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Lee Rasch: Is ethical leadership possible?

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It is extremely difficult to engage in conversation about politics in today’s environment. One risks touching any number of hot buttons that used to seem neutral or, at the very least, safe. So we tend to gravitate to those who are like-minded in order to avoid ideological land mines. Inevitably, the discussion veers to a pessimistic dialog about the conduct of elected leaders whose political viewpoints differ from ours. Pessimism pervades our view of the state of our government and the performance of elected leaders. Given this, a question arises... is ethical leadership possible?

For starters, many people believe that politics, by definition, are “morally messy.” From this viewpoint, elected leaders are frequently facing options where they must choose between the lesser of several evils. But this viewpoint doesn’t take into account the many different roles of government. It’s an enforcer, a protector, an educator, a deliverer of services, a safety net, and an employer among other things. It does a lot of different things in providing essential service to citizens. And no single public official has unilateral control over all these areas. Given these different roles, and the diverse opinions in this nation, there will always be choices made by elected leaders that will be loved by some and reviled by others. This becomes a problem when trust in the whole of government is lacking and a pervasive pessimism in most or all elected leadership exists.

Clearly, elected leaders face an uphill climb in building trust among constituents. At this time, the reduced trust in government is glaring. According to Pew Research, the “overall trust in government” score has decreased from a high point of 77% in 1964 to a low of 17% in 2011 and 2019. In 2021, the rating is 24%. In other words, more than three-quarters of Americans lack trust in our government. Pew also found that our level of trust in government varies, depending upon the political party of the President of the United States. The supporters of the political party that holds the presidency consistently have a higher rating in “trust in government” than the other party. This is the case regardless of which party is in power. In fact, this pattern has held true since 1958 (the sole exception was in June of 1976 during the Ford administration, when both parties had a “trust in government” level of 36%).

Traditional and social media also play a part in this overall decline in the trust in government. Studies show that although political news coverage in traditional media has been negative for many years, it has been increasingly so in recent decades. To be certain social media has accelerated this trend in the last decade and a half. Of course, candidates and political parties add to the mix. Opportunistic political candidates capitalize on this lack of trust and understand very well that government bashing wins elections.

Given these dynamics, the question remains: “Is ethical leadership possible?” It seems that the role taken by elected leaders can make a difference. Here’s an encouraging analysis. According to a 2021 report by Deloitte (an internationally recognized consulting firm), a good place to start is for individual elected officials to focus on four key characteristics: humanity, transparency, capability, and reliability. With humanity, elected leaders are basically showcasing, wherever possible, fairness in policies and programs. And at the same time, they are working to address underlying inequities in government programs. Regarding transparency, they are open with the decisions that are made wherever possible. And they communicate to citizen stakeholder groups in a way that conveys the humanity of government. In terms of capability, elected leaders must demonstrate (and promote) an agency’s capability to do its job well. Whether one prefers a larger or smaller government, all citizens expect that government should deliver service as intended. And finally, with reliability, elected leaders must focus on implementing and publicizing controls that can assure that government is spending taxpayer money efficiently and effectively.

If one looks at the list provided by Deloitte, one might say, “easier said than done.” But the change process always starts with ourselves. And if we, as citizens, value these characteristics and strive to conduct ourselves accordingly we can expect the same from our elected leaders. Leaders who attempt to demonstrate these characteristics deserve our vote. With voter support, we can answer the question with “Yes!”

Lee Rasch is executive director of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin. Visit leaderethicswi.org for more information on the group.

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