The following piece, “Values-Based Leadership” is chapter 11 in the book Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom (itself based on an Internet-based talk radio show of the same name I did in times past). My industrious and learned partners in dialogue are Tom Morris, Ph.D. and Bernie Horn. Tom’s words are indicated by the initials TM, Bernie’s are BH, and mine are JM. For paragraphs with no initials, assume they are a continuation of the speaker who was speaking in the previous paragraph. I highlight words having to do with values and virtues by placing them in boldface type. Enjoy this look at values-based leadership, personal growth, philosophy, and ethics with Tom Morris, Ph.D. and Bernie Horn
“The best and worst individuals among us are essentially the same, separated only by infinitesimal differences. The brilliance of some shines bright and is easy to see; the brilliance of others requires that we dim our own lights to be able to see it. Either way, if we allow ourselves to get caught up in the minutiae of our differences, we miss out on the brilliance of our commonalities.” ~ Robert L. Lloyd
JM: What does it mean to be a good leader? What are some attributes and styles of an effective and ethical leader? How does leadership play out in politics and business? What can historical figures and even fictional characters teach us about leading in the real, complex, modern world? What grade do America’s national leaders earn? How do we lead in order to “bring up the average score” and not miss stragglers?
Thanks for tuning in for this important topic. I’m happy to welcome back noted philosopher, author, and thought leader Tom Morris, Ph.D. We will be talking primarily about applying leadership to business, one of his specialties. I will also spend a segment talking with Bernie Horn, Policy Director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, mostly about leadership as it relates to politics.
Tom Morris, Ph.D. was a Morehead Scholar at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, which once honored him as a Distinguished Young Alumnus. He holds two master’s degrees and a joint Ph.D. in philosophy and religious studies from Yale University.
Dr. Morris served for fifteen years as a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, where he was a very popular professor. He is now Chairman of the Morris Institute for Human Values. He seems as though he has hardly sat still a moment in the last thirty years.
Tom is the author of twenty books. Titles most relevant to the present dialogue include If Aristotle Ran General Motors, If Harry Potter Ran General Electric, and Philosophy for Dummies. His twelfth book, True Success: A New Philosophy of Excellence, has been well-received in the corporate world. His work as a business consultant has taken him to many Fortune 500 companies.
Hello Tom, nice to speak with you again.
TM: Hello, Jason, good to be with you.
“It is surely a bad thing that the greatest offices…should be bought. The law which permits this abuse makes wealth of more account than ability, and the whole state becomes avaricious.” ~ Aristotle
JM: So, I understand your book, If Harry Potter Ran General Electric, has been very popular not only with reviewers and corporations, but also the recent international Harry Potter Festival in Las Vegas! Your new book The Oasis Within is a 5-star book on Amazon.com, as well!
TM: Yes, and in Vegas, I was one of the only people not wearing black robes and a pointy hat! It was incredible; it was my first time presenting my book to the Harry Potter world and they went nuts. It was a very rewarding time. They were looking for all the wisdom in the Harry Potter stories that would apply to their workplaces. I talked with lawyers and doctors; there were teachers there who want to use it in their classrooms. It was remarkable to see people coming alive to ancient wisdom filtered through the most popular stories of our time.
JM: Would you say that your specialty is taking ancient wisdom and bringing it into modern life?
TM: Yeah, that’s what I try to do. You know, basically ideas that have stood the test of time. For example: What are the great ideas about success, leadership, ethics, personal growth; about how to deal with difficulty, how to handle anger, how to have a more positive attitude, how to embrace change in your life? In fact, all the things that we are challenged by and sometimes struggle with, if I can go and find the advice of some of the wisest people who have ever lived – advice that sustained people through centuries – and bring it into people’s lives now in a form that they can use, then I will have done them some good. So, you’re absolutely right; ancient wisdom for modern life; ideas that people can use every day.
“Aristotle (384-322 B.C.)…Plato’s long-time student, and tutor to Alexander the Great (way back at a tender young age when he was still just Alexander the Average) once said “Philosophy begins in wonder.” And he was right. If we allow ourselves to really wonder about our lives, about those things we take for granted, and about those big questions that we usually manage to ignore during the busyness of our daily schedules, we are beginning to act as true philosophers.” ~ Tom Morris
JM: Mm-hmm. Well, you’re definitely preaching to the choir when you say that. I’m trying to follow your lead; you’ve been at this a lot longer than I have and your credentials are sterling. It’s nice to meet somebody who, as you say, is achieving remarkable success doing something that I think is so important. You are an inspiration when it comes to leadership, philosophy, and industriousness.
