The demands of ethical leadership

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René Girard is a man with eclectic interests and a razor-sharp mind. Although he began his academic career in history, he soon made his mark in the discipline of literary theory, and from there ranged through the fields of anthropology, linguistics, semiotics, theology, ethics and philosophy.

Girard left his native France in 1947 at the age of 24, initially for only a year, but has since made the US his home. He earned a PhD from Indiana University and, during his long career, has published many influential books in French and English, including Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World and Violence and the Sacred.

I had the pleasure of learning from, and getting to know, Girard while I was a student at Stanford University. His theories have proved a potent lens through which to view the dynamics of workplaces, communities, human relationships and choices. Anyone who grasps them can become a more effective and ethical manager.

The foundation on which Girard’s reputation is built is his insistence that human desire is not intrinsic but mediated, or “mimetic”. In other words, we do not want things purely from a place within ourselves; we want things because someone else wants them – or already has them.

Imagine two pairs of jeans that are identical, except that one bears a famous label. Why will consumers pay triple or more for the labelled clothing? They may want to be more like the attractive model wearing them in the promotional picture, but they will gain no additional benefit except for the knowledge that others will desire those jeans more. Thus they perpetuate the desire for that label among those who envy them.

Successful branders and advertisers have long been manipulating these factors. But an understanding of this dynamic is not only useful for selfish ends. It is also an important mechanism for understanding and managing many aspects of human behaviour, not least the dynamics of the workplace.

Before we consider the workplace, however, we must follow Girard to his second big idea. What happens when this mimetic desire swirls unchecked around a community?

First, the smaller and more insular the community, the more the people within it become similar. Our own interests and tastes (themselves products of earlier communities) are minimised, buried and eventually forgotten as we are homogenised into the communal set of desires. This is why small, isolated towns, and even small companies, tend to develop such eccentric cultures.

Second, this escalating homogeneity inevitably spirals into conflict and violence, because soon everyone is competing for the same things. The community could then splinter but instead tends to regroup and refresh its unity by focusing all of its violence on a scapegoat – one element within the community that it names and drives out. A season of peace then follows, until problems resurface and the search for a new scapegoat begins.

Office politics may often be seen as an attempt to identify a new scapegoat, but shrewd managers should be alert to these dynamics and their own role in them. Senior managers in positions to which many others in the workplace aspire should be particularly alert to the way they are shaping workplace culture to be an extension of their own behaviour.

Girard’s reasoning is particularly challenging within the context of ethical leadership, which he moves from the “simple” sphere of making decisions in line with personal values to demonstrate the inevitability of cultural creation: that ethics (as a set of desires) cannot be strictly personal but are necessarily communal and inevitably imposed on one another. Thus leaders must have a clear ethical vision and be willing to reflect on and reform the morality of the culture and systems they lead.

Likewise, at Melbourne Business School’s Centre for Ethical Leadership we do not accept that ethical leaders are simply those who act ethically. They must also understand and internalise their moral values, apply them in both simple and dynamic contexts and be able to influence the world in which they operate. These individuals can lead others to be ethical and can shape cultures and systems to foster ethical behaviour.

To be a leader in this last sense requires a profound understanding of how cultures operate. Being an ethical leader means identifying the dynamics of mimetic desire and scapegoating in an organisation and thwarting their negative effects.

Before they manage anything else, managers manage people (not least themselves). A careful study of Girardian anthropology can help them avoid many traps.

The writer is dean of Melbourne Business School

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