Leadership involves power and privilege. How these are understood plays a large role in growth and healthy development. To define the issue of power even more, French Philosopher and Social Theorist Michel Foucault indicates that all relationships are exhibitions of power. In other words, power is not a possession held by institutions or people and flexed over against individuals. Rather, for Foucault, power is a strategy and a condition that is constitutive of any type of relationship between members of society.
The following discussion is designed to assist in our understanding of power and its many manifestations. Power is understood to be derivative from five sources. Donna M. Randall highlights these five sources (derived from French and Raven) in the article, Leadership and the Use of Power: Shaping an Ethical Climate. The five sources are as follows:
According to Randall, all of the sources of power in French and Raven’s original taxonomy and subsequent renditions fall under two distinct modes: positional (what is conferred to a person based on them standing in a particular position – privilege is a part of this); and personal (power intrinsic to being). Foucault seems to suggest that the division, while noteworthy, ultimately comes back down to the latter, namely, personal power. This is the case primarily because even when a person steps into a position, they bring along with them the personal.
It is common to think of power as the ability of a person and/or institution to impose their will over people who are not equal, that is, people who do not stand in the same positionality and have the same “powers”. This understanding is at the center of what one might call a top/down approach to power. Foucault, as I have stated, understands power as something that is deployed and something that reveals itself in a certain way. Under this model, the picture is not one where one person possesses something that others do not. Rather, it is a picture where one person whose been privileged a position has the tough task of finding ways for each of their relational partners to express their own power in such a way as to produce what Randall has called the “ethical environment.” In this model, top/down leadership does not exist, primarily because those who are being led can resist, as a display of their own power.
Opportunity for Reflection:
1. As a leader, how do you understand power?
2. Is the Foucaultian option appealing or does it undermine institutional structure?
3. Are there any positive aspects to the Foucaultian understanding that you might adopt, if so, which aspects?
Leadership, Power and Ethical Perspectives
Both Power and Ethics are connected to the ways in which leaders interact with others. In this section, the focus is on ethical perspectives and what they offer in assisting leaders with tools that benefit organizations, clients and leaders themselves. Because both power and ethics are connected with the leader’s interaction with others, some of the issues in both are also issues in leadership.
The history of ethics in the Eastern and Western traditions have both dealt with power. While the list of theorists and works are too long to cite here, what is appropriate to discuss are the perspectives that are longstanding. These perspectives offer insight into how power might be understood in the leadership role.
Kantian Ethics and the inherent dignity of the client/employee.
Kantian ethics receives its name from Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) who captured the principal value of inherent dignity as a principle for ethics. For Kant, human beings have a special moral standing due to their capacity to deploy reason and their willingness to align their actions with what he understands as “higher law.” For Kant, persons have inherent dignity/worth by virtue of being persons. He states the principle as follows: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”
Kant’s formulation is a strict directive against understanding the human person as utility. In other words, human persons are to never be used as one would use an object. An example may assist in understanding what he has in mind. As I scan my desk, I notice several items that are useful to me. There are pens, staplers, tape reels, and rubber bands. These items are useful to me for as long as they fulfill the purpose I need them for, namely, performing certain tasks. Once they can no longer assist me in performing certain tasks, I dispose of them. Thus, these items are not regarded as having any inherent value/worth. Their worth/value is relative to the task they help me perform.
Kant is suggesting that the human person is never to be understood this way. One of the more significant reasons why is because unlike the pen and other items, the human person has the capacity to reason and make significant choices on their own that non-sentient stationary items lack. A pen cannot decide to write. Thus, for Kant human persons must be conferred with inherent dignity/worth. This understanding of the human person operates as both a prohibition and an encouragement. As prohibition his imperative is the minimal aspect of his vision. That is, at minimum, ethics requires that human beings are not be reduced to mere objects. Maximally, Kant encourages human person to treat other persons as “ends in themselves.” That is, there is an obligation to actually assist and support others in retaining their dignity. For Kant, both minimum and maximum qualities are required for an ethical vision to be holistic.
Kant’s understanding of the human person as inherently valuable can serve a rich value in discussions of leadership, power, and ethics.
