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Reflections of an Ethics Professor

I teach an Introduction to Ethics course at a local college, usually every semester, to a class of traditional aged students--18 to 20 something year old's. I really enjoy doing so. It gives me the opportunity to learn something new, to "look in the mirror" and ask, "Am I living what I am teaching?," and to try to teach students HOW TO THINK.

Oh, we talk a lot about ethics. I introduce them to my "3-Ps" model of ethical decision-making: Process, Perspective, and Person. We examine different ethical schools of thought. We discuss how to apply these concepts to their personal life. We address relevant ethical issues through case study analysis and video presentations. But, I spend considerable time teaching them how to learn by THINKING.

Why? Because my grand outcome for this course is for them to become better ethical decision makers. I want them be "different" regarding how they understand themselves as moral agents when the semester comes to a close. In other words, when we reach our last class session, I want them to look back to the first day of class and consider how their attitude, perspective, and perhaps their behavior has changed when it comes to making ethical decisions.

In order to maximize the chances of that happening, I must teach them how to think. And, importantly, making them think about "why they think the way they do."

Typically, this is a new experience for them. Not just in the exposure to new concepts. I'm talking about the thinking part. How do I do this? I ask questions. I tell them, "I'll try not to give you the answers. I will help you find the answers.

We talk about the meaning of words that are new to them. We break down difficult concepts into small, manageable ideas that they can then put together to figure out a new idea.

They get lots of "why" from me. I want to know why they think the way they do. So, we discuss the meaning of "assumptions" (using a lot of questions) and how they affect the way we think about something, about people, about ethics.

Uncovering those assumptions is not easy for them to do. They haven't been taught to think about what they think. It's been more of "tell me what I need to know and then I will tell you what I 'know,'" in their educational experiences. My responsibility is to create a learning environment in which this kind of change can occur.

And so on.

Why all the discussion in this blog about learning how to think, asking questions, and facilitating change among my ethics class students? And, what does this have to do with effective leadership, which is usually the purpose of my blogs?

Besides the importance of leaders being ethical, "Good leadership is ethical leadership," (Joanne Ciulla), if leaders want to see their coaching and training result in behavior change among their employees, teams, etc., then they must use the same approach I use when teaching how to think and to "think about what they think."

I've written before that effective leaders, for a number of reasons, ask questions. One of the benefits of doing so is to help you be a better communicator.

Consider that when you ask a question of someone or a team, it gives you the opportunity to listen, to be silent and let them speak to you. It gives you a chance to think about what they are saying. You need to give them your silent time for them consider how to respond to your question.

Did you know that the average "wait time," the time teachers wait for students to respond to a question, is about two seconds? Be patient and wait for the answer. Good communication includes listening. Don't' give them the answers, help them find the answers. “I can only ask questions. The answers have to be yours” (Peter Drucker).

Leaders need to uncover the assumptions that influence the attitudes, perspectives, and behavior of those with whom they work. What motivates them? Why? How do they feel about a new change initiative? Why? What is their attitude towards their peers? Why? Ask a lot of whys. "Seek first to understand, then to be understood" (Stephen Covey).

Leaders need to use this same process for themselves. What are your assumptions about leadership? Is it position and power only? Is it "I know everything?" Is it having a service attitude? Is it being inclusive? Why?

What about employees? Do you think about them as trustworthy, as an asset to the organization, as a source of wise counsel and information? Or something less so? Why?

What about the purpose of your organization? To only make a profit? To serve the greater good? To provide a great place for people to work? Why?

The answers to these questions about assumptions or "mindset" influence the way you behave as a leader. Do you need to challenge and perhaps change any of these assumptions?

We call this "Vertical Leadership Development" because the focus is on augmenting or enlarging your assumptions/mindset and, thus, transforming how you think and behave. Vertical Development is different from "Horizontal Leadership Development." In this case, leaders receive training that only increases their skill, knowledge, and ability (SKAs) competencies.

Look, creating change in attitude, perspective, and ultimately behavior is very difficult even in the best of circumstances. It's nearly impossible if you don't know why people (including you) behave the way they do.

I started this blog talking about my efforts to teach ethics students how to learn and, as a result, to become better ethical decision makers. I do the same when trying to help leaders learn how get better as leaders. WHY? Because ALL learning should be intentionally TRANSFORMATIONAL!

Take a look at my previous blog (March and May, 2021) on "Transformational Learning and Training" to read more about this necessary process.

Thanks for thinking about this. Take care.

Jim Dittmar


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