A Political Leader Cannot Be Morally Perfect

“People expect their leaders to be better human beings than those who chose them.” — H. Norman Schwarzkopf

Leadership is one of the most important issues which modern-day political science has to deal with. Though political leadership is an extensively practiced and recognised phenomenon, its conception is complex to define because it is totally dependent on historical, institutional and cultural frameworks. Though the approaches and models of leadership are reviewed almost each and every decade, leadership has always been related to followers, objectives, problem solving and control. A leader influences his followers’ outlooks, principles and requirements; and the followers impinge on the leader’s approach, traits, beliefs and motives, as they both transform the setting and thus, in the long run, are changed by each of their own actions.

The Oxford University Press English Dictionary defines the word leader as being ‘the person who leads or commands a group, organisation, or country.’ To lead means to ‘cause (a person or animal) to go with one by holding them while moving forward; show (someone or something) the way to a destination by going in front of or beside them.’ Leadership is of more recent usage. The term was coined in the early nineteenth century. Every time we start to discuss contemporary issues, we hear about how essential leadership is perceived to be. According to me, it is of utmost importance that we take responsibility and show concern about leadership.

Success on any level, by any definition, is largely due to the practice of good leadership. It is safe to say that without good leadership, whether individualised or corporate, success escapes one’s grasp and remains elusive. Leaders are not born, they are developed. In his book Coaching Your Kids to Be Leaders, Pat Williams quotes Jacksonville University football coach Steve Gilbert’s wisdom:

I tell young people, ‘It feels good to be a leader!’ Success and failure are part of the adventure of life. Young people need to see that good leaders are important in their community – and there are great rewards for being a good leader. Those rewards include a sense of satisfaction and a feeling that what you are doing is meaningful and significant. You don’t always win when you lead, but that’s okay. Young people should be rewarded and encouraged for stepping up and leading, no matter whether they succeed or fail.

The moral and tenet behind the triumph and failure of a leader carries vital meanings for followers. Morality and immorality are magnified to a massive extent in leadership; the reason being that a respectable leader is seen to be ethical and as having noble principles to which people will look up to. In short, ethics are standards of integrity: they are about saying the right thing and walking down the right pathway.

According to the Josephson Institute for the Advancement of Ethics, ‘Values considered essential to ethical life are honesty, integrity, promise-keeping, fidelity, fairness, caring for others, respect for others, responsible citizenship, the pursuit of excellence and accountability.’ Ethics refer to the personal values or deeply held belief systems that underpin the moral choices that are made by someone in response to a specific situation. The foundation of ethics is found in philosophy.

German philosopher Immanuel Kant is credited as being a founder of modern ethics. He proposed a three-step process for solving ethical dilemmas: (1) when in doubt as to whether an act is moral or not, apply the categorical imperative, which is to ask the question ‘what if everyone had done this deed?’; (2) always treat all people as ends in themselves and never exploit other humans; and finally (3) always respect the dignity of human beings. Leadership demands from the leader to assume a seemingly distinct role and to sustain moral relationships between people. By understanding the ethics of leadership we gain a better understanding of what constitutes good leadership.

Some leaders are ethical, but not very successful; others are successful, but not very ethical. History only makes things more complicated. Historians don’t write about the leader who was ethical but didn’t do anything of significance. They rarely write about a politician who was an exceptionally moral person but never won any elections. ‘Most historians write about political leaders who were winners or changed political history, for better or worse.

While leaders usually bring about change or are successful at doing something, the ethical questions waiting in the wings are: What were the leader’s intentions? How did the leader go about bringing change? And was the change itself good?’

Debating further on the act of leadership, political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1987) stated that ‘leadership is a symbolic activity mediated by culture, for leaders as identity entrepreneurs are engaged in providing myths or visions to create, reshape or enhance national and other political cultures. In the process, leaders and followers themselves are affected by what they help to create.’ Political leadership is considered as a critical element of social leadership. This includes entrepreneurial, parental, educational, technological, scientific, sports, medical, religious, cultural, and other forms of leadership. It can be highlighted that a frail political leadership gives way to government failures whilst a strong one leads to government success. Therefore, a lack of leadership causes the gradual erosion of creative and resourceful aspects present within a political system; which in turn becomes no different to an administration with a particular concentration on pattern preservation. On the other hand, under an authoritarian leadership which accords less importance to institutional restrictions, there are more grounds for frequent disruptions, unanticipated and impulsive changes in the normal running of a political system; thus, in this case, transparency is not seen to be legitimate. However, all political leadership is local, shaped by the traditions, practices, beliefs and characters of the agents who engage in it.


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