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SOCW 7060 WK 6 Discussion 2: Reflections on Ethical Leadership

by | Jun 5, 2022 | fresh

SOCW 6070 WK 6 Discussion 2: Reflections on Ethical Leadership
What does it mean to be an ethical leader? How is ethical leadership demonstrated in social work practice? As a leader in the social work profession, you have to achieve a balance between your professional and personal ethics. At times, these may be aligned with each other, but there may be situations in which they conflict. Because leadership includes value and moral dimensions, your character, actions, and goals as a social work administrator should reflect ethical leadership.
For this Discussion, consider the characteristics of ethical leadership and the challenges associated with practicing ethical leadership.
300 to 500 words
Post your definition of ethical leadership as it relates to the social work profession. 
Explain what it means to be an ethical leader and describe the challenges of being an ethical leader.
Support your post with specific references to the resources. Be sure to provide full APA citations for your references.
Northouse, P. G. (2021). Introduction to leadership: Concepts and practice (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Sage.
Chapter 12, “Addressing Ethics in Leadership” (pp. 308- 335)
National Association of Social Workers. (2017) Code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved from http://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English.aspx

_____..__——-….,;.. t 6

Leadership Ethics


This chapter is different from many of the other chapters in this book.
Most of the other chapters focus on one unified leadership theory or
approach (e.g., trait approach, path-goal theory, or transformational lead­
ership), whereas this chapter is multifaceted and presents a broad set of
ethical viewpoints. The chapter is not intended as an “ethical leadership
theory,” but rather as a guide to some of the ethical issues that arise in
leadership situations.

Probably as long ago as our cave-dwelling days, human beings have
been concerned with the eth ics of our leaders. Our history books are
replete with descriptions of good kings and bad kings, great empires and
evil empires, and strong presidents and weak presidents. But despite a
wealth of biographical accounts of great leaders and their morals, very little
research has been published on the theoretical foundations of leadership
ethics. There have been many studies on business ethics in general since
the early 1970s, but these studies have been only tangentially related to
leadership ethi cs. Even in the literature of management, written primarily
for practitioners, there are very few books on leadership ethics. This sug­
gests that theoretical formulations in this area are still in their infancy.

One of the earliest writings that specifically focused on leadership ethics
appeared as recently as 1996. It was a set of working papers generated from
a small group ofleadership scholars, brought together by the W. K. Kellogg
Foundation. These scholars examined how leadership theory and practice
could be used to build a more caring and just society. The ideas of the
Kellogg group are now published in a volume titled Ethics, the Heart of
Leadership (Ciulla, 1998).



Interest in the nature of ethical leadership has continued to grow, par­
ticularly because of the many recent scandals in corporate America and
the political realm. On the academic front, there has also been a strong
interest in exploring the nature of ethical leadership (see Aronson, 2001;
Ciulla, 2001, 2003; Johnson , 2011; Kanungo, 2001; Price, 2008; Trevino,
Brown, & Hartman, 2003).

Ethics Defined

From the perspective of Western tradition, the development of ethical
theory dates back to Plato (427-347 B.c.) and Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). The
word ethics has its roots in the Greek word ethos, which translates to cus­
toms, conduct, or character. Ethics is concerned with the kinds of values
and morals an individual or a society finds desirable or appropriate. Fur­
thermore, ethics is concerned with the virtuousness of individuals and
their motives. Ethical theory provides a system of rules or principles that
guide us in making decisions about what is right or wrong and good or bad
in a particular situation. It provides a basis for understanding what it means
to be a morally decent human being.

In regard to leadership, ethics has to do with what leaders do and who
leaders are. It is concerned with the nature of leaders’ behavior, and with
their virtuousness. In any decision-making situation, ethical issues are either
implicitly or explicitly involved. The choices leaders make and how they
respond in a given circumstance are informed and directed by their ethics.

Ethical Theories

For the purposes of studying ethics and leadership, ethical theories can
be thought of as falling within two broad domains: theories about leaders’
conduct and theories about leaders’ character (Table 16.1 ). Stated another
way, ethical theories when applied to leadership are about both the actions
of leaders and who they are as people. Throughout the chapter, our discus­
sions about ethics and leadership will always fall within one of these two
domains: conduct or character.

Ethical theories that deal with the conduct of leaders are in turn
divided into two kinds: theories that stress the consequences of leaders’
actions and those that emphasize the duty or rules governing leaders’
actions (see Table 16.1). Teleological theories, from the Greek word telos,

I ~ 16.1 Practical Ethical Theory

Chapter 16 I Leadership Ethics 425

Table 16.1 Domains of Ethical Theories

Conduct Character

Consequences (telelogical theories) Virtue-based theories

• Ethical egoism

• Utilitarianism

Duty (deontological theories)

meaning “ends” or “purposes,” try to answer questions about right and
wrong by focusing on whether a person’s conduct will produce desirable
consequences. From the teleological perspective, the question “What is
right?” is answered by looking at results or outcomes. In effect, the conse­
quences of an individual’s actions determine the goodness or badness of a
particular behavior.

In assess ing consequences, there are three different approaches to mak­
ing deci sions regarding moral conduct (Figure 16.1): ethical egoism, utili­
tarianism, and altruism. Ethical egoism states that a person should act so
as to create the greatest good for herself or himself. A leader with this ori­
entation would take a job or career that he or she selfishly enjoys (Avolio
& Locke, 2002). Self-interest is an ethical stance closely related to transac­
tional leadership theories (Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999). Ethical egoism is
common in some business contexts in which a company and its employees
make decisions to achieve its goal of maximizing profits. For example, a
midlevel, upward-aspiring manager who wants her team to be the best in
the company could be described as acting out of ethical egoism.