Opportunity for Reflection:
1. What is your typical understanding of leaders and their relation to others (hierarchy? equals? etc)?
2. How does Kant’s understanding of the human person as inherently valuable impact that view?
3. How does Kant’s maximal aspect of his categorical imperative impact your view on power and leadership?
In 1982, amid the male dominance of traditions of ethics in the West, Carol Gilligan led a research project on identity and moral development, which ultimately surfaced as the now widely known tradition, “The Ethics of Care.” What Gilligan noticed in a majority of the traditions developed by males is the emphasis on reason and the diminishment and demonization of emotion. Her task was to explode this dualism and provide ethics with a new starting point. As she turned toward the human person, what she discovered was that the human person is an inherently relational and responsive being. For her, such a claim does not invalidate reason, but it does decenter it as the primary lens from which to understand ethics and human beings.
Theorists have taken Gilligan’s lead to develop their own brand of care-based ethics. Yet the largest issue has been, if care is the norm for action and evaluation, how does one define it? The definition has been elusive. However, Gilligan herself defines it this way:
“As an ethic grounded in voice and relationships, in the importance of everyone having a voice, being listened to carefully (in their own right and on their own terms) and heard with respect. An ethics of care directs our attention to the need for responsiveness in relationships (paying attention, listening, responding) and to the costs of losing connection with oneself or with others. Its logic is inductive, contextual, psychological, rather than deductive or mathematical.”
As mentioned previously, Gilligan has jettisoned the previous value on reason alone and made ethics more about corporeality and relationality. Kant discussed the human person, however, not in this sense. He emphasized reason over all when it came to human persons. While his second formulation of his categorical imperative provides a value for leaders and those reflecting on power, the foundations of his position are what Gilligan contests.
Opportunity for Reflection:
1. What impact would an ethics of care have on your understanding of power and privilege?
2. What are some practices of care that might enhance relationships?
3. What are some defining markers of leaders who care? Is it possible for leaders to care given the power dynamic?
Character-based ethics, or virtue ethics, is a long-standing tradition in the West that stems back to Aristotle and Plato. Both developed a theory of ethics that focused on character as the foundation for actions. One story that provides the framework for this type of tradition is Plato’s Gyges Ring (Republic Book II).
The gist of Plato’s moral theory in the Republic is what we do is a reflection of who we are. Plato’s student Aristotle would develop this further in the Nicomachean Ethics where he provides a structure for understanding who we are. The human disposition (readiness to act in a specific way) is the product of habit (excellences). Cultivating the habits of virtue is the result of being “morally lucky” to have the proper role models who are exemplars of virtue. Aristotle is heavily criticized on the idea of moral luck, however, many still follow the idea of habits creating a disposition of virtue or vice pending the type of habits practiced.
Of course, the question of perfection is always raised regarding Plato and Aristotle’s moral theory. A distinction is made between excellence and perfection. When Aristotle discusses excellences, he’s more thinking about what we can expect from a person. To explain further, if we take one habit, we might say that it has become second nature to us; that we don’t have to think about doing it, we just do it. So when it comes to virtue, let’s take someone who is regarded as kind, because we see that person doing kind things on a consistent basis, we might say that they are kind. When they miss the mark, we might say they are not being themselves today. So, for Aristotle there has to be some consistency before one can say that a particular excellence or vice is a part of one’s character.
Why is this important for leadership and power? It is important within these realms because of the questions that it raises for both leaders and those that they lead. If we are in a coaching setting it would be for coaches and those they coach. Three essential questions that are at the heart of virtue theory are:
Virtue Ethics Central Questions for Leadership:
1. Who am I?/Who are we?
2. What am I to do?/What are we to do?
3. How do I get there?
These are important questions for leadership primarily because leadership is measured on what people think makes a great leader. What people think makes a great leader and what inspires people to follow them tends to boil down to people’s recognition of specific character traits that they see in a person. The ability to lead then is at least loosely related to a person’s character. Business ethicists Al Gini and Ronald M. Green also argue this point, but more strongly. Their relevance to the discussion of power, leadership and ethics is important as they argue, “Leadership is a power-laden, value-based and ethically driven relationship between leaders and followers who share a common vision and accomplish real changes that reflect their mutual purpose and goals.”
