ask is, “Why do major companies fail?” Naturally, contemporary CEOs are quick to offer an assortment of excuses such as a weak economy or stock market problems.
Financial experts might look at the American economic system for possible reasons for the business failures. In capitalism philosophy, it is possible to find economic arguments to support the notion that only the companies that serve a useful purpose will survive. The demise of numerous dot-coms may reflect experimental business ideas that were not effective in serving their target market.
It is important to look at the business landscape in light of the recent economic trends. Charan & Useem (2002) note that the latest bear market created a situation that
“…26 of America’s 100 largest corporations lost at least two thirds of their market value, including such blue chips as Hewlett-Packard, Charles Schwab, Cisco, AT&T, AOL Time Warner, and Gap. In the 1990 bear market, by contrast, none did, according to money management firm Aronson & Partners (p. 52).”
Distance education schools can learn from the business mistakes made by other organizations within and outside of the educational arena. The rising costs and attrition rates for distance education students are well documented. Charan & Useem (2002) share ten reasons why even apparently successful organizations experience major employee firings, dramatic loss of stock values and other major negative events:
1. Leaders who are enamored by their success and fail to ask the tough questions.
2. Leaders who see no evil and ignore the negative reports about their company.
3. Leaders who have a greater fear of their boss than their competition.
4. Leaders who take excessive risks with their financial resources.
5. Leaders who have been consumed by making undisciplined company acquisitions.
6. Leaders who listen more to the Wall Street analysts than their employees.
7. Leaders who rely on quick fixes for major problems.
8. Leaders who foster a company culture that lacks accountability.
9. Leaders who cannot handle negative news and let the company fall into a death spiral.
10.Leaders who are led by a dysfunctional board.
For distance education, these translate to lack of
administrative support, faculty negativity, overworked support staff, and
high technology costs. The list contains a diversity of problems and
highlights the importance of having leaders who create a system of
accountability that represents the interests of major stakeholders.
Ultimately, company oversight must come from leaders who are competent,
visionary and ethical in their daily activities (Charan & Useem, 2002).
This is equally true of education, and especially pertinent in the
distance learning arena.
The term ethics comes from the Greek word ethos, which has been translated into a variety of terms such as disposition, manners and character. Angeles (1992) defines ethics as
“1) the analysis of concepts such as ought, should, duty, moral rules, right, wrong, obligation, responsibility, etc., 2) the inquiry into the nature of morality or moral acts., and 3) the search for the morally good life (p. 92).”
The definition reveals that the term ethics has a multidimensional nature that transcends simple descriptions.
The issue of ethics must be viewed within the context of contemporary cultural trends and attitudes. The constant stream of political and business scandals has created a “crisis of heroism.” Today, a growing media cynicism towards contemporary leaders has fostered attitudes that deny the possibility of human greatness. It is not surprising that today’s young people have embraced rock stars and professional athletes who represent the morally neutral heroes – people who have obtained their apparent social greatness due to talent that is independent from any moral virtue. In fact, some youth are attracted to a form of immoral heroism that admires those who freely practice sexual promiscuity, become financially rich through exploiting others, and people who use violence for achieving justice (Keys, 1995).
Americans might be cynical at times, but they still want leaders who operate by high ethical standards and are not consumed by making money. What is an accurate description of an ethical leader? Trevino, Hartman & Brown (2000) share that “a reputation for ethical leadership rests upon two essential pillars: perceptions of you as both a moral person and a moral manager.” (paragraph 2) The definition begins with the executive being a moral person that has positive character traits (i.e. integrity), behaviors (i.e. concern for people) and decision making skills (i.e. objective). Also, the definition stresses the importance of leaders communicating values by being role models and developing a management system that consistently rewards acceptable behavior and disciplines unacceptable behavior. Ethical leaders provide the guiding force to move an organization toward greater accountability by matching words about values with visible actions that demonstrate respect for every employee (Trevino, Hartman & Brown, 2000).
The dark side of leadership is represented by individuals that rise to power and fame but their success is built on a faulty foundation. Al Dunlap is cited by business experts as an example of an unethical leader who lied about serious financial problems at Sunbeam and emotionally abused his employees. Dunlap was well-known for helping struggling companies become profitable, but his fame came at a high price. Dunlap earned the nickname “chainsaw” because he was known for firing thousands of employees to boost stock prices.
Byrne (1999) paints a tragic picture of Dunlap’s business behavior,
“In Dunlap's presence, knees trembled and stomachs
churned. Underlings feared the torrential harangue that Dunlap could
unleash at any moment. At his worst, he became viciously profane, even
violent. Executives said he would throw papers or furniture, bang his
hands on his desk, and shout so ferociously that a manager's hair would be
blown back by the stream of air that rushed from Dunlap's mouth. ‘Hair
spray day’ became a code phrase among execs, signifying a potential
tantrum (paragraph 4, under head dead computers).”