TM: I appreciate that. And don’t be too modest about your own contributions. You’re doing more than almost anybody I know for collecting the real wisdom about values in our time. You’re bringing together all kinds of profound and interesting and accomplished people to tell their stories and to give a glimpse of their perspectives on the world. Nobody’s doing it like you’re doing it, so you’re benefiting a tremendous number of people with your books, radio show, and everything else you’re doing. I’m really happy that we can get together and talk now and then on the radio.
JM: I appreciate all that! So, about leadership; let’s talk specifically about that. When you did the book If Aristotle Ran General Motors, what you were attempting to do was to speak about leadership, weren’t you?
TM: Absolutely. In a broad sense—not just leadership for people who have top executive positions in big companies. I came to realize that we can all “take the lead” if you will, in various spheres of our lives. You know, leadership is more a role than it is an official status. It has to do with seeing a problem that needs to be solved, and taking the initiative to get it accomplished, while bringing other people into the process and inspiring them to make their contributions. So in that sense, whether you’re a mother or father, a Scout leader, you teach in a synagogue or church, work in the business world, you’re a librarian or a school teacher, you can lead other people if you understand what it really takes for great leadership.
“The philosophy that began in earnest in ancient Greece with Socrates and Plato and Aristotle – the focus on wisdom that you can also find in the writings of Lao Tzu and Confucius and many other Oriental thinkers – resulted in the tradition of philosophical inquiry that people follow today: one that seeks both depth and usefulness in matters concerning human life.” ~ Tom Morris
JM: Why do you like Aristotle so much?
TM: Well, it’s funny because I wanted to pick one of the great thinkers to be kind of symbolic for all the great thinkers. I also wanted to pick one of the “practical philosophers” – not just one known for theory, but one who has actually made a difference in the world.
Aristotle was this character that, everywhere I turned, whenever I was trying to solve a problem, including in business matters, he always seemed to have the perspective that helped me “think it through.” So I thought, “You know, there is no better person to pick here than Aristotle.” In the Middle Ages, they simply referred to him as “The Philosopher” – he was that important.
He laid the foundation of science, political theory, and ethics. He really had a masterful mind. He wasn’t right in everything he said – nobody is. But he had enough amazingly insightful perspectives – “wisdom of life” – that I could use him as my guiding light throughout the book. I was looking to him to help guide us in thinking about how to build the foundations for greatness; how to keep people believing in what they’re doing.
“It is sometimes said that great leaders are people of great charisma. …But no magic is required for leadership. What the leader does need is a deep emotional commitment to the importance of what he is doing; a commitment that his actions and words communicate to the people around him.” ~ Tom Morris
JM: Interesting. So, philosophy has relevance to business and values-based leadership, you say?
TM: I think so. Though, a lot of people lose track of that because many philosophy professors haven’t had any firsthand acquaintance with business themselves (except for being customers); they’ve never really studied the structure of business. And yet, corporations really pretty much dominate modern life.
When we think about it, there hasn’t really been anything like the modern corporation before about 100-150 years ago. Previously, there wasn’t anything this hierarchical and structured involving hundreds or thousands of people except for sovereign states. Maybe the Catholic Church. Now, all of a sudden, all over the face of the Earth, there are these companies – from small businesses to giant ones. Some of the biggest businesses actually have more influence than a lot of countries do. So, I thought that as a philosopher it’s about time for us to understand the world of business in the deepest possible way; what it means to us as human beings; how we can flourish; how we can be our best and do our best in a business environment.
JM: Right. I think, as you point out, there’s a significant opportunity for business to be a vehicle for people to bring their values and ethics to the table; to do good and productive things. We sure spend a lot of time in the workplace – at least, Americans do. You have heard the phrase, “He worked himself to death.” With the dearth of unionization now, the boss has a lot of power in people’s lives.
Is it a challenge for businesses to do the right thing? It appears from your essay entitled: “The Ethics Scandals of Our Day,” that you would endorse that. You ask the question: “Has ethics been completely left behind in the contemporary pursuit of profit?”