Opportunity for Reflection:
1. What do you see as the relationship between power, leadership, and character?
Privilege is somewhat of a buzzword these days and pending context, it takes on distinct connotations. Regardless of the context, one aspect that is consistent with the word in all contexts is “access.” Privilege is about having access to something that others do not have. On the one hand, privilege carries a heavy weight of negativity when it is used to discuss the advantages and immunity that certain people have due to some aspect of their identity especially when the latter is used as criteria for deciding who receives access. On the other hand, there is the idea of leadership privilege which ideally centers around what people do with the access they’ve been granted.
This latter notion tends to place emphasis on service rather than garnering the privilege granted as an item through which one constructs her/his identity and then using it as a means of advancement. The emphasis on service in “privilege of leadership circles” is important because the focus is that the leader is participating in the development and growth of other people. Thus, service becomes paramount. So the onus is on leaders to be grateful and own that role, but then also be responsible in what they do in that role to make spaces and places environments of openness and equity. In other words, the emphasis on service intends that people with privilege have been granted such to make the world a better place for all. My own position as a college professor is one of leadership and privilege. While I am discussing privilege with respect to leadership here, there are aspects of this type of privilege that sheds some insight on privilege in general. As a professor, my position calls me to at least two dimensions of ethics: 1) Responsibility, and 2) Empowerment.
What makes privilege a part of ethics is that we are always at the point of decision and we are always required to act. In other words, we live in the back and forth dynamic of call (being acted upon) and response. So the big question here is how shall we respond to the world that acts upon us? One might answer, “Responsibly.” However, what does it mean to respond responsibly as a leader who stands in a particular position?
According to Protestant Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, to respond responsibly requires at least three things. First, a person must be involved in the work of interpretation. There has to be some thought as to what is happening or what is going on. The significance of interpretation is that however a person interprets what is happening shapes their response and may even determine it.
Relationships are one of the best examples for exploring Niebuhr’s paradigm of responsibility. In relationships, each participant is always acting upon the other. Additionally, participants are required to interpret the others action upon them. For example, if a mother begins to feel alienation and estrangement from her son, then the feeling of alienation is the result of her son acting in such a way that his action is action upon her. She must not interpret this action and respond (his action was a call). How she interprets his action will shape and maybe even determine her response. If she interprets his estrangement merely as boys being boys, then she may decide that nothing is to be done and that perhaps her feelings of estrangement are her being overprotective. However, if she interprets the estrangement as something serious between them, she might decide to intervene. The tools for intervention vary, at this juncture the point is that however, she interprets what is going on, shapes and even might determine her response.
For Niebuhr, to respond responsibly also requires that one anticipate responses to their response to the action upon them. This, however, is where a great deal of “self-work” must take place because it is the anticipation of responses that might actually freeze someone from responding, primarily because depending on a person’s outlook, the anticipations to responses may be negative extremes. These extremes can appear in the form of fear of losing a relationship or making it worse; fear of someone using their position and power to oppress and make life difficult for oneself or others, and the list is endless. These fears do arise, and yet, we are still called to act, to respond to action upon us.
Finally, for Niebuhr, responsible action requires that a person be aware that they are always a part of and participating in a “continuing society.” Thus, responsible action takes into account our solidarity with others. While we are individuals, we are individuals that are a part of a collective and our actions, in order to be responsible actions, must reflect that. Reflecting on H. Richard Niebuhr’s paradigm of Responsibility leads me to one conclusion here. Privilege and being in a privileged position centers one within the moral life, within Ethics. And I think this is what upsets people on both sides of the spectrum when it comes to privilege. Those that are privileged are being acted upon and being called to situation their life morally and take into account the aspects of acting responsibly spelled out by Niebuhr.
Thus a leader, with privilege, ultimately is a “servant” who is called to serve in humility, responsibility and accountability.
Another aspect of privilege that is important for discussions of Ethics and Leadership is Empowerment.
Empowerment in this case, to borrow from African-American Christian and Social Ethicists, Cheryl Sanders, “refers to the norms, values, and principles” constitutive of moral agency. While Sanders focuses specifically on the African American experience, I think her definition is important here for leadership and ethics because it places the onus on leaders to model how they would like their employees, clients, constituents.