A second teleological approach, utilitarianism, states that we should
behave so as to create the greatest good for the greatest number. From this
viewpoint, the morally correct action is the action that maximizes social
benefits while minimizing social costs (Schumann, 2001). When the U.S.
government allocates a large part of the federal budget for preventive
health care rather than for catastrophic illnesses, it is acting from a utilitar­
ian perspective, putting money where it will have the best result for the
largest number of citizens.

Closely related to utilitarianism, and opposite of ethical egoism, is a
third teleological approach, altruism. Altruism is an approach that suggests
that actions are moral if their primary purpose is to promote the best inter­
ests of others. From this perspective, a leader may be called on to act in the


Figure 16.1 Ethical Theories Based on Self-Interest Versus Interest
for Others

High • Ethical Egoism


FOR Medium • Utilitarianism


Low • Altruism

Low Medium High


interests of others, even when it runs contrary to his or her own self­
interests (Bowie, 1991 ). Authentic transformational leadership is based on
altruistic principles (Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999; Kanungo & Mendonca,
1996). The strongest example of altruist ethics can be found in the work of
Mother Teresa, who devoted her life to helping the poor.

Quite different from looking at which actions will produce which out­
comes, deontological theory is derived from the Greek word deos, which
means “duty.” Whether a given action is ethical rests not only with its
consequences (teleological), but also with whether the action itself is good.
Telling the truth , keeping promises, being fair, and respecting others are
all examples of actions that are inherently good, independent of the con­
sequences. The deontological perspective focuses on the actions of the
leader and his or her moral obligations and responsibilities to do the right
thing. A leader’s actions are moral if the leader has a moral right to do
them, if the actions do not infringe on others’ rights, and if the actions
further the moral rights of others (Schumann, 2001).

In the late 1990s, the president of the United States, Bill Clinton, was
brought before Congress for misrepresenting under oath an affair he had

Chapte r 16 I Leadership Ethics 427

maintained with a White House intern. For his actions, he was impeached
by the U.S. House of Representatives, but then was acquitted by the U.S.
Senate. At one point during the long ordeal, the president appeared on
national television and, in what is now a famous speech, declared his inno­
cence. Because subsequent hearings provided information that suggested
that he may have lied during this television speech , many Americans felt
President Clinton had violated his duty and responsibility (as a person,
leader, and president) to tell the truth. From a deontological perspective,
it could be said that he failed his ethical responsibility to do the right
thing-to tell the truth.

Whereas teleological and deontological theories approach ethics by look­
ing at the behavior or conduct ofa leader, a second set of theories approaches
ethics from the viewpoint of a leader’s character (see Table 16.1 ). These
theories are called virtue-based theories; they focus on who leaders are as
people. In this perspective, virtues are rooted in the heart of the individual
and in the individual’s disposition (Po jman, 1995). Furthermore, it is
believed that virtues and moral abilities are not innate but can be acquired
and learned through practice. People can be taught by their families and
communities to be morally appropriate human beings.

With their origin traced back in the Western tradition to the ancient
Greeks and the works of Plato and Aristotle, virtue theories are experiencing
a resurgence in popularity. The Greek term associated with these theories
is aretaic, which means “excellence” or “virtue.” Consistent with Aristotle,
current advocates of virtue-based theory stress that more attention should be
given to the development and training of moral values (Velasquez, 1992).
Rather than telling people what to do, attention should be directed toward
telling people what to be, or helping them to become more virtuous.

What, then , are the virtues of an ethical person? There are many, all of
which seem to be important. Based on the writings of Aristotle, a moral
person demonstrates the virtues of courage, temperance, generosity, self­
control, honesty, sociability, modesty, fairness, and justice (Velasquez,
1992). For Aristotle, virtues allowed people to live well in communities.
Applying ethics to leadership and management, Velasquez has suggested that
managers should develop virtues such as perseverance, public-spiritedness,
integrity, truthfulness, fidelity, benevolence, and humility.

In essence, virtue-based ethics is about being and becoming a good,
worthy human being. Although people can learn and develop good values,
this theory maintains that virtues are present in one’s disposition . When


practiced over time, from youth to adulthood, good values become habit­
ual, and part of the people themselves. By telling the truth, people become
truthful; by giving to the poor, people become benevolent; by being fair to
others, people become just. Our virtues are derived from our actions, and
our actions manifest our virtues (Frankena, 1973; Pojman, 1995).

Centrality of Ethics to Leadership

As discussed in Chapter 1, leadership is a process whereby the leader
influences others to reach a common goal. The influence dimension of
leadership requires the leader to have an impact on the lives of those being
led. To make a change in other people carries with it an enormous ethical
burden and responsibility. Because leaders usually have more power and
control than followers, they also have more responsibility to be sensitive to
how their leadership affects followers’ lives.

Vhether in group work, organizational pursuits, or community proj­
ects, leaders engage subordinates and utilize them in their efforts to reach
common goals . In all these situations, leaders have the ethical responsibil­
ity to treat followers with dignity and respect-as human beings with
unique identities . This “respect for people” demands that leaders be
sensitive to followers’ own interests, needs , and conscientious concerns
(Beauchamp & Bowie, 1988) . Although all of us have an ethical respon­
sibility to treat other people as unique human beings, leaders have a spe­
cial responsibility, because the nature of their leadership puts them in a
special position in which they have a greater opportunity to influence
others in significant ways.

Ethics is central to leadership, and leaders help to establish and rein­
force organizational values. Every leader has a distinct philosophy and
point of view. “All leaders have an agenda, a series of beliefs, proposals,
values, ideas, and issues that they wish to ‘put on the table”‘ (Gini, 1998,
p. 36). The values promoted by the leader have a significant impact on th e
values exhibited by the organization (see Carlson & Perrewe, 1995;
Schminke, Ambrose, & Noel, 1997; Trevino, 1986). Again, because of their
influence, leaders play a major role in establishing the ethical climate of
their organizations.

In short, ethics is central to leadership because of the nature of the
process of influence, the need to engage followers in accomplishing
mutual goals, and the impact leaders have on the organization’s values .

