There is a very real concern that these trends may indicate that the integrity of the American democracy is at risk. In order to reverse these trends, we need to encourage ethical leadership performance among elected officials. It should be stated that all elected leaders should be law-abiding. Specifically, we need to support and develop leaders who embrace the following beliefs:
Ethical leaders are truthful. At a time when the significant majority of Americans do not believe elected officials are trustworthy, it is difficult for leaders to be truthful. Their motives may constantly be in question. In addition, the political dynamics can further compound the process. The facts can often be distorted via ads and social media. Yet practicing these behaviors (despite the challenges) is essential for long-term success as an ethical leader.
Ethical leaders embrace the importance of transparency with public information. Just as it is a mistake for a leader to claim unwarranted credit for “good news”, it is also a mistake to withhold information when “the news is not so good”. It can be very damaging to the public trust when information is withheld. In addition, somewhat ironically, ethical leaders often assume their most important role when the times are tough.
Ethical leaders embrace practices that are unifying, rather than dividing. This is a very challenging area. There are very powerful forces at play. Partisan Think Tanks are focusing on the development and promotion of “divide and conquer” strategies. Special interests are investing heavily in the implementation of these strategies. And the expanded use of the internet and social media has dramatically fueled the fragmentation of political views. Yet the most serious issues we face simply cannot be addressed by a fragmented nation. Ethical leaders understand that and are willing to stand up in the face of the powerful forces with the recognition that our nation will be stronger in the end.
Ethical leaders are willing to represent the collective interests of their constituency. The American Democracy is founded on a core concept...elected leaders are determined by the numeric majority of those who vote in an election. Essentially, this means that in virtually every election, there are people who voted in the minority who are now represented by someone they did not support. Nonetheless, these citizens are constituents and they are entitled to have representation by their elected officials. Furthermore, some constituents (children, for example) are not eligible to vote. Elected officials who serve in an executive position should lead for the benefit of the whole. Elected officials who serve in a representative capacity should demonstrate an empathetic understanding of the needs of all constituencies.
Ethical leaders recognize the importance of integrity as an essential element of American democracy. When Legislative policy issues and/or unethical practices are supported above ethical leadership, in the effort to achieve a political gain, there is an erosion of the fiber of American democracy.
It is important to note that ethical leadership is not inherently aligned to any single political party. Ethical leadership performance, by definition, differs from consistent support for any given legislative policy. Naturally, political leaders are elected based on their stated personal platform (their commitment to support stated legislative policies). Yet, regardless of the preference for stated legislative policies, these leaders can choose to follow an ethical pathway, rather than simply believe “the ends justify the means”. As such, ethical leaders are defined by their leadership performance rather that the label associated with legislative policy.
Finally, I believe it is the responsibility of American citizens to recognize and support ethical leaders and positive role models. Incumbent leaders can learn to develop and apply improved leadership practices. Furthermore, next generation political leaders can be developed with an ethical focus. Likewise, as citizens, we should not support elected leaders who display unethical and divisive behavior.
The American Democracy is at stake. It has served as a model for nations throughout the world. Yet we should recognize that there is no assurance that it will last forever. We have a responsibility as citizens to support the integrity of the American Democracy, and we can take significant steps forward by promoting ethical leadership.