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College of Information and Communications

PR Prose: Teaching ethics is crucial to teaching PR leadership

Posted March 20, 2017
By Dr. Shannon Bowen, professor in the public relations sequence
Reprinted with permission from PRWeek

Entire courses are taught in leadership at universities. A student can earn a Certificate in Leadership Distinction or study the concept applied across various professions. Sometimes leadership is taught without a hint of ethics or it is rolled in as simple credibility rather than a means of rigorous analysis. Leadership has become a hot topic.

A problem posed by the trend of leadership studies is not the topic itself…it is that this is not a new topic, yet courses are erratic in their coverage of several important areas. One doesn’t need a course called "leadership" to learn leadership. For example, leadership can be learned in every meeting of the Public Relations Management course I teach: How to manage a team, how to identify issues that pose potential threats, how to counsel the CEO and top management on ethical issues, how to research and assess managerial problems, or how to respond to disasters or crises when the worst happens.

Leadership is also being taught across campuses in philosophy departments. The ethics class that many universities require is a course in systematic and analytical decision-making under complex conditions or under conditions of uncertainty. That type of decision making based on analysis results in leadership on ethical problems. And in the business school, business ethics courses routinely examine case studies of enormous consequence. They pose the question: What could an ethical leader have done to prevent the calamity? These courses and those like them are properly centered around ethics — ethics is the core component that usually separates the good or great leader from the poor leader.

Yet another problem of leadership studies is university students all emerge believing that they are qualified and prepared to become leaders right out of the gate. In their first significant work experience, be that a job or an internship, they may believe they are ready to become the leader. Rarely is followership studied. If everyone is a leader, where are the followers? My new book with Rita Men, "Excellence in Internal Communication Management," has a significant focus throughout on ethical leadership. However, we also include serious discussion about followership. What does it mean to be a good follower? What are the distinct characteristics of an adept follower — ethics, team player, knowing when to engage or challenge, and knowing when to commit to the leaders' goals, vision, and values? All of these discussions are critical but often lacking in leadership courses.

Aren't leaders normally followers first? Isn't leadership often defined by context or place? For example, if the president goes into a place of worship, the clergy person is still the leader in that context. Sometimes great leaders inspire followers due to dedicated followership experience obtained by time in the trenches. The artificial separation of leadership and followership is like trying to split a coin: each side is diminished in value without the other.

Returning to the topic of ethics, I carefully emphasize here that the follower role is not to absolve oneself of ethical responsibility. Rather, that role is knowing when to raise ethical issues and the analytical strength that warrants a reexamination of ethics. The first step to resolving an ethical dilemma is knowing that an ethical issue exists and labeling it as such. Where would Wells Fargo be if that had happened in their management team well before their crisis?

Everyone is an ethical agent independently responsible for moral choices. Yet leaders are most often the ethical voice and spearhead of the group. Leadership and ethics are, therefore, forever intertwined, inseparable from one another. To study leadership without close and careful examination of ethics is akin to studying music without the benefit of instruments or a sound system. Given the correct tools — instruments or ethical frameworks — leadership becomes meaningful.