TM: Yes, it can be a big challenge because of a natural human failing, I think. Imagine if you were the inventor of the game of basketball. You have this team and you’re teaching people how to play it, and they say: “What’s the goal of the game?” Well, the goal is to get the greatest number of points before the buzzer goes off. I can easily imagine the early basketball players invariably trying to shoot the ball whenever they got it – without much thought given to teamwork, passing the ball, blocking, or defending…
“Aristotelians think of happiness as more like an activity, or a process of participation in something that brings fulfillment. Genuine happiness is a byproduct of living in a way that is supportive of human flourishing. It is tied to excellence. Happiness comes from discovering who you are, developing your distinctive talents, and putting those talents to work….” ~ Tom Morris
…If you just think about the end goal, and don’t think enough about what it’s going take to get to that goal well, and sustainably, you can make all kinds of mistakes. One time, someone said to me, “You’re talking about truth and beauty and goodness and unity; you’re talking about ethics and spirituality and values, but don’t businesses have to concentrate on the ‘bottom line’? Isn’t it a ‘numbers game’? Don’t you just have to keep your eye on the ball?”
I replied, “Have you ever seen Michael Jordan play a basketball game [he was then at his height of popularity and performance]?”
He answered, “Yeah, lots of times.”
I offered, “Well, have you ever seen him look at the scoreboard during a game?”
The man answered, “Yeah…”
There was my teachable moment: “Does Jordan stare at the scoreboard every second of the game? Of course not. He’s got to look at where the other players are, where the ball is – he’s got to look at a lot of other things than the scoreboard if he wants to see the right numbers appear on the scoreboard.”
“It’s the same way in business; if you want to get the right numbers – if you want to have profitability, and growth – you’ve got to look at stuff other than numbers – like ethics, values, what brings people together, what makes for great partnership and teamwork, why people really work – stuff like that.”
He said, “Geez, I never thought of it like that before!”
“Well, that’s exactly why I value people like Aristotle – they have thought of it.”
“If ethics is about insight and habit, wisdom and virtue, then we need to ask what the virtues for human life are. In order to do so, I start by going back to Aristotle, the first authoritative codifier of virtue in the ancient world.” ~ Tom Morris
JM: I see what you’re saying! I like this idea of ethics being fundamental to leadership. Let’s take a short commercial break, and continue from there when we return. First, a Michael Jordan quote: “I want to be perceived as a guy who played his best in all facets, not just scoring. A guy who loves challenges.”
I’m speaking with “public philosopher,” noted author, and former professor of the University of Notre Dame, Tom Morris about ethics in leadership on World Talk Radio, coming to you weekly from San Diego. I’m your host, Jason Merchey, of Values of the Wise.
One can find a lot of information out there about leadership, but one of the fundamental aspects which is sometimes missed – and I dare say, especially in graduate schools of business in the U.S. – is ethics. Doing the right thing. Doing no harm. Treating others like one would want done to them. “Keeping their nose clean,” as it were. It’s paramount, fundamental, essential.
The last sentence that you wrote in your contribution to the book I edited, Living a Life of Value, is the following: “We all want success; the ethical way is the only way to get it right and to have a chance of sustaining it for the ‘long haul.’” That harkens back to your brilliant Michael Jordan analogy – he had to learn how to pass, dribble, run plays, etc. so that he (and others) can successfully score.
Similarly, a leader of an organization has to develop qualities and skills such as leadership, ethics, and communication so that the business can be profitable (or, with nonprofits, successful). Not necessarily profitable by the time the fiscal quarter ends – that might be analogous to invariably trying for three-point baskets – but obviously, trying to “win the game of profit” in the long run.
“We can change things and really make a difference by our creative action. We are not puppets of fate, or of logic, or of science. We can choose our own destinies.” ~ Tom Morris
TM: I think you are absolutely right. Michael Jordan was known for being a leader on the court— he wasn’t just a star individual performer; he raised everybody else’s game as soon as he walked into a gym. They wanted to please him because they admired him so much. He said, “Talent wins games. Intelligence and teamwork win championships.”
JM: Nice. He also said: “To be successful you have to be selfish, or else you never achieve. And once you get to your highest level, then you have to be unselfish. Stay reachable. Stay in touch. Don’t isolate.”
TM: Exactly. I learned from reading the Harry Potter stories – and the reason I wrote my own book on the subject – that Dumbledore, the famous headmaster of Harry Potter’s school, taught that you can’t be a great leader without being a great person. He demonstrates through his life that leadership requires two things: competence and character.
