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Ethical leadership and young people

Published on 17/09/18

Tricia Kelleher examines the need for ethical leadership amongst young people in today's chaotic world.

As I look around, blinking, at the antics of various world leaders - and some home grown ones too - I can’t help but wonder, what has happened to ethical standards in public life? For the avoidance of doubt, I asked a member of our RS and Philosophy department to share a succinct definition of ethics to act as a marker:

“Ethics is the attempt to arrive at an understanding of the nature of human values, of how we ought to live, and of what constitutes right conduct.” (Richard Norman)

I have to confess that this definition of ethics jars with the daily narrative of venom, prejudice and ‘fake news’ aka lies which are set on recycle across a range of media platforms. What would have been castigated as unacceptable conduct in the recent past is now tolerated as part and parcel of political life, acknowledged with a jaded shrug.

How have we come to this? I am confident that huge amounts of research in years to come will shed more light on this phenomenon. Suffice it to say that, whatever the rationale, the reality is that we now live in a society where ethical leadership struggles to be heard above the din. This is not only to be seen in the coarsening of political life, but also in the decline in influence of other public institutions such as the Church and law enforcement agencies.

Whilst we witness the decline in influence of traditional voices in public life, we are seeing an exponential growth in the multitude of voices channelled through a myriad of platforms on the web. Indeed, some would say that the abuse of digital communication is posing an existential threat to democracy across the developed world. The calling out of Mark Zuckerberg by the American Congress demonstrates how seriously this is being viewed.

'What our young people need above all else in their lives is a sense of hope and empowerment.'

The critical question for me is, how do we ensure that the education of our young people prepares them for this world of moral uncertainty where ethical leadership competes with darker pernicious forces? As a school leader I believe passionately in the capacity of a school community to prepare our students for the challenges and opportunities presented by the world beyond the school gates. Within this space lessons should be learnt beyond the assessed curriculum: the importance of building positive relationships, empathy and understanding, a global outlook,  and social responsibility to name but a few.

And in an age when concerns about teenage mental health routinely attract column inches, the emotional and mental wellbeing of all our students must be a priority. A ‘malfunctioning’ child will not thrive and certainly will not succeed in the government’s success metric of choice, the PISA tables. I would argue that the obsession with measurement at every stage of a young person’s life has contributed to a sense of moral drift. Too many children fall by the wayside because they fail to fit into the neat and tidy measurement of school attainment. School leaders and teachers work hard to obviate this, but the commodification of results is a real barrier to student wellbeing.

What our young people need above all else in their lives is a sense of hope and empowerment. A school community, a microcosm of society, is integral to this. Across our Foundation schools for example we are keen to lift the perspective of our students beyond the every day to global imperatives. As a global citizen, every young person should feel empowered to make a difference to our world. The United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals offer a framework for action; we as a school are reflecting on how to make such ambitious goals tangible to young people. Essentially we are endeavouring to offer ethical leadership about the future of our planet. As President Macron famously said, “there is no Planet B”. Our hope is that our youngsters will be the positive change makers of the future, acting themselves as inspiration for others.

This is where the seamless connectivity of the digital world has been transformational in a positive way. As in a mediaeval morality tale, just as there are forces of darkness on the web so there are forces for good, with so much shared that inspires others. Looking to the future it is possible that ethical leadership will be embedded in the digital space. We are already seeing peer-on-peer thought leadership which cuts through traditional hierarchy (take a look at these TED Talks by teens for some examples, or the Forbes 30 under 30 lists of young people working to fuel a more sustainable future). This is infinitely more relevant to young people who consume so much online and for whom conventional means of communication is just a little dreary. 

Ultimately in our digitally connected globalised world, every young person has the potential to lead. The real challenge facing educators is to ensure that every young person is equipped with the intellectual, social and emotional tools to offer ethical leadership.