I ~ 16.1 Consequences

Chapter 16 I Leadership Ethics 429

The following section provides a discussion of some of the work of
prominent leadership scholars who have addressed issues related to ethics
and leadership. Although many additional viewpoints exist, those pre­
sented are representative of the predominant thinking in the area of ethics
and leadership today.

Heifetz’s Perspective on Ethical Leadership

Based on his work as a psychiatrist and his observations and analysis of
many world leaders (e.g., President Lyndon Johnson, Mohanclas Gandhi,
and Margaret Sanger), Ronald Heifetz ( 1994) has formulated a unique
approach to ethical leadership. His approach emphasizes how leaders help
followers to confront conflict and to address conflict by effecting changes.
Heifetz’s perspective is related to ethical leadership because it deals with
values: the values of workers and the values of the organizations and com­
munities in which they work. According to Heifetz, leadership involves the
use of authority to help followers deal with the conflicting values that
emerge in rapidly changing work environments and social cultures. It is an
ethical perspective because it speaks directly to the values of workers.

For Heifetz ( 1994), leaders must use authority to mobilize people to face
tough issues. The leader provides a “holding environment” in which there
is trust, nurturance, and empathy. In a supportive context, followers can feel
safe to confront hard problems. Specifically, leaders use authority to get
people to pay attention to the issues, to act as a reality test regarding infor­
mation, to manage and frame issues, to orchestrate conflicting perspectives,
and to facilitate decision making (Heifetz, 1994, p. 113). The leader’s duties
are to assist the follower in struggling with change and personal growth.

Burns’s Perspective on Ethical Leadership

As discussed in Chapter 9, Burns’s theory of transformational leadership
places a strong emphasis on followers ‘ needs, values, and morals. Transfor­
mational leadership involves attempts by leaders to move followers to higher
standards of moral responsibility. This emphasis sets transformational leader­
ship apart from most other approaches to leadership because it clearly states
that leadership has a moral dimension (see Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999).

Similar to that of Heifetz, Burns’s ( 1978) perspective argues that it is
important for leaders to engage themselves with followers and help them

I 0 16.1 Ethical Norms


in their personal struggles regarding conflicting values. The resulting con­
nection raises the level of morality in both the leader and the follower.

The origins of Burns’s position on leadership ethics are rooted in the
works of such writers as Abraham Maslow, Milton Rokeach, and Lawrence
Kohlberg (Ciulla, 1998). The influence of these writers can be seen in
how Burns emphasizes the leader’s role in attending to the personal moti­
vations and moral development of the follower. For Burns, it is the respon­
sibility of the leader to help followers assess their own values and needs in
order to raise them to a higher level of functioning, to a level that will stress
values such as liberty, justice, and equality (Ciulla , 1998).

Burns’s position on leadership as a morally uplifting process has not
been without its critics. It has raised many questions: How do you choose
what a better set of moral values is? Who is to say that some decisions rep­
resent higher moral ground than others? If leadership, by definition,
entails raising individual moral functioning, does this mean that the lead­
ership of corrupt leaders is not actually leadership? Notwithstanding these
very legitimate questions, Burns’s perspective is unique in that it makes
ethics the central characteristic of the leadership process. His writing has
placed ethics at the forefront of scholarly discussions of what leadership
means and how leadership should be carried out.

Principles of Ethical Leadership

In this section, we turn to a discussion of five principles of ethical lead­
ership, the origins of which can be traced back to Aristotle. The impor­
tance of these principles has been discussed in a variety of disciplines,
including biomedical ethics (Beauchamp & Childress, 1994), business
ethics (Beauchamp & Bowie, 1988), counseling psychology (Kitchener,
1984), and leadership education (Komives, Lucas, & McMahon, 1998), to
name a few. Although not inclusive, these principles provide a foundation
for the development of sound ethical leadership: respect, service, justice,
honesty, and community (Figure 16.2).

Ethical Leaders Respect Others

Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724- 1804) argued that it is our duty
to treat others with respect. To do so means always to treat others as ends
in themselves and never as means to ends. As Beauchamp and Bowie

I ~ 16.2 Teaching Ethical Leadership

Chapter 16 I Leadership Ethics 431

Figure 16.2 Principles of Ethical Leadership



( 1988, p. 3 7) pointed out, “Persons must be treated as having their own
autonomously established goals and must never be treated purely as the
means to another’s personal goals.” These writers then suggested that
treating others as ends rather than as means requires that we treat other
people’s decisions and values with respect: Failing to do so would signify
that we were treating them as a means to our own ends.

Leaders who respect others also allow them to be themselves, with cre­
ative wants and desires. They approach other people with a sense of their
unconditional worth and valuable individual differences (Kitchener,
1984). Respect includes giving credence to others’ ideas and confirming
them as human beings. At times, it may require that leaders defer to others.
As Burns ( 1978) suggested, leaders should nurture followers in becoming
aware of their own needs, values, and purposes, and assist followers 111
integrating these with the leader’s needs, values, and purposes.

Respect for others is a complex ethic that is similar to but goes deeper
than the kind of respect that parents teach little children. Respect means
that a leader listens closely to subordinates, is empathic, and is tolerant of
opposing points of view. It means treating subordinates in ways that con­
firm their beliefs, attitudes, and values. When a leader exhibits respect to

I !j 16.1 Ethical Role of Management


subordinates, subordinates can feel competent about their work. In short,
leaders who show respect treat others as worthy human beings.

Ethical Leaders Serve Others

Earlier in this chapter, we contrasted tvvo ethical theories, one based on
a concern for self (ethical egoism) and another based on the interests of oth­
ers (eth ical altruism). The service principle clearly is an example of altruism.
Leaders who serve are altruistic: They place their followers’ welfare foremost
in their plans. In the workplace, altruistic service behavior can be observed
in activities such as mentoring, empowerment behaviors, team building, and
citizenship behaviors, to name a few (Kanungo & Mendonca, 1996).