Dumbledore possesses both of those characteristics— he’s described as being the greatest wizard of his age (high competence). But he’s also described as one of the best people in his world – he has the high character. Those are some of the characteristics that Harry Potter is picking up by being mentored by this great leader; he is learning how to be a great leader himself.
JM: I see. In your essay, “The Ethics Scandals of Our Day,” which I referred to earlier, you begin by highlighting what the ethical problem is (and how widespread some of the problems with corporations and business can be), and then you flesh out how good leadership looks in practice. Here’s a paragraph entitled, “The Elements of Ethical Success,” for example:
“I’ve discovered in the works of all the great thinkers across cultures and through the centuries, seven universal conditions for success in anything we do. When we understand these universals, we have a new framework for understanding the importance of character in business.”
The seven values are: Conception, Confidence, Concentration, Consistency, Commitment, Character, and Capacity to Enjoy. You continue:
“A good Character to guide us and keep us on proper course is one of the Seven C’s of Ethical Success. Integrity and conscience – that inner-guidance system reported since the time of Socrates – should direct our paths. Bad characters can have success for a while, in a limited domain, and at the expense of what really matters, but over the long run unethical success is always self-destructive.”
TM: Yeah, it’s an amazing thing, Jason; I’ve come to learn that ethics is really about the choices we make every day. So is excellence, and that’s no coincidence. Yet another of the things I’ve learned studying the Potter stories is when Dumbledore makes a claim – and it’s probably the single most important piece of philosophy in all the thousands of pages – when he says: “It’s our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are; far more than our abilities.”
Take the often-told story of Enron, for example. There’ve been a number of people who claimed that at Enron, the problem was that they always hired “the smartest guys in the room,” without asking questions about character or goodness or ethics. We see that every attempt at success without ethics fails. There are a bunch of reasons for that. Relationships rule the world, and when people can’t trust other people (due to poor character), it always undermines relationships and unweaves the pattern of social relations – the foundation for success. For true success, it matters what our goals are. And it matters how we go about attaining them. The means are as important as the ends. How we get there is as important as where we go.
Would you agree that ethics is a broad term, and one that encompasses all aspects of a person’s life? In other words, a moral person is likely to make good moral decisions, by and large, in the home, at work, in the marketplace, etc.?
“Desire is the key to extraordinary effort and creative success. The tighter a connection that you see between your daily activities and your long-term dreams, the more you can remind yourself of how the difficult work of today will lead to the securing of your most cherished values in the future….” ~ Tom Morris
TM: Yes, I agree. I mean, some problems might arise and we will be using categories at work such as contracts or relationships with vendors, etc., but the basic principles are exactly the same. I believe there is a seamlessness to ethics. Immanuel Kant, the great Enlightenment philosopher, was always discussing “the utter universality of ethics,” and I think it’s true.
However, some people think, “When you leave work, leave work and when you’re with your family, you won’t have work on your mind.” That kind of compartmentalization is fine when you merely forget the problems of work and you come home and relax with your family. But the kind of compartmentalization where you change your basic operating principles is never healthy. The same ethical rules apply in every domain in our lives, and the great virtues that philosophers such as Aristotle talked about are always the same.
Well, it’s almost time to say goodbye; I want to be respectful of the time you set aside for this interview, but it’s been educational and rewarding to speak with you.
TM: Yes, thanks; we should do this more often.
Let me ask you this before you go: Would you be willing to write a book about ethics in regard to Star Trek? I think it is just rife with apt examples and dilemmas.
“Socrates stressed the importance of self-examination, and when I decided to do it relentlessly, and even with a measure of courage and great pain and glimmers of hope, it cleansed me and freed me from so many inner obstacles that I had not been aware existed.” ~ Tom Morris
TM: It really is! You’re right, it brought up so many of the great ethical questions in such a vivid way to really help people get their minds around these issues.
JM: Well, I do know of one such book: The Ethics of Star Trek, by Judith Barad, Ph.D., philosopher from Indiana State University. I still want you to take a shot at it because I think Gene Roddenberry and his band of smart and creative people must have done 5-600 episodes and movies by now, and some of them are so sharp and relevant – and back in the 1960s, prescient – that one could make hay there all day. I’m happy to say that I also know Judy and she is a sweetheart.