Developing Trust: The Foundation of Leadership
Ethical leadership does not arise out of a social vacuum. Rather, it follows from a lifestyle of a leader who considers his/her role as vital to the moral health of the organization. Yes, some leaders are not comfortable with the idea of being role models but they are ones regardless of their feelings. Maxwell (1998) notes that to build trust, a leader must exemplify competence, connection, and character (p. 58).” This is the essence of an ethical leader.
Distance education schools can cultivate ethical leadership and offer competitive academic programs without sacrificing their obligations to their employees. One of the greatest challenges that contemporary leaders face is demanding commitment from their employees without offering much long term security. The current economic environment lacks the stability to make many promises about long-term future employment. This sobering reality will demand making changes in governance strategies. It is time for more organizations to make political reforms that support stewardship principles while experimenting with ways to redistribute power and privilege. This is a visionary approach to leadership that is service oriented and built upon empowering employees to work as business partners. Block (1993) states:
“A governance based on stewardship’s mixture of accountability with partnership, empowerment, and service will give us the means for taking experimental programs and pocketed successes we now have in our hands and making them more widespread and ingrained as a way of doing business (p. 22).”
Personal Leadership Agenda
A serious ethical discussion should encourage individuals to make changes in their lives. It will require making a deliberate choice to plan and pursue a new set of ethical goals. Leaders must ask at least three basic questions for creating a new personal leadership agenda:
The Seven Cs of Success
Morris (1994, p. 286) has developed seven principles of success that are quite useful in helping individuals to formulate new goals for their personal and professional lives.
1. We need a clear conception of what we want, a vivid vision, a goal or set of goals powerfully imagined.
2. We need a strong confidence that we can attain our goals.
3. We need a focused concentration on what it takes to reach our goal.
4. We need a stubborn consistency in pursuing our vision, a determined persistence in thought and action.
5. We need emotional commitment to the importance of what we're doing, and to the people with whom we're doing it.
6. We need a good character to guide us and keep us on a proper course.
7. We need a capacity to enjoy the process along the way.
The seven principles can be a good check list for leaders to develop a professional growth plan to create a new set of goals. A key question will always involve commitment to the new goals. How can leaders improve their level of commitment?
· Measure personal commitment by examining how much time and energy that you devote to something that you consider important in your life. Do your activities support your goals?
· Understand what goals are worthy of great personal sacrifices.
Share your goals with others to help you become more
dedicated to completing a project (Maxwell, 1999).
“But success landmarks are internal, not external.
They mark changes in you –in your thinking and attitudes—that are
reflected outwardly in how you act (Maxwell 1997, p. 145).”
Distance education leaders are challenged by living in a new era of economic realities. Americans have lost a degree of confidence in their leaders and institutions. Bronson (2003) observes that “we’ve been seduced by the idea that picking up the pieces and simply tweaking the formula will get the party started again. In spite of our best thinking and most searing experience, our ideas about growth and success are mired in a boom-bust mentality (p. 72).
Education is not immune from political interference, lack of support and understanding, indifference, greed, and other ills of our social systems. We see the problems of business and politics reflected in our universities, colleges, school systems, and governing boards, whether public or private, and in county, state and federal departments of education. We see lack of support and understanding for the needs of teachers and students; we see budgetary decisions based on political or financial gain, and we see the public trust subverted in a search for power.
Ethical leaders make a positive difference in lives
of others because they are thinking and working for a common good. They
are part of a learning organization. They are not concerned with status
and power. They are servant leaders who foster trust and integrity. Their
influence is positive and transcends their job. They create a good name
for their academic or training institution. They establish honest and
responsible relationships with the stakeholders – government, business,
and community – public and private – organizations and individuals – and
especially with teachers, students, parents, administrators, employees,
and community leaders.
Angeles, P. A. (1992). Dictionary of philosophy (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Block, P. (1993). Stewardship: Choosing service over self interest. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Bronson, P. (2003, January). What should I do with my life? The real meaning of success---and how to find it. Fast Company, pp. 68-79.
Byrne, J. A. (1999, October 18). Chainsaw. Business Week. Issue 3651, pp. 128-149.
Retrieved from EBSCO December 29, 2002. http://www.apollolibrary.com/collections.asp
Charan, R. & Useem, F. (2002). Why companies fail. Fortune, 145 (11), pp. 50-62.
Keys, D. (1995). True heroism: In a world of celebrity counterfeits. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
Maxwell, J. (1999). The 21 indispensable qualities of a leader. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Maxwell, J. (1998). The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Maxwell, J. (1997). The success journey: The process of living your dreams. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
Morris, T. (1994). True Success: A new philosophy of excellence. New York, NY: G. P. Putnam's Sons
Trevino, L. K., Hartman, L. P., Brown, M. (2000).
Moral person and moral manager: How executives develop a reputation for
ethical leadership. California Management Review, Vol. 42 (4),
pp.128-142. Retrieved from EBSCO May 15, 2002.
About the Author