The leader’s ethical responsibility to serve others is very similar to the
ethical principle in health care of beneficence. Beneficence is derived
from the Hippocratic tradition, which holds that health professionals
ought to make choices that benefit patients. In a general way, beneficence
asserts that providers have a duty to help others pursue their own legitimate
interests and goals (Beauchamp & Childress, 1994 ). Like health profes­
sionals, ethical leaders have a responsibility to attend to others, be of ser­
vice to them, and make decisions pertaining to them that are beneficial
and not harmful to their welfare.

In the past decade, the service principle has received a great deal of
emphasis in the leadership literature. It is clearly evident in the writings of
Block (1993), Covey (1990), DePree (1989), Gilligan (1982), and Kouzes
and Posner ( 1995 ), all of whom maintained that attending to others is the
primary building block of moral leadership. Further emphasis on service
can be observed in the work of Senge ( 1990) in his well-recognized writing
on learning organizations. Senge contended that one of the important
tasks of leaders in learning organizations is to be the steward (servant) of
the vision within the organization. Being a steward means clarifying and
nurturing a vis ion that is greater than oneself. This means not being self­
centered, but rather integrating one’s self or vision with that of others in
the organization. Effective leaders see their own personal vision as an
important part of something larger than themselves-a part of the organi­
zation and the community at large.

The idea of leaders serving others was more deeply explored by Robert
Greenleaf (1970, 1977), who developed the servant leadership approach.
Servant leadership, which is explored in depth in Chapter 10, has strong

I fl) 16.2 Ethical School Leadership

Chapter 16 I Leadership Ethics 433

altruistic ethical overtones in how it emphasizes that leaders should be atten­
tive to the concerns of their followers and should take care of them and
nurture them. In addition, Greenleaf argues that the servant leader has a
social responsibility to be concerned with the have-nots and should strive to
remove inequalities and social injustices. Greenleaf places a great deal of
emphasis on listening, empathy, and unconditional acceptance of others.

In short, whether it is Greenleaf’s notion of waiting on the have-nots or
Senge’s notion of giving oneself to a larger purpose, the idea behind service
is contributing to the greater good of others. Recently, the idea of serving
the “greater good” has found an unusual following in the business world. In
2009, 20% of the graduating class of the Harvard Business School, consid­
ered to be one of the premier schools producing today’s business leaders,
took an oath pledging that they will act responsibly and ethically, and
refrain from advancing their own ambitions at the expense of others. Simi­
larly, Columbia Business School requires all students to pledge to an honor
code requiring they adhere to truth, integrity, and respect (Wayne, 2009).
In practicing the principle of service, these and other ethical leaders must
be willing to be follower centered, must place others’ interests foremost in
their work, and must act in ways that will benefit others .

Ethical leaders Are Just

Ethical leaders are concerned about issues of fairness and justice. They
make it a top priority to treat all of their subordinates in an equal manner.
Justice demands that leaders place issues of fairness at the center of their
decision making. As a rule, no one should receive special treatment or
special consideration except when his or her particular situation demands
it. When individuals are treated differently, the grounds for different treat­
ment must be clear and reasonable, and must be based on moral values.

For example, many of us can remember being involved with some type
of athletic team when we were growing up. The coaches we liked were
those we thought were fair with us. No matter what, we did not want the
coach to treat anyone differently from the rest. When someone came late
to practice with a poor excuse, we wanted that person disciplined just as
we would have been disciplined. If a player had a personal problem and
needed a break, we wanted the coach to give it, just as we would have been
given a break. Without question, the good coaches were those who never
had favorites and who made a point of playing everyone on the team. In
essence, what we wanted was that our coach be fair and just.

I 0 16.2 Ethics in Management


When resources and rewards or punishments are distributed to employ­
ees, the leader plays a major role. The rules that are used and how they are
applied say a great deal about whether the leader is concerned about jus­
tice and how he or she approaches issues of fairness.

Rawls ( 1971) stated that a concern with issues of fairness is necessary
for all people who are cooperating together to promote their common
interests. It is similar to the ethic of reciprocity, otherwise known as the
Golden Rule- “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”­
variations of which have appeared in many different cultures throughout
the ages. If we expect fairness from others in how they treat us, then we
should treat others fairly in our dealings with them. Issues of fairness
become problematic because there is always a limit on goods and
resources, and there is often competition for the limited things available.
Because of the real or perceived scarcity of resources, conflicts often
occur between individuals about fair methods of distribution. It is impor­
tant for leaders to clearly establish the rules for distributing rewards. The
nature of these rules says a lot about the ethical underpinnings of the
leader and the organization.

Beauchamp and Bowie ( 1988) outlined several of the common princi­
ples that serve as guides for leaders in distributing the benefits and burdens
fairly in an organization (Table 16.2 ). Although not inclusive, these prin­
ciples point to the reasoning behind why leaders choose to distribute things
as they do in organizations. In a given situation, a leader may use a single
principle or a combination of several principles in treating subordinates.

To illustrate the principles described in Table 16.2, consider the fol­
lowing hypothetical example: You are the owner of a small trucking com­
pany that employs 50 drivers . You have just opened a new route, and it

Table 16.2 Principles of Distributive Justice

These principles are applied in different situations.

To each person

• An equal share or opportunity
• According to individual need

• According to that person’s rights
• According to individual effort
• According to societal contribution
• According to merit or performance

Chapter 16 I Leadership Ethics 435

promises to be one that pays well and has an ideal schedule. Only one
driver can be assigned to the route, but seven drivers have applied for it.
Each driver wants an equal opportunity to get the route. One of the drivers
recently lost his wife to breast cancer and is struggling to care for three
young children (individual need). Tvo of the drivers are minorities, and
one of them feels strongly that he has a right to the job. One of the drivers
has logged more driving hours for three consecutive years, and she feels
her effort makes her the logical candidate for the new route . One of the
drivers serves on the National Safety Board and has a 20-year accident-free
driving record (societal contribution). Two drivers have been with the
company since its inception, and th eir performance has been meritorious
year after year.