But anyway, here is a quote from Judith Barad: “Not even the wisest ethicist can firmly establish hard and fast rules for right action; every situation is different and what would be done in one situation should not be done in another. In addition, Aristotle recognized that there are innumerable outside factors affecting an action; thus, it’s impossible to formulate exact rules without knowing all the facts in question.”
TM: I’m glad you read that. You’re right, ethics is more of an art than it is a science, and it’s the most amazing thing to have that insight presented in the context of a work about science fiction!
JM: Well, farewell, Tom Morris.
TM: Goodbye, Jason. Take care.
JM: Now, let’s shift to leadership vis-a-vis politics. Bernie Horn is a graduate of Johns Hopkins and Georgetown Universities; he is policy director for the Center for Policy Alternatives, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to strengthen the capacity of state legislators to lead and achieve progressive change. From 1994 to 2000, Bernie was President of Strategic Campaign Initiatives, Inc., a political consulting firm that helped elect and reelect hundreds of legislators and other federal, state, and local officials. Additionally, he helped win issue campaigns for increased gun control, tobacco taxes, and health care, and against casino gambling and restrictions on abortion. He has worked on politics and public policy for more than 20 years as a lawyer, legislative director, political consultant, and policy director. Mr. Horn is the author of Framing the Future: How Progressive Values Can Win Friends and Influence People.
I invited Bernie to compare, and also contrast what Tom Morris so aptly brought to the table in that I think that leadership is excellent to be looked at not only in regard to business, but also of course, government. Hello, Bernie.
“There are some jobs in which it is impossible to be virtuous.” ~ Aristotle
BH: Hi. Thanks for inviting me on.
JM: You’re welcome; thank you for your time. As you may know, I was just speaking with Tom Morris about business, and how it is so important to have a core component of ethics built into the very foundation of any business – from small nonprofits to huge corporations. As you study progressivism and politics, how do you think ethics are being adhered to and upheld these days?
BH: I think everyone has a different idea of what’s ethical, and that’s a problem. I think that politicians don’t really know what values they stand for in public life, and so they don’t know what they should be doing, and have difficulty communicating to voters what they really believe.
JM: Hmm. However, don’t you think that oftentimes, politicians use the word values frequently when they are trying to “speak the language” of certain voters? It’s “code” for some voters to signal “Christian” or “conservative” or, I dare say, illiberal. How does this strike you?
“To be a great leader, you’ve got to be somebody that other people look up to, that they admire. They should believe in your skillset and know that you know what you’re doing. But even more so, they’ve got to trust you. They’ve got to be willing to take a risk with you.” ~ Tom Morris
BH: Well I think that values has been used by conservatives to mean a certain set of values; that is: religious values, “moral” values that would lead someone to be anti-gay or anti-abortion or pro-creationism. The word values has been altered to mean something very narrow when what it really means is: a measurement of good qualities. Values in public policy are things like justice, equality, safety, liberty.
JM: I would also note, in a different vein, that Robert F. Kennedy was the last liberal politician to really herald communitarian ideals; for example, that values ought to be “moral,” and that we as a society (led by government) should be full-throated in our support and promulgation of certain values (reflected in citizens’ behavior, conduct, choices, and activities).
Moral philosopher and professor Michael J. Sandel provided the impetus for that idea when he discusses the proper role of government in cultivating a just society comprised of individuals firmly embedded in their communities (necessarily fomented by society taking an affirmative and enlightened role). Here are his words: “If a just society requires a strong sense of community, it must find a way to cultivate in citizens a concern for the whole, a dedication to the common good. It can’t be indifferent to the attitudes and dispositions, the ‘habits of the heart,’ that citizens bring to public life. It must find a way to lean against purely privatized notions of the good life, and cultivate civic virtue.”
He also notes: “[John] Dewey rejected the notion that government should be neutral among conceptions of the good life….He rejected a sharp distinction between public and private life and defended the view, derived from Georg Hegel and the British idealist philosopher T. H. Green, that individual freedom can only be realized as part of a social life that cultivates the moral and civic character of citizens and inspires a commitment to the common good.”
He likewise believes that: “As some contemporary liberals argue that government should not take a stand one way or the other on the morality of abortion but let each woman decide the question for herself, so [19th century politician Stephen] Douglas argued that national policy should not take a stand one way or the other on the morality of slavery but let each territory decide the question for itself.”
