Global Thinkers Forum Interviews Devin Stewart on Ethical Leadership

March 19, 2013

Bruce Lee. CREDIT: duncan c, (CC)

This interview originally appeared on the Global Thinkers Forum website and is reposted with kind permission.

GLOBAL THINKERS FORUM: Devin, how do you define 'ethical leadership'?

DEVIN STEWART: Ethical leadership means two things: ethically leading others; and shaping the way society understands ethics. Both are deeply linked. Leading in an ethical way is about having a vision for helping others that goes beyond your short-term self-interest and emphasizes long-term collective welfare. That means doing difficult, sometimes unpopular things. Ethical leaders are curious, humble, and self-critical. So they have a vision but are not ideological. They understand conventions, context, and traditions but are not necessarily bound by them. They live according to the values they espouse—in other words they have integrity. Meanwhile, leading the way the public thinks about ethics is about questioning the status quo and seeking to extend rights and equality to all people while also respecting dignity and identity. The emphasis here is on fairness, pluralism, and inclusion. People who have moral gravitas are more able to change moral thinking. People who have possessed these qualities include Socrates, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bruce Lee, and Aung San Suu Kyi.

GLOBAL THINKERS FORUM: Has the leadership model transformed through the decades?

DEVIN STEWART: The basic characteristics of a good leader have not changed but our increasingly global, connected world has put a premium on understanding complex systems, unintended consequences, and cultural fluency. 

GLOBAL THINKERS FORUM: What type of a leader does our world—and the current political, social and other challenges—require?

DEVIN STEWART: The world is witnessing an increasing number of valid but competing claims on resources, policy decisions, and the distribution of wealth worldwide. With our greater connectedness, we are also more aware of the world's injustices and inequalities. Our world therefore needs a leader who is able to listen to these competing claims and articulate a vision that connects to our shared human experience. In practical terms, that means fostering cooperation and rethinking the ways in which we organize ourselves. It means using a "view from nowhere" in the service of competent action somewhere specific.

GLOBAL THINKERS FORUM: Do you believe in collaborative leadership?

DEVIN STEWART: Different cultures embrace diverse paths toward action—from individualism to communitarianism. In diversity, there is strength. Collective leadership is possible as long as it is not an excuse to subvert individual rights.

GLOBAL THINKERS FORUM: What is your favourite virtue in a leader and why?

DEVIN STEWART: The selflessness that is required to think beyond one's own short-term needs and parochial practices is my favorite virtue in a leader. It implies taking risks, which often goes against some of our primal instincts. Leaders act out of an enlightened self-interest when they help others.

GLOBAL THINKERS FORUM: What do you consider as a major fault in leadership?

DEVIN STEWART: Common human faults are arrogance, complacency, cynicism, tribalism, pessimism, and greed.

GLOBAL THINKERS FORUM: What is your idea of happiness in a society?

DEVIN STEWART: The drafters of the U.S. Declaration of Independence were wise to write that a nation should protect an individual's life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Pursuing happiness involves multiple levels: First, people must be able to satisfy their basic needs, such as food, shelter, and love (life). Second, people must have the freedom to enjoy life, including leisure time, culture, and community life (liberty). Third, life should have meaning, through helping others, advancing a cause, or self-expression (the pursuit of happiness). We need life and liberty in order to pursue happiness, but happiness is a journey (a pursuit), not necessarily an end-point.

GLOBAL THINKERS FORUM: What is your idea of misery in a society?

DEVIN STEWART: A miserable society is one in which a lack of hope has dampened the human spirit.

GLOBAL THINKERS FORUM: What is the reform that you admire the most?

DEVIN STEWART: Any effort that advances liberty, dignity, and equality, such as civil rights movements because they reform the moral status quo. Today, the gay rights movement hopes to achieve this change.

GLOBAL THINKERS FORUM: Do you have a vision for your country?

DEVIN STEWART: Yes, America is the idea that all people are born equal, and anyone regardless of race, culture, religion, and ethnicity, can be an American.

GLOBAL THINKERS FORUM: And a vision for the world?

DEVIN STEWART: I would like to see a world that celebrates diversity as well as our common humanity.

GLOBAL THINKERS FORUM: Could you tell us more about the vision behind Carnegie Council and the operations and activities ahead of its Centennial?

DEVIN STEWART: Andrew Carnegie founded Carnegie Council in 1914 on the premise that moral reflection and education on international affairs could advance the cause of world peace. As we approach our Centennial, we are connecting our programs in New York City to people around the world to spark a global dialogue on ethics. Please consider joining our free online network and let us know your views:

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