As the owner of the company, your challenge is to assign the new route
in a fair way. Although many other factors could influence your decision
(e.g., seniority, wage rate, or employee health), the principles described in
Table 16.2 provide guidelines for deciding who is to get the new route.

Ethical Leaders Are Honest

When we were children, grown-ups often told us we must “never tell a
lie.” To be good meant we must be truthful. For leaders the lesson is the
same: To be a good leader, one must be honest.

The importance of being honest can be understood more clearly when
we …

Copyright © 1969 by the author(s). Published here under license by the Resilience Alliance.
Stephenson, Jr., M. O. 2010. Considering the relationships among social conflict, social imaginaries,
resilience, and community-based organization leadership. Ecology and Society XX(YY): ZZ. [online] URL:

Research, part of a Special Feature on Resilience Through Multi-scalar Collaboration
Considering the Relationships among Social Conflict, Social Imaginaries,
Resilience, and Community-based Organization Leadership

Max O. Stephenson, Jr. 1

ABSTRACT. This article focuses on the question of what role community-based organization leaders play
in shaping the possibility for the emergence of new social imaginaries. It argues that deep social conflicts
and efforts to secure purposive change are likely to demand strong civil society organization response and
that certain forms of imagination are necessary and must be actively employed among community-based
leaders if new imaginaries are to be discerned and effectively shared in ways that encourage sustained
dialogue and the development of new social understandings. The article explores these briefly and draws
illustratively upon two relevant examples from the peacebuilding literature to contend that such imagination-
led leadership is necessary to catalyze new social imaginaries that can lead to more resilient social orders.

Key Words: post-conflict situations; resilience; social imaginaries


Bercovitch (1996) has observed that the lion’s share
of enduring social conflicts revolve around
dissensual issues over values. These may undermine
group capacities even to imagine “the other” with
anything besides distrust and disdain. Long-term
experience with efforts to address intractable
differences has suggested that such antagonism may
rest in terror, isolation, and/or ignorance, and that
these understandings and the behaviors they imply
must change if a new social condition is to obtain
(Lederach 1995, 2005). What is less clear is how
best to bring about such change and the ways of
knowing or understanding such connotes. Some
analysts have offered prescriptive processes for
mediation while others have embraced so-called
Track One or Track Two diplomatic forms and
forums of negotiation to address this challenge. This
article focuses instead on the question of what role
community-based organizations and their leaders
may play in shaping the possibility for the
emergence of new social imaginaries (Taylor 2004).
It argues social conflicts and significant social
change are likely to demand strong civil society
organization response and that certain forms of
imagination are necessary and must be actively
employed among community-based leaders if new
imaginaries are to be discerned and effectively

shared in ways that permit sustained dialogue and
the development of new social understandings.

The article explores these briefly and draws upon
two relevant examples from the peace-building
literature to contend that such imagination-led
leadership is necessary to create and to catalyze new
social imaginaries that can overcome social conflict
and encourage social change, leading to more
resilient social orders. The article concludes by
identifying characteristics of leadership required to
elicit new imaginaries that may successfully address
enduring values dissensus in communities.


The philosopher Charles Taylor has argued that
community populations come collectively to
imagine their lives in specific and often
unconsciously shared ways. He labels these “social
imaginaries” and suggests that they are variegated
and subtle, but no less powerful for possessing those

Our social imaginary at any given time is
complex. It incorporates a sense of the
normal expectations we have of each other,

1Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance



mailto:[email protected]

Ecology and Society (): r

the kind of common understanding that
enables us to carry out the collective
practices that make up our social life. This
incorporates some sense of how we all fit
together in carrying out the common
practice. Such understanding is both
factual and normative; that is, we have a
sense of how things usually go, but this is
interwoven with an idea of how they ought
to go, of what missteps would invalidate the
practice. (Taylor 2004:24)

In this view it is quite possible for a community’s
social imaginary broadly to embrace norms that
exclude specific populations from enjoying a full
share of their human rights, or to include a
conception that one or more groups must exist in
conflict for whatever constellation of social,
political, economic, or other reasons. As Taylor has

At any given time, we can speak of the
‘repertory’ of collective actions at the
disposal of a given group of society. … The
discriminations we have to make to carry
these off, knowing whom to speak to and
when and how, carry an implicit map of
social space, of what kinds of people we can
associate with in what ways and in what
circumstances. (Taylor 2004:25-26)

Importantly, imaginaries are not theories and, unlike
theories, they are held by large groups of people and
in the form of widely shared narratives:

I adopt the term imaginary (i) because my
focus is on the way ordinary people
‘imagine’ their social surroundings, and
this is often not expressed in theoretical
terms, but is carried in images, stories and
legends. (Taylor 2004:23)

For example, much of the population in the South
in the United States in the pre-civil rights movement
years ascribed to a social imaginary that could not
conceive that Rosa Parks, an African-American
woman, should possess the right to sit wherever she
wished in a public transit bus. Similarly, many
families in Northern Ireland during the long years
of the “Troubles” acculturated their children to
norms that Roman Catholics could not associate
with Protestants, and vice versa, and that people
from certain neighborhoods in Belfast, Londonderry,
and other communities could not associate with

those from nearby locations. Violations of these
norms were often met with violence, whether the
horror unleashed on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in
Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965 during the
Martin Luther King, Jr.-led march for civil rights,
or the frequent murders and bombings in Northern
Ireland during the Troubles, when Loyalist
paramilitaries or members of the Irish Republican
Army believed that their social understandings had
been abridged.

