Ethical Leadership and Deforestation-as-metaphor

Over the next few months, I’m going to be working on co-developing and writing a textbook on ethical leadership for Mote Oo Education. I’ll be be working with my Wind&Bones collaborator Hannah Stevens. Our aim is to produce a practical, useful textbook about leadership and ethics, one that is tailored to the local (Myanmar) and regional (Southeast Asia) context. We want to write something that can be used in schools and education institutions, in NGOs and community groups, anywhere that people are working together to make the world better.

I am particularly excited by this because I have often found the concept of leadership to be contentious and ethically problematic. All too frequently, it can be used as a means of self-aggrandisement for those in power, as a way of shoring-up existing power hierarchies, or as a way of  closing down or diverting important ethical questions.

Here is an example of the kind of thing that unsettles me about much of the discourse of leadership: in Stephen Covey’s gung-ho metaphor of a bunch of people cutting down a jungle, the workers are going at it with machetes, the managers are on the ground sharpening the machetes and generally managing the catastrophic deforestation, and the leaders are up a tree shouting “Wrong jungle!” All of this is fine, of course, if deforestation is your thing. But what we want to ask in this course (both metaphorically and actually) is whether cutting down jungles is the kind of thing that they ought to be doing at all.

There are a couple of things we’re interested in here: firstly, we are interested in thinking not only about the ethics of how organisations attain their ends, but about the ethics of these ends themselves; and secondly, we are interested in thinking about how the metaphors of leadership may play in a different cultural context (I know it is a metaphor, of course… but from a Myanmar perspective, organisational-success-as-deforestation feels close to the bone, and in remarkably poor taste).

In all this, we’re hoping to devise a course that takes ethical questions as foundational, and works from the ground up, rather than thinking through leadership concepts and then bolting-on ethical considerations. There’s no fixed time-scale for this, and we’re currently at the outlining stage; but I’m looking forward to applying some of that thinking about ethics that I’ve done over the years to real-world issues.

I’ll post again when the book is finally out there in the world!

Image: Martin Johnson Heade, Passion Flowers and Hummingbirds

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