Finally, consider Robert F. Kennedy’s articulation that is so astute I felt it was useful to quote it at length:
“Our Gross National Product now is over 800 billion dollars a year. But that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts…the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country.
It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are so proud to be Americans.”
JM: Now that is full-throated. America might have turned out very differently if he were elected in the next election after J.F.K.’s assassination. Perhaps Carter would have then had the courage of his convictions.
Well, that was my take on liberals and their general approach to values. Clearly, I favor it over most policy positions and moral stances on the right side of the aisle. If I had to criticize it though, it can seem a little thin, a little too “classically liberal” for what is needed at this time. We won’t get back on track if the government cannot cultivate the common good and usher in a true renewal of citizen participation in civic society.
I notice your website has a tab called Leadership Development. It reads: “CPA provides the only values-based leadership development program for state legislators.” Tell me about that.
BH: Well, we’ve had this program called The Fleming Fellows Institute since 1994. The idea is for state legislators to drill down and understand what their values are so that knowledge will not only drive their own decision-making as policymakers, but will also help them to persuade others. That is, by talking about their values they can then talk with others about solutions more effectively.
We now have over 300 alumni, and they say it is a terrific exercise and that it has really helped them and stuck with them. Many say that it’s the best training they’ve ever had. It works. Yes, there are always competing interests; yes it’s difficult to stand your ground; but before the training, they didn’t know what their ground was.
JM: I see what you’re saying. That’s dispiriting in a way, isn’t it? Does the intervention seem to be working out successfully, or do you think that folks develop an enlightened conception of themselves and when they get out there, the almighty dollar ends up speaking more loudly than their conscience?
“To do well, you must do good. And to do good, you must first be good.” ~ Stephen R. Covey
BH: Yes, I see your point. But, what do progressives stand for? It’s a difficult question. People are not asked to think about their values, and so they often don’t. By compelling them to dig deep, they have a kind of “life-changing experience.”
JM: That sounds remarkable. I think if our political leaders become wiser about what they value, and why, and how it relates to legislation and actions as our representatives, it would be extremely beneficial! I came across you because I was reading the magazine, The Nation, and you had a piece in there which, if I recall, was about progressive values and which stands progressive politicians should take. You wrote: “In order to reclaim values from the right wing, progressives must frame the electoral debate in terms everyone can support: freedom, opportunity, security and responsibility.”
BH: Yes, governing is a complicated thing, but we can “break it down” by dividing policy into three situations: ones where government has no proper role (because such action would violate individual rights); ones where government acts as a referee between private interests that are almost always unequal in some way; and ones where government protects those who can’t protect themselves. So, where government has no role, the value is freedom. Where government should act as a referee, the value is opportunity. Where government acts as a protector, the value is security.
So, let’s take one of them: opportunity. What this means is, when government gets involved in economic situations (e.g., in the marketplace), [the office-holder should remember that] Americans believe in a “land of opportunity” where hard work is rewarded and everyone has an opportunity to achieve “the American dream.” In order to accomplish that, there needs to be a more or less equal “playing field” in the economy (i.e., the elimination of discrimination).
“The high-minded man must care more for the truth than for what people think.” ~ Aristotle
JM: I see your point. Congratulations to you on being able to entice politicians to participate, because I think it’s important to delineate “Which values?” and, “How can progressives be effective highlighting them?” As George Lakoff, David Callahan, and quite a few others note, the conservatives have been pretty successful in speaking about values. For example, in my opinion, claiming to be “compassionate conservatives” and against the “death tax” and other socially-desirable, psychologically-rich policy positions – regardless of what the truth of the matter is.
Would you say they “talk a good game” or do you believe that they do have a deeper understanding than progressives do about what American values are and should be, what we ought to be doing, how we should be thinking, and what should be legislated?
BH: No, they talk a terrific game! They have a whole industry of people who tell them what to say and how to say it. There is a pollster named Frank Luntz who published something called “The New American Lexicon” for Republicans to frame their messages and policy positions in the most optimal and palatable way. For example, it says: Never say drilling for oil; say exploring for energy. Never say undocumented worker; say illegal aliens. Never say trial lawyer because lawyers are portrayed favorably on television shows like Law and Order.