These examples suggest several critical attributes
of social imaginaries. First, these conceptions
constitute a critical way in which those holding them
make sense of their worlds. They represent alternate
ways of knowing. Second, however significant and
powerful, the rationale or rationales underpinning
them often go unarticulated. Rather, they are
espoused and motivate action because they
constitute widely shared views of the world and how
it ought properly to be ordered among members of
specific groups or communities. Third, imaginaries
govern the possibility and portent of human
relationships. Many in the American South could
not conceive that African Americans could or
should enjoy equal legal rights and social equality.
Fourth, imaginaries may be changed, but only if
those espousing them are given reason to bring them
to consciousness, reflect afresh on their foundations,
and embrace an alternate conception.

That is, new imaginaries do not just happen; they
are socially constructed. Changing them requires
emotional and cognitive work built on interactive
processes of individual and social awareness and
reflection. That dynamic set of processes may entail
violence and sacrifice of the sort experienced by the
Selma marchers, as those responding to voices for
change lashed out in favor of existing imaginaries.
Social change is hard won because it demands both
emotional and intellectual work of populations and
at a deep level. It demands a shift in values, and
therefore in how individuals and populations make
sense of their lives.


In a recent work on disaster and resilience, Paton
and Johnston (2006) argued that catastrophic natural
or human events might be seized as opportunities
for communities to catalyze the adaptive work
necessary to secure long-lived change in their


Ecology and Society (): r

capacities to respond to future such occurrences.
Their argument parallels Taylor’s philosophic
inquiry, but focuses on social response to the
aftermath of disaster-induced change rather than on
the dynamic construction of potential for change:

In this book, resilience is a measure of how
well people and societies can adapt to a
changed reality and capitalize on the new
possibilities offered. To accommodate the
former the definition of resilience here
embodies the notion of adaptive capacity. …
Neither a capacity to adapt nor a capacity
for post-disaster growth and development
will happen by chance. Achieving these
outcomes requires a conscious effort on the
part of people, communities and societal
institutions to develop the resources and
processes required to ensure this can
happen and that it can be maintained over
time. (Paton and Johnston 2006:8)

These authors recognize that effectively reacting to
disaster and creating conditions for sustainability in
its aftermath typically requires broad scale
adaptation, learning, and change in a community’s
values. Values and norms inhere first in individuals
and must change there, and those new conceptions
must be shared and adopted by others thereafter if
they are to constitute a new way of knowing in a
community. That is, individual perspectives must
change and those new views must be diffused across
relevant geographic populations before a change in
imaginaries may occur. Community-based
nongovernmental organizations and their leaders
are well situated to play significant roles in
mobilizing constituencies to promote new values
and ways of knowing because they are generally
trusted by their supporters and often mediate
between them and public and international
organizations in their areas of service and employ
locally legitimate mechanisms as they do so
(Menkhaus 1996).

Governments and international organizations also
often give these organizations a role by dint of
employing many as direct agents of contracted
program implementation or by relying on them as
first responders in the event of disaster (Paton and
Johnston 2006). These roles allow interested NGOs
opportunities to offer new paths for future
community action and to articulate challenges to
existing ones in ways that governments may not
always be situated to press. For example, southern

state governments were unwilling to change
existing Jim Crow practices without substantial civil
society organization pressure and then only with the
active engagement of the national government. This
change process unfolded over time and was surely
not the lone product of civil society organization
action, but it is unclear whether or when it might
have occurred without sustained advocacy efforts
by such groups.

Ronald Heifetz has developed the idea of dynamic
and evolutionary adaptive change implicit in such
efforts in his conception of leadership:

When we teach, write about and model the
exercise of leadership, we inevitably
support or challenge people’s conceptions
of themselves, their roles and most
importantly their ideas about how social
systems make progress on problems.
Leadership is a normative concept because
implicit in people’s notions of leadership
are images of a social contract. (Heifetz

This study examines the usefulness of
examining leadership in terms of adaptive
work. Adaptive work consists of the
learning required to address conflicts in the
values people hold, or to diminish the gap
between the values people stand for and the
reality they face. Adaptive work requires a
change in values, beliefs, or behavior.
(Heifetz 1994:22)

Both adaptive work and adaptive capacity imply
purposeful efforts to secure change in existing social
imaginaries to further social change (Heifetz et al.
2009). Both require management of the conflicts
that arise from any challenge of dominant ways of
knowing in a community. Leaders are expected to
envision these possibilities and to create conditions
that allow their communities to address them. Paton
and Johnston argue that such engagement is
necessary both to cope effectively with disasters
and, in their aftermath, to create resilient
communities. Heifetz contends that adaptive work
represents the essence of democratic leadership as
those charged with community responsibility seek
to catalyze community awareness and capacity to
secure social learning to address pressing social


Ecology and Society (): r

All three authors agree that the necessary change
can occur only if ways and means are found to permit
the broader population to reflect on existing social
assumptions, consider those in light of current
conditions and competing values, and adopt fresh
views based on that reflective process. Adaptive
work and adaptive capacity alike require that
relevant populations come to consider anew their
basic assumptions concerning an important issue or
issues and often, shift their stance and values
concerning those to address changes in social,
political, or economic conditions or to realize more
fully their own stated aspirations. Heifetz argues
that we look to leaders foremost to help frame such
choices and their implicit conflicts, and to manage
those disputes when they are manifest. Paton and
Johnston contend that disaster-afflicted communities
must accomplish just such work if they are to create

For his part, Twigg has suggested similarly that
nongovernmental organizations and other community
leaders must work to create what he dubs an
“enabling environment” for the development of
disaster resilience (Twigg 2007). Enabling
environments exhibit a number of characteristics,
including political and policy consensus concerning
the importance of disaster risk reduction and strong
community support for the steps necessary to secure
resilience (Twigg 2007). This last requirement
suggests a key role for leaders who must attain such
outcomes. Heifetz contends that leaders engaged in
adaptive work must obtain a number of conditions,
including the following, if they are to succeed in
overcoming deep social dissensus or to change
existing imaginaries:

● Provide those communities affected an
opportunity to test their assumptions against
current conditions, e.g., to conduct a “reality
test” of their perspectives.