In other words, leaders empower others to act by providing them with norms and principles for acting. This is not to suggest that people will act identically. However, it does suggest that if we are acting with the same norms and principles, then our actions will be commensurate. Thus empowerment is, as Sander’s proposes, a spiritual and moral act in and of itself.
Opportunity for Reflection:
1. How might leaders benefit from Nieburh’s paradigm of Responsibility and Sander’s emphasis on Empowerment?
2. With Niebuhr and Sander’s paradigms of Responsibility and Empowerment, what are some questions leaders might ask themselves as well as other leaders?
Thought Experiment One: Discovering What You Believe
● You are on a hiring committee attempting to replace a long-time employee who has retired after 40 years of service. Your task is to lead a committee to overlook 40 resumes as you attempt to replace a well-respected colleague. To be clear, none of the applicants are like your long-time retiring colleague, however, they are all qualified.
Reflecting on power, ethics, and privilege:
○ How would you lead this team?
○ What model of ethics would you deploy to select a candidate? For instance, should your team deploy an ethics of care and attempt to emotionally connect to the life-story of the candidates?
Thought Experiment Two: Leadership in a Dilemma
● Adam approaches his neighbors Mr. and Ms. Kelly with the following proposition: “Since I mow all of the yards around the neighborhood, I’ll just top your yard off for 10 dollars when I do the others, who I’m charging $40 a pop. Your area is so small I can be done in 10 minutes.” Now let’s say Mr. and Ms Kelly do not say “no” but they do not say “yes” either. It’s summertime and the grass is high. Adam, as he cuts all of the other yards in the neighborhood, finishes up by running his mower through the Kelly’s small yard. The Kelly’s hear the mower and look out of the window as they watch Adam cut the grass. Upon completion, Adam knocks on the Kelly’s front door and after being showered with gratitude, he asks for payment. The Kelly’s say, “Well, we never agreed to that, Adam.” The key point is they never disagreed either. How do you see power and privilege operative in this situation? Based on ethical theory, how would you resolve this situation?
Thought Experiment Three: Scaled Opportunities
● A young person approaches you about two opportunities. The first opportunity places the young person in a teaching position where they earn a $38k annual salary. The second opportunity places the young person in a corporate position with a $120k starting annual salary. These salaries are upscaled as the person gains more experience. The important point here is that the person seeking your leadership and guidance really does not like the corporate world but is qualified to work in it. As a leader, in what ways would you guide this young person to make their own decision? In what ways would you empower them? What ethical models would you deploy in assisting this young person as they attempt to make these decisions?
● Power is a relational strategy.
● Ethics provides leaders with models for making decisions. Models are ways of looking at situations and developing principles and norms for moral decision making.
● Both Power and Ethics are endemic to relationships, and Leaders would do well to understand both to build more effective and empowering relationships with those they lead.
● Privilege is access that one has that others do not. As such, from the standpoint of ethics, it requires that one be responsible and empower others.
Ethics of Care: Sharing Views on Good Care
10 Virtues of Outstanding Leaders: Leadership and Character
Foucault, Michel. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth (The New Press: New York, 1994), XIV-XVI.
Singer, Peter. A Companion to Ethics: Blackwell Companions to Philosophy (Blackwell
Publishers, 1991), 175-185 (Kant’s Ethics); 121-133, 249-259 (Plato, Aristotle and Virtue
Gyges Ring Online: https://philosophy.lander.edu/intro/articles/gyges-a.pdf
H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self: An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy (Westminster John Knox Press,
Louisville, KY), 1963.
Cheryl J. Sanders. Empowerment Ethics for a Liberated People: A Path to African American Social Transformation
(Fortress Press, Minneapolis 1995), ix.
All Applications are inspired by Thought Experiments from Michael Boylan’s, Basic Ethics, 2nd Edition.
Charles Bowie, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Tennessee State University, where he teaches courses in Philosophy, Religion, and the intersection between those areas and Popular Culture, specifically Comic Books and Film Studies. He finds therapy in yard work and home building and improvement projects. His latest was building a fence around the home. When he’s not doing home projects, he finds himself plunged into comics, film, sports and the latest trends in classroom pedagogy. As a professional coach, he spends time reflecting and working in the area of holistic health. His primary emphasis is on what it means to have a healthy disposition. Thus he spends time focusing on self-care, mindfulness, acceptance and response.