Desire to Develop as an Ethical Leader? Some Suggestions for Your Journey

In my mission integration role at SCS, I am often invited by faculty members across professional disciplines to amplify the University’s mission by presenting some material related to the Spirit of Georgetown in a way that is tailored to the course’s unique learning objectives. This week, I dropped into Ethics in Urban Planning and offered a Jesuit-inspired framework for knowledge, skills, and values in the area of ethical leadership. It was an engaging session that flowed in three movements: the foundational concepts of ethical leadership, an applied case study demonstrating these principles, and suggestions for personal practices that might develop ethical leadership capacity. Grounded in the Jesuits’ spirituality and philosophy of education but offered in a way that is inclusive of spiritual diversity, the concluding segment of the session provoked critical reflection about how spirituality might relate to ethical leadership. 

There are many ways into this conversation about how Jesuit spirituality and education relates to ethics and to leadership. I rely on ideas presented by Chris Lowney, a leadership expert in the Jesuit tradition, whose book, Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World, offers an Ignatian style of leadership that embraces self-awareness, ingenuity, love, and heroism. 

Lowney contests traditional understandings of leadership theory grounded in competency models of what leaders need to acquire in terms of technical skills in order to be effective. While technical skills are important, the Jesuit tradition of leadership emphasizes interior self-development and the development of what many would call “soft skills” like emotional attentiveness, self-reflection, an attitude of gratitude, and a determination to care for others. This perspective on leadership emphasizes that: 

  • everyone has the opportunity to lead (not only those at the top of the organizational chart); 
  • leadership springs from interior self-knowledge (not just from actions); 
  • leadership is a way of living and not just single tasks; and 
  • leadership is an ongoing process of discovery of self and self with others.

An important takeaway of this model is that the exercise of ethical leadership depends upon taking regular time for quiet reflection in a way that facilitates greater self-awareness. Contrary to assumptions, regular silence in the form of meditation or prayer do not foster inaction and passivity in the face of pressing responsibilities but actually encourage more generous and ethical action in the world. Leaders grounded in self-awareness, cultivated by practices like the examen, are more likely to make meaningful contributions to social justice and the common good. And consistent with the Spirit of Georgetown value of Contemplation in Action, busy professionals, like the students at SCS, need this time for contemplation even more. 

One hope of a Jesuit education is that students come to realize more and more that their educations are not for themselves alone but also for others. Ethical leadership in the Jesuit tradition makes clear that one’s development as an ethical leader is not just about avoiding mistakes or bad decisions but about growing in habits of discernment about how one is called to use one’s gifts and talents in service of others, especially the most vulnerable members of society. I invite you to take this summer to reflect on these questions as they relate to your growth as an ethical leader: 

  • What are the gifts and talents that you bring to leadership? 
  • What are the values that matter most to you and why? In other words, what do you consider to be your “North Star” guiding principles for leading in the world? 
  • How are you working to translate these values into action? How are you bringing your leadership values to your work at home, in the community, at the workplace, and in the larger world?