Constraints on Leadership: Missions, Roles and Values

April 3, 2014

“We must not suppose that those in authority are unaware …, but we must recognize that their liberty of action is often circumscribed by the nature of their office: the powerful are not necessarily free.”

That quotation is from Duncan Wood, who some decades ago directed the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva. This statement was lifted up for me at a recent meeting of the oversight committee for the Quaker United Nations Office in New York. A fuller version of the quotation is below, but first I want to relate an incident that gave what Wood said greater resonance for me.

Recently I met up with young Earlham alumnus—someone who was a student while I was President—who expressed surprise at hearing me say positive things about BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign initiated by Palestinians for which they are seeking wide support. How had I come to change my mind, he wondered while we were together at the annual meeting of the AFSC Corporation. I serve on a few AFSC committees as a volunteer; he is now an AFSC staff member.

How do you mean? I asked. Well, he said, at Earlham as President you were opposed to BDS and now here you are supporting it. What changed your mind? I hadn’t really changed my mind, I told him, and then tried to explain to him how institutional roles can limit what you can say or do – especially when you are in a leadership role. I don’t know whether what I said made any sense to him, but here is roughly what I said.

When you take on a leadership role in an organization, I said, you are pledging to serve that organization’s purposes wholeheartedly. Ideally there is a good deal of congruence between your values and the values of the organization you serve. If they diverge a great deal, you shouldn’t accept the leadership position. But there is very little chance, I said, that there will be perfect congruence between your values and the purposes of the organization. You have to be prepared to live with that tension, and it can be awkward. In public, you have a responsibility to make the case for the organization’s view of things and not undercut that case by saying that your own view is different.

If you think you would always have to voice your own personal point of view, that’s another reason you shouldn’t accept a leadership position. (To some, that keeping silent may look like lack of integrity, but I think that’s a shallow view of the matter.)

Why won’t there be perfect congruence between your view and the organizations? Can’t a President steer an organization where s/he pleases? In a word, no. Two sorts of reasons lead to some nearly inevitable divergence between a person’s personal values and the values of an organization s/he serves. For one thing, most organizations have a process for decision-making in which one person doesn’t make all the decisions, not even the President. At Earlham, a great many people are involved in decision-making at early stages, but in the end the Board of Trustees makes final decisions on many important matters. As President I was a member of the Board, but just one of twenty-four. Occasionally the Board made decisions that diverged from my own inclinations. (Aside: How could that happen with Quaker decision-making? Because in none of those kinds of divergences did disagreement turn on deep matters of principle.) When the Board made a decision, it was my job to see to its implementation.

But there is another, more common and more important reason an organization’s values or positions can diverge from your own. Any organization has a mission, and that mission will almost certainly be narrower and more focused than any individual’s set of values or purposes. Earlham’s is an educational mission: “to provide the highest quality education in the liberal arts, including the sciences, shaped by the distinctive perspectives of the Religious Society of Friends.”

An individual’s purposes, on the other hand, are likely to embrace a host of things. A typical Earlhamite might be interested not only