Chacos: Getting lost in the forest of entangled ethics

Political leadership today is causing quite a partisan dogfight. This goes far beyond the current incoherent briefings, rotating merry-go-round staff appointees, and subjective rhetoric. We can accept some presidential vices and excuse moral failure, however, our commander in chief is pushing the boundaries of ethical leadership to new levels. In the long run, I fear we may all end up suffering for the implications of his behavior.

The challenge of responsibility

As individuals, we are in charge of our daily actions and their implications. Do I drive over the speed limit and risk hurting myself or others? Do I say that I remember someone that I clearly don’t? Or do I lie outright and tell my friend that his haircut is great when it’s clearly a botched job by a blindfolded Edward Scissorhands?

Some would say these actions have minor implications and don’t really mess with the order of the universe. Their consequences don’t affect the grand scheme of things. And although some would find my moral standards on this type of behavior abhorrent, they aren’t crimes or other abuses of power.

On the other hand, individuals in leadership positions are held to more thorough standards because the role exerts significant influence. They have to balance their individual morality with the ethical standards of the whole. A leader needs to take reasonable steps to prevent negative consequences from their constituency. So, when calls to poison control centers nationwide saw a spike immediately after Lysol-Gate, the leader who made the comments should at least acknowledge the implications of his words. Or when the person in charge of the COVID-19 response team refuses to wear a mask at the Mayo Clinic, that’s an abuse of responsibility. Careless actions by whole communities have already followed Vice President Pence’s dereliction of responsibility. People are crowding public beaches, filling malls and movie theatres, and hosting parties.

The challenge of power

Leaders must decide when to employ power, what type of power to use, and how much power to exert over his or her followers. However, when impulsive, self-centered individuals protect their status at the expense of others, that’s an abuse of power. Verbal attacks toward media individuals, disqualifying scientists, and discrediting governors serves individual interests at the expense of the group. An exceptional leader works toward raising the group as a whole, not only niche sectors of the nation.

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The challenge of privilege

We can all accept healthy levels of rewards and even look the other way when leaders sprinkle on a little excess. As a nation, we can even tolerate some indiscretionary use of public funds excusing this behavior for the challenging work leaders do. But as I’m being asked to stay at home, sew masks, ration toilet paper, and pinch pennies, the divide between me and the nepotistic folks residing at Trump Tower continues to increase. Beyond being taken advantage of, I feel deliberately duped. I can only hope that this abuse of privilege has far-reaching consequences come November. 

The challenge of loyalty

Most admirable leaders put the needs of others above selfish concerns. They weigh their obligations, carefully balancing the needs of all constituents. This administration seems to take the disenfranchised and socially marginalized and pit them against the struggling economy. Setting groups of people against one another encourages hate and destruction. And Trump is famous for offering sacrificial scapegoats to his fanatical base. We know where Trump’s loyalties reside: to the highest bidder staying in a suite at Mar-a-Lago.

The challenge of consistency

Another way a leader can win over the masses is by trying to be equitable and consistent in policy and practice. Now that we’re faced with a devastating pandemic, we are witness to fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants decision-making and stream-of-conscious babble. This approach is what you’d expect from ultra-liberal brainstorming sessions at a Washington, D.C. think-tank. This approach is not what anyone should expect from the leader of the free world. Inconsistent leadership and a tepid crisis-response is inexcusable when the president has access to more data and information than the country’s average citizens. 

At some point, we all have to deal with adversity and failure. Our response will test our morals. How leaders respond to adversity and failure will test their ethical responsibility, as well. The difference between average and exceptional leadership will be how this president ultimately deals with COVID-19, the sinking economy, waves of unemployment, education, and an impending mental-health crisis. And as the AT&T commercial says perfectly, “Just OK is not OK.” 

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