Essays on Leadership Ethics
Edited by Joanne B. Ciulla, Terry L. Price and Susan E. Murphy
Chapter 8: That which governs best: leadership, ethics and human systems
S.D. Noam Cook In an important sense, the better leadership is at doing its job, the less need there is for leaders to make interventions in the workings of the governed. Much of what a good leader does, accordingly, is not a matter of dealing dramatically with overt challenges, but of establishing and maintaining a smoothly functioning system. This role may not be as glamorous as those more commonly associated with good leaders, but I believe it is leadership’s prime responsibility, especially when it comes to ethics. Knowing when to intervene and when not to is a critical skill for all leaders. An accomplished ship’s captain knows when to keep a light hand on the rudder.1 This point is captured in the opening passage in Henry David Thoreau’s 1848 Essay “Civil Disobedience,”2 to which the title of this chapter alludes: “I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically.” This is of one the most familiar quotes from Thoreau, and one of the most broadly misunderstood. In recent years, it has been routinely misunderstood (or misused) by advocates for smaller government and lower taxes. Noting this misunderstanding helps clarify the value of Thoreau’s point for the subject at hand. The size of the government and the level of taxation are solely instrumental; they are the means by which government carries out its functions. In a democracy, the people should decide what the...
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