Indeed, they have a whole litany of words that are linked to values, but they are used in a very “Orwellian” fashion to mean the opposite. For example, personal responsibility: by linking the word responsibility with personal, you’re saying “Your issue is not my responsibility.” That’s terrific messaging on their part, but it’s not what Americans value— Americans value taking responsibility.
“Leadership doesn’t just happen; it arises out of certain qualities. I’m trying to help people understand leadership in its deepest, most ethical sense, and how it works by using real-life examples.” ~ Tom Morris
JM: I see what you’re saying. I like the fact that you used the word Orwellian. In fact, I have a quote here on deck I’d like to fire away and get your opinion on. You probably know Paul Krugman; he is a pundit for the New York Times. He wrote: “When Orwell wrote of a ‘nightmare world’ in which the leader or some ruling clique controls not only the future but the past, he was thinking of totalitarian states. Who would have imagined that history would prove so easy to rewrite in a democratic nation with a free press?” I have to quibble with democratic and free press, but I do take his point.
BH: The press has certain rules. If you know the rules and you play the game, you can get the press to write what you want, which is what the Bush Administration is so good at. Take the term you used, death tax. That should never appear in a newspaper because it’s an estate tax; it’s an inheritance tax – there is a name for this tax, and it’s never officially death tax. However, they did a lot of polling and figured out that death tax was the way to paint it as something that Americans would hate. After all, you’re combining two really negative words: death and tax!
BH: Right?! So you say that and most people go, “Death and tax? I hate that!” It’s a method of very cynical “message framing” that is in fact contrary to conservative values. I mean, I think there are conservative values— smaller budgets and smaller government, for example— but the Bush Administration is not upholding that— we have bigger budgets and huge deficits.
JM: That is coming through loud and clear. So, harkening back to the point I made earlier about the role of values in society, I wonder what you think about the ability of progressives to be leaders. I hear – maybe from people who are a little too cynical –that Democrats are not great at standing up and saying: “This is what Americans tend to value and, hey, look, it is pretty similar to this progressive platform we are claiming/co-opting – don’t let conservative pollsters and politicians fool you into believing that they are truly representing your interests.” Do progressives use philosophy well?
“By looking at the contemporary business world, and what the great philosophers of the past have said, …we see the same themes coming up over and over again. If I can help people in the business world to understand the importance of ethical leadership, I think they will have a sustainable form of excellence that they can enjoy for a very long time – without always looking over their shoulder.” ~ Tom Morris
BH: It is an exaggeration to say that today’s progressives don’t have a philosophy. Progressives have a fairly consistent agenda – we know what we stand for. The problem is, we don’t have an effective framework to communicate our philosophy to persuadable voters.
Listen to or read the words of Barack Obama: they are substantially different than Clinton’s or Edwards’s. It’s not that he stands up for something that is different than Clinton or Edwards, but he has a way of expressing it that puts his values first. He explains to people what his vision is; what he stands for; what his values are. Then he explains how the policy he advocates fits the value.
When you explain the value first, people are more apt to agree with you. Most politicians don’t talk about the value, they skip right to the policy. Voters are not experts in policy; they want to know what someone stands for or what they feel in their heart. I think Barack Obama strikes a chord, and anyone can do it if they understand what he’s doing, and why.
“What a great statesman must be most anxious to produce is a certain moral character in his fellow citizens; namely, a disposition to virtue and the performance of virtuous actions.” ~ Aristotle
JM: I would kind of quibble with the idea that there is this monolith called “progressives” since that term is hard to compare and contrast to the word Democrat. To some degree, there are Dems who are not very progressive at all. I would agree with you in so far as John Kerry was not terribly able to communicate to voters in the way you recommend. Al Gore famously flubbed his presidential run, as well. How it is that Clinton was so successful if he didn’t “connect” with voters is a question I have.
But, as we are out of time, that is the end of that avenue. Thank you kindly for your time. I’m sorry we don’t have more time, but it was nice to make your acquaintance. I appreciate the work that you’re doing over at The Center for Policy Alternatives – I hope it is fruitful. God knows we have been creeping to the Right as of late.
BH: Thanks for inviting me on your show – it was great.
JM: Indeed, thank you. Let’s make this the final thought: “If the leader is not wise and just, how can he rule properly?” ~ Aristotle
Here is the award-winning book from which this chapter was excerpted.
Here is a page on values-based leadership you might like.
Tom’s page is here.
Footnote  My interpretation of the ideas of leadership, community, and justice he presents in his books