● Secure ways and means by which to bring all
parties involved to respect the perspectives of
all sides to existing conflicts and seek means
for those groups to come at least to understand
the views of those with whom they see
themselves in disagreement.

● Seek mechanisms by which to increase
community cohesion around a macrolevel set
of shared aspirations.

● Develop shared norms of responsibility
taking and learning among all groups
involved in community change processes
(Heifetz 1994:26-27).

Leaders successful in prompting adaptive work in
their communities create thereby an enabling
environment for the development of increased
community resilience.


Whatever their character and responsibilities, we
ask leaders to help us make sense of our
environments. People want to make sense of the
world and leaders are pressed to help them do so.
To address those claims, however, leaders must first
understand the imaginaries or ways in which others
are viewing their lives. This they do by exercising
a variety of facets of imagination. Four of these
capacities, i.e., aesthetic imagination, cognitive
imagination, affective imagination, and moral
imagination, are briefly catalogued here. Although
each is treated as if separate, these forms of
imagination overlap and are interrelated in practice.
Each aspect of imagination yields information and
addresses a dimension or dimensions that are critical
for leaders as they engage in the dialectical process
of seeking to catalyze adaptive work. The point of
this discussion is not that civil society organizations
alone can catalyze social change, but that the leaders
of such entities are neatly positioned to press for (re)
examination of prevailing views when even
government officials cannot and that they exercise
a variety for forms of imagination as they do so.
Again, they are not alone in employing these
capacities, but their efforts may help to elicit
changes in attitudes or understanding when these
are necessary to secure purposive social change.

Aesthetic imagination

Leaders are expected to see possibilities and to
discern and develop paths of action that otherwise
might go unexplored. One primary mechanism both
to comprehend existing perspectives and to
challenge those claims is via the aesthetic
imagination. As Taylor observed concerning social
imaginaries, no form is more powerful than
narrative, story, theatre or, poetry, or its equivalent,


Ecology and Society (): r

to challenge existing claims. As Maxine Greene has
suggested about aesthetics, imagination, and

None of our encounters can happen,
however, without the release of imagination,
the capacity to look through the capacities
of the actual, to bring as-ifs into being in
experience. … Imagination may be our
primary means of forming an understanding
of what goes on under the heading of
“reality:” imagination may be responsible
for the texture of our experience. (Greene

In his final book, the philosopher Herbert Marcuse
offered a thoughtful critique of Marxist aesthetics
that suggested similarly that those who exercise
high order aesthetic imagination necessarily subvert
accepted social norms and mores; that is, they often
contest accepted imaginaries. As he observed in The
Aesthetic Dimension,

Thereby art creates the realm in which the
subversion of experience proper to art
becomes possible: the world formed by art
is recognized as a reality, which is
suppressed and distorted in the given
reality. This experience culminates in
extreme situations (of love and death, guilt
and failure, but also joy, happiness and
fulfillment) which explode the given reality
in the name of a truth normally denied or
even unheard. (Marcuse 1978:6)

We look to leaders to provide just such
conceptualizations of possibility and these, as
Marcuse would contend, typically “subvert”
existing conditions and assumptions. Leaders are
expected to see possibilities and to discern and
develop paths of action that otherwise might go
unexplored. They are further required to undertake
these actions in ways that are “visionary,” that is,
that chart new ways of thinking about a concern.
Thus, leaders are asked to address received ways of
understanding and not merely to accept them.

Leaders also employ the aesthetic imagination in at
least two other ways. First, they are asked to capture
the complex in simple and readily graspable terms.
This is perhaps especially true in democratic and
fast-paced industrialized societies. They are
enjoined not merely to spin slogans, which may
sadly often be substituted, but to capture in a few

words or a brief narrative or symbol a complex
reality to obtain a connection and shared aspiration
with those with whom they are engaged. Societies,
communities, and organizations alike demand these
accountings and they stipulate likewise that these
renderings be concise, resonant, and powerful, that
they be in a word, elegant. Second, leaders are often
called upon to identify the criteria by which stories
or claims are judged. This powerful role is linked
closely to whether leaders are to succeed when they
attempt to change the dominant frame or imaginary
of the organization, community, or other entity with
which they are engaged. In such instances, it may
not be sufficient to offer a compelling narrative or
story alone. It may also be necessary to provide an
alternate set of criteria by which competing claims
ought rightly to be understood.

Cognitive imagination

Although cognitive imagination is not identified
solely by raw intelligence, it nonetheless appears
unassailable that leaders must possess the necessary
acumen to sort through complex concerns,
understand them, and suggest mechanisms by which
they might reasonably be addressed (Northouse
2007). This facet of imagination also requires
leaders to help citizens or stakeholders make sense
of their environments at various analytical scales,
whether these are nations, subnational political
jurisdictions, communities, or organizations.
Organizations, whether for-profit, nonprofit, or
public, may not change course unless alternate
conceptions of shared purpose or processes are
brought to the fore and present conceptions are
challenged. Citizen and stakeholder groups
implicitly, and often explicitly, ask leaders to see
relationships among ideas, concerns, or connections
they might not, to suggest how those claims are
related and then to use their aesthetic imagination
to provide a narrative of meaning linked to what
they seek to describe.

This set of capacities demands high-order analytical
thinking at what some scholars have dubbed the
metacognitive level (Turiel 1983, Kohlberg and
Candee 1984). Metalevel analysis suggests that
leaders are not only expected to grasp and wrestle
with complexities and to make sense of them, but
also to stand above them to be able to describe in
compelling ways their underlying structure and
relationships to allied concerns. That is, they must
make plain to their constituents their understanding


Ecology and Society (): r

of how the issues under consideration might be
viewed and why in convincing ways. Addressing
that imperative requires strong cognitive reasoning.

