Saturday, September 3, 2011

Are You Comfortable Teaching About Ethics?

As explicated in last month’s post, my August hike in the western Grand Canyon provided opportunities for recreation, meditation, and self-reflection.  My personal adventures allowed me to think favorably upon educational programs like Outward Bound, which are intended to challenge participants mentally, physically, and emotionally.  It is considered an exceptional program for at-risk youths and troubled teens. 
After reading a September 1, 2011 New York Times article titled, A Hiker’s Plight: How to Help When Water Runs Low, I wondered whether ethics are being taught in programs such as Outward Bound.  Then I was struck with a really disturbing thought: how are ethics being taught to today’s children and adolescents?  What creates more anxiety is the concern that too few teachers feel comfortable teaching ethics. 
The Parable of the Sadhu provides a wonderful opportunity to analyze how diverse styles of leadership might have evaluated, assessed, and handled the ethical dilemma presented by a dying pilgrim and his treatment by groups of mountain climbers.  Surely the native culture and cultural differences embedded within the different national teams participating in the treacherous climb mitigated the use of effective leadership beyond individual group needs.  Culture also influenced the decision-making process within characters who exhibited a range of leadership.  This month’s post encourages a review of the parable, reflection upon what the reader would do if he or she were in either Stephen’s or McCoy’s place, and then critically examine and debate my perceptions of the diverse leadership styles and the impact of the micro and macro culture upon potential leadership and decision-making exhibited in the parable.
Considering Covey’s (1989) exhortation to begin with the end mind, I first suggest the missing leadership style that could have ensured the Sadhu was adequately supported during a necessary 1000 foot descent to the safety of the basecamp hut.  Related to sustaining a human life, more would have been achieved by exhibiting servant leadership.  In his telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus notes the Samaritan was supportive and gave time and financial resources to aid the beaten stranger.  However, the Samaritan told the innkeeper, “Look after him, and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have” (Luke 10:35).  The Samaritan mercifully did what he reasonable could by ensuring others would pick up the next line of aid but then the Samaritan continued on his journey.  By contrast, in The Parable of the Sadhu, Stephen, the voice of Christian conscience within McCoy’s dilemma, was actually the person who did not continue to act as a good and merciful Samaritan.  Patterson (2003) believes servant leaders seek radical equality for all people.  A true servant leader among the diverse groups would have recognized the sadhu’s quest for life was as important as his own.  Since Stephen espoused knowledge of Christian ethics and his own weakness made him the last in line of support for the Sadhu, if he was a servant leader he truly would have recognized his responsibility to ensure the stranger reached safety BEFORE considering the continuation of his own journey.  Surely, this may have meant Stephen wouldn’t meet his personal goal.  But, because of Stephen’s lack of moral integrity, we will never know what occurred to the Sadhu or how great of an alternate story may have resulted from servant leadership acting in this dilemma.
Fifteen years after the initial experience with the Sadhu, McCoy (1997) toiled again with the basic questions presented by the dilemma: When is it necessary to take a stand?  How much should we allow a stranger to influence decisions that impact our daily lives?  How should we handle the needy since we certainly can’t help everyone?  Generalizing the parable into business, McCoy asked,“How do we prepare our organizations and institutions so they will respond appropriately in a crisis? How do we influence them if we do not agree with their points of view?” (p. 7)
I agree with McCoy that it isn’t prudent to quit a job over every ethical dilemma, but how is the line in the sand determined?  In the Parable of the Sadhu, isn’t the dilemma actually created by the inaction of Stephen-rather than the actions of the diverse groups who never were a collective?  More importantly given the culture of Himalayan mountain climbing, there never was an opportunity to form the diverse groups into a single organization united behind an objective contrary to the goals of the individual groups.  This is why most groups exhibited a form of situational leadership.  Each group did something for the Sadhu and then moved on.  In their model of situational leadership, Goleman, Boyatzis,and McKee (2004) actually considers five principles of emotional intelligence to formulate six different situational leadership styles.  Goleman et al., emphasizes the need for a leader to change between these six styles whenever conditions around him or her changed.  The two constants in this parable were each group’s climbing goal and the ill-health of the sadhu.  The changing conditions were the support behind each ascending group and the worsening environment.  Unfortunately, most of the groups exhibited situational leadership based on a pace-setting or a commanding style of leadership, which would be helpful for getting through the Himalayan pass but deadly for the sadhu.  Given, an assorted group of strangers unilaterally acting to obtain a goal rather than acting as a unified collective, can it reasonably be expected that a goal centered leadership style would act morally and ethically?  I suggest the culture of mountain climbing which would embrace the characteristics of situational leadership, especially guided by a pace-setting leader or a commanding leader would believe it is acting morally and ethically to do what one can for a “weak sadhu” and then pass the need for help onto those behind. 
While the different groups primarily exhibited one of two forms of situational leadership, what was the leadership style exhibited by Stephen?  Let’s recall his cultural background as a Quaker anthropologist.  Let’s also be honest in recognizing that he was the last line of definitive support for the Sadhu.  Many may want to characterize Stephen as a transformational leader but his attempt to lay guilt upon McCoy by asking, "How do you feel about contributing to the death of a fellow man?” merely exhibits his own lack of ethical integrity, thereby hinting that he would actually be a narcissistic leader.  Although narcissists possess charisma and vision considered vital to effective leadership, they also possess belief systems that would be considered grandiose.  Their leadership styles are therefore often motivated by need for power and admiration rather than empathetic concern for either their constituents or their institutions (Rosenthal & Pittinsky, 2006).  After all, would there have been a parable without Stephen’s question and the ambiguity of the Sadhu’s survival resulting from his inaction? 
McCoy, the parable’s author was a Morgan Stanley financier whereby transactional leadership was the likely culture.  Stephen’s inaction toward the sadhu and ensuing philosophical debate helped McCoy evolve from a goal oriented transactional leader to become a transformational leader.  As a result of the overall experience, McCoy became a different leader-thereafter seeking to help other leaders and organizations to transform themselves based on solid ethics. 
Lastly, it is also important to recognize the need to have a better understanding of what occurred to the Sadhu to get him in the condition in which he was found.  The reason for this is that cultural ignorance could impact our thinking of the parable.  As we learn from the story of the struggling butterfly graphically explicated by Lobb (2010), there are times when struggle has a purpose.  Perhaps, the sadhu didn’t want any help.  The Parable of the Sadhu is silent in regards to anyone asking the sadhu, “what happened?” and “how can we best help you?”  To a true servant leader, these are two very important questions.


Covey, S.R. (1989) The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the character ethic.     New York, NY. Simon and Schuster

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R, & McKee, A. (2004) Primal Leadership, HBS Press,
McCoy, B. H. (1983, September/October). The parable of the Sadhu. Harvard Business Review,
McCoy, B. H. (1997). The Parable of the Sadhu. Harvard Business Review,
Patterson, K. A. (2003). Servant Leadership: A Theoretical Model. Dissertation Abstracts International (UMI No.