Developing Ethical Leaders: the Contribution of Philosophy and Spirituality

Lead Research Organisation: Middlesex University
Department Name: Business School


Following Enron, the scandal of politicians' expenses, and other examples of organisational failure, much has been made of what appears to be a failure of leadership in institutional life. Business Schools have been criticised for contributing to a moral malaise by reinforcing notions that ends justify means and that delivery on-time, on-budget is all that really matters. Both in-house management development programmes and MBAs have been critiqued for over-emphasising methodologies and models over more human qualities such as judgement, wisdom and morality. So, organisations are asking themselves, how can we develop our leaders to be successful at delivery without compromising their human values?
The response of government and policy makers to ethical failings is typically an attempt to introduce new rules for compliance - despite evidence that these have only limited effect. At the same time those researching and writing in the area of leadership have expressed a growing interest in the philosophical and spiritual dimensions of ethical leadership. Three levels of analysis can be discerned. First, at an organizational practice level, this can be seen in the growth of such workplace initiatives as mindfulness and meditation. Many organizations across the world now use these practices to promote health, stress management and improved performance. Georgetown McDonough Business School now have an MBA module 'Leadership and Meditation'.
Secondly, at a theoretical level, lie a range of approaches, informed by a rainbow of disciplines (from economics to theology, from Greek philosophy to OB theory) which seek to recover the spiritual roots of effective leadership. Of particular prominence is Spiritual Leadership Theory (SLT) that brings together individual spirituality and the creation of an innovative, motivated learning organization with impact on the 'triple bottom line'. However, critics maintain that SLT renders organizational spirituality as theologically denuded, disenchanted and concerned exclusively with performance. At a third level are the belief systems which support practical and theoretical exploration. Recent years have seen articles, conferences and special issues of journals devoted to everything from Maori, American Indian, existentialist and Taoist contributions to understanding leadership to those informed by Confucian, Judeo-Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions. All this points to a moral vacuum at the heart of leadership studies and a desire to look beyond Western, instrumentalist worldviews.
What we so far lack is any systematic scrutiny of these practices, theories and traditions in terms of their contribution to more ethical leadership in the workplace. Further, given the tendency to focus upon performativity, this scrutiny needs to be critically informed by non-functionalist discourses in order to discover other ways of framing and understanding ethical leadership. In the proposed seminar programme, the first seminar will introduce interpretive, dialogic and critical discourses as analytic lenses and set the agenda for the series. Seminars 2-7 will focus on particular sectors (business, education, health, SMEs, business schools) and interrogate the intersection between leadership, philosophy and spirituality in the context of the particular ethical challenges facing key stakeholders in that sector. The final two seminars will consolidate the learning gained throughout the series and seek to summarize and shape the pathways of impact that have already been laid. Each seminar will comprise a mix of senior and more junior academic scholars, leading agencies and organizations from the sector concerned. Invited international speakers will: (i) provoke intense debate which will challenge and explore orthodoxies and recent innovations, (ii) promote understanding of philosophically and spiritually informed approaches to ethical leadership and (iii) identify pathways of impact in their respective sectors.

Planned Impact

Business Schools. Internationally and within the UK a number of Business Schools have begun to experiment with more radical approaches to leadership development, both in the content and style of teaching/learning, many drawing upon ethical, philosophical and/or spiritual mindsets. The Seminar Series will provide a more systematic assessment of such initiatives, enable a forum for the exchange of 'good practice' and track the impact of such initiatives amongst students and their employers. The seminar series will also contribute directly to the mission of the Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) initiative. The Principal Investigator's, all Co-Investigators' and several partner institutions are members of PRME. These institutions have made a commitment to directly contribute to the continuous improvement of management education with the aim of developing a new generation of business leaders capable of managing the complex challenges faced by business and society in the 21st century. The mission of PRME includes working with member institutions to make progress in embedding ethical leadership, corporate responsibility and sustainability in the mainstream of business-related education by encouraging Business Schools and management educators to adapt their curricula, research, teaching methodologies and institutional strategies in a gradual but systemic manner. One of the CIs, Anita Gulati, will base her action learning PhD on the above.

Professional Bodies. The Association of Business Schools, the Chartered Management Institute and the Quality Assurance Association are currently conducting a consultative study on 21st Century Leaders by reviewing Business School curricula in the UK. This Seminar Series will take up the preliminary findings of this review, critically evaluate the outcomes and define more clearly the philosophical and spiritual dimensions of leadership practice. Other bodies partnering this Series like the Agape Workplace Initiative and the World Community for Christian Meditation will also contribute their expertise and the dissemination of combined wisdom will prompt more enlightened policy-making, training and leadership development for each of the professional bodies involved.