Affective imagination

Leaders are expected to exercise high-order
interpersonal communication capacities (Graen and
Uhl-Bien 1995). These typically require that they
be able to function comfortably with diverse
individuals and communicate clearly and
effectively as they do so (Fisher and Ellis 1990,
Senge et al. 2004). In addition, these capacities
demand at their core two additional capabilities.
First, many leadership scholars suggest that leaders
must operate from profound self-knowledge (Burns
1978, Heifetz 1994, Senge et al. 2004, Northouse
2007). Such self-awareness may allow them to
control their reactions and to discipline themselves
as they relate to others with whom they may have
differences, or who present difficult challenges
emotionally or intellectually. Second, successful
leaders exude and practice actively what has been
variously labeled other-regardingness or empathy
(Turiel 1983, Hoffman 2000). They appear able to
perceive the needs of those with whom they interact
and genuinely to appreciate and act on those
requirements. Each of these matters merits brief

Self-knowledge provides leaders a dais on which to
stand as they consider possibilities and the views of
others with whom they are engaged. Self-
knowledge permits leaders to listen actively and to
discern the assumptions as well as articulated needs
of constituents and stakeholders (Fisher 1997).
Personal awareness also permits leaders to negotiate
alternate ways of knowing and to craft metalevel
cognitive possibilities because it implies self-
knowledge of just these concerns. Self-knowledge
permits a more open and empathetic response to
other ways of knowing because one understands
one’s own imaginary well. Listening attentively and
openly to those ideas and epistemologies offered by
others, even when these deeply contravene one’s
own, is made possible, if not always comfortable,
by that personal knowledge and continuing process
of reflection (Gilligan 1982).

The moral imagination

In a thoughtful book concerned with international
peacebuilding efforts in which he reflected on
decades of seeking to resolve deep impasses and
conflicts, John Paul Lederach defined the moral
imagination generally as “… the capacity to imagine
something rooted in the challenges of the real world
yet giving birth to that which does not yet exist”
(Lederach 2005: 29). For his part, and similarly, the
influential critic and thinker Russell Kirk
popularized the idea of the moral imagination in
recent years. Wesley McDonald has sought to
capture Kirk’s understanding of the moral

Kirk described the moral imagination “as
that power of ethical perception which
strides beyond the barriers of private
experience and events of the moment,
especially the higher form of this power
exercised in poetry and art. … A uniquely
human faculty, not shared with the lower
forms of life, the moral imagination
comprises man’s power to perceive ethical
truth, abiding law in the perceived chaos of
many events.” Without the moral
imagination, man would live merely from
day to day, or rather moment to moment, as
dogs do. “It is the strange faculty—
inexplicable if men are assumed to have an
animal nature only—of discerning greatness,
justice and order beyond the bars of
appetite and self-interest.” (McDonald 2004:55)

McDonald’s characterization suggests that exercise
of the moral imagination demands that its
practitioner act on behalf of a collectivity beyond
self. The moral imagination is therefore innately
creative and intuitive even as it is concerned with
needs beyond those that serve the leader alone.
Artful use of the moral imagination will cause
leaders first to consider alternate social assumptions
and second, to seek creatively to deepen mutual
awareness of what they discover in so doing. As
they do this, they will seek to look outside
themselves both to ascertain needs and to justify and
legitimate how they act to address them. As such,
the moral imagination is at once an attitude, a moral
claim, and an acuity.

If community-based NGO leaders employ these
facets or forms of imagination, they will do so in a
specific historical, social, and economic context.


Ecology and Society (): r

The analysis turns next to a discussion of the roles
of NGOs as they seek to catalyze adaptive work and
address long-lived social conflicts. Following an
introduction, the discussion highlights two case
examples to suggest the ways in which contexts may
shape NGO capacity and scope for action.
Thereafter, the paper turns to a discussion of the
characteristics of community-based leadership and
the role of the various forms of imagination in
securing adaptive change.


It is unfortunately not difficult to develop a list of
nations and communities in which various forms of
long-lived social conflict have led to violence and
varying degrees of breakdown of civil order. Recent
examples include Northern Ireland, Kenya, Ivory
Coast, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Israel/Palestine, and the
former Yugoslavia. This roll suggests no dearth of
opportunity for NGO leaders to engage in the
exercise of the forms of imagination treated above
and to press efforts to create enabling environments
that permit the adaptive work necessary to allow the
conflicting parties and their communities to come
to acknowledge the imaginaries of “the others” in
their conflicts. These disputes are multifaceted and
rooted deeply in historical conditions and
perceptions (Goodhand and Lewer 1999, Shirlow
and Murtagh 2006). Some are tied to ethnicity,
others to economic conditions, some to religious
beliefs, still others to conflicts over territory, and
some exhibit elements of all of these factors and
more. Indeed, most perduring social conflict is
multivalent. The role of community-based NGOs in
two such conflicts, in Northern Ireland and in the
former Yugoslavia, is treated briefly below to
suggest the ways in which each raised prevailing
imaginaries to view and articulated alternatives for
public consideration.

What is most pressing in addressing any abiding
social conflict is the development of mechanisms
that allow the parties both to grasp and respect the
imaginaries of the other and to act on that knowledge
in good faith thereafter to create new and shared
possibilities that may then guide new behaviors and
efforts to change community conditions. This may
occur in any number of ways and generally must
obtain among actors across analytic scales as well
(Elliott 2002). NGO/civil society organization

leaders may play important roles in allowing for the
evolutionary social learning processes aimed at
securing a modicum of understanding across social
divides. Cochrane (2000) has argued, for example,
that peace and conflict resolution, community-
based organizations were cumulatively key to …


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