Leadership Development Providers (professional services firms, consultancies and in-house programme design/delivery) have been critiqued for over-emphasising methodologies, models and tool-kits over more human qualities such as judgement, intuition, wisdom and morality. There is an urgent call for leadership development providers to take diversity of worldview more seriously if programmes are to support businesses in this multi-cultural, multi-vocal context. With input from KPMG and other professional service organizations, this series will clarify how concepts like authentic leadership, the compassionate organisation, and values-based ethics as wells as practices like, mindfulness and meditation, can contribute to improved leadership development in organizations across a range of sectors (business, health, SMEs, business schools, professional services).

The business community has increasingly embraced the importance of a more ethical stance in the way they treat their staff, the wider community and ecological issues (CSR, triple-bottom line performance, mindfulness and so on). However such initiatives have a tendency to be spasmodic, tokenistic and slide back to instrumentalism. In large part this is because the conceptual, philosophical and spiritual belief-systems underpinning such practices remain unexamined and not articulated. By addressing this lack, this series will provide a more robust rationale and motivation for virtuous and socially responsible leadership, and so increase the likelihood of thoughtful and enduring socio-economic impact. In addition, it will contribute to the other ESRC strategic priorities of: 'Influencing behaviour and informing interventions' and 'A Vibrant and Fair Society'
Description One intention was to bring together diverse stakeholder groups to focus on philosophical and spiritual practices in the development of ethical leadership. Given that this is a relatively uncharted territory in research circles, we were encouraged on two levels. First by the intense interest and wide participation across the nine Seminars: by the completion, our participant list had grown to around 280, with approximately a quarter from the corporate, public and third sectors. Second, we were impressed by the quality of contribution and breadth of debate at each of the Seminars; some of this was further informed by more than 50 feedback responses and 25 interviews/conversations held following the events. Together these results suggest that the exploration of personally held beliefs and philosophical standpoints constitutes a rich and largely untapped seam for further research into the ethical basis of leadership.
A longer-term objective was to influence ethical leadership policy and practice in the way organizations conduct their business. This is much harder to achieve and report on, due to cultural inertia and the difficulty of tracking causal effects. A website ( tracks the progress of the Seminars and offers resources, but perhaps the most tangible way to asses this is through individual accounts of resistance and breakthrough. We have assembled 16 such accounts in a book published by Routledge titled "Leadership Matters: Finding Voice, Connection and Meaning in the 21st Century". Each author reflects on how their personal credo guides their leadership practice. Together these auto-ethnographic accounts provide insight into the struggles, the conflicts, the provocations and the successes when seeking to translate core values into everyday workplaces. One particular outcome is worthy of note: prompted by the Seminars a leadership consultant designed and ran a 4 day course on Understanding, experiencing and promoting resilience: the power of your story for eight participants in Birmingham in 2017 and submitted an evaluation report (see separate section of Key Findings Report).

Another intention was for the ESRC co-investigators to collaborate on publishing articles in professional /practitioner journals as well as in academic, peer-reviewed journals to encourage wider, long-term dissemination, blogs, and videos. Elsewhere in the Report we list more than 50 publications including refereed journal papers, books, book chapters, conference papers. Of special note are: (i) the Leadership Matters edited book mentioned above in which 16 contributions engage with current theory and demonstrate how spirituality and philosophy can shape ethical leadership practice and begins to provide a research agenda for exploring the ethical basis for leadership further; (ii) two special issues of prestigious journals (Business Ethics Quarterly and Journal Business Ethics), edited by members of the ESRC investigator team: again these collections of papers represent a significant step forward in the scholarly treatment of the topic.
Exploitation Route Within in the academic community the collective impact of publications will be highly influential in stimulating further research, as it has raised the profile of spiritually and philosophically inspired leadership studies both in terms of rigour and breadth of viewpoint. Within the business sector, such influence is largely dependent upon participation in ongoing debates. Examples include: (i) the Diversity Director of KPMG participated in the early Seminars and is in a position to influence ethical practice in his own firm, (ii) the then CeO of a leading IT company spoke at two Seminars and has written about his journey of personal and corporate transformation (see Leadership Matters book); (iii) the Centre for Responsible Leadership has been established as a direct result of involvement in the ESRC Seminars (iv)The Understanding, Experiencing & Promoting Resilience course arose from the Seminar series and comprised a cross-sector participation of two from education, two from business, two from the third sector and two independent consultants. This is likely to be a prototype for future courses with the Deputy Director of Education for Coventry Diocese considering it as the basis of a funding bid for school improvements in 2018.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description Head Teacher leadership development 
Organisation Birmingham Diocesan Education Service
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The ERSC series on spiritual and ethical leadership has helped foster negotiations between Agape and Sarah Smith, Head of Diocesan Education for Birmingham, to deliver a course on managing through effective relationships to 15 new head teachers in faith schools. This course is distinctive in that it is set in a paradigm of forgiveness and integrity. We hope that this pilot will open up much wider opportunities in the future.
Collaborator Contribution The discussion amongst ESRC partners and the material prepared for Seminar 5 in particular, has led to the creation of training material for head teachers in the realm of school ethics and personal integrity.
Impact too early to say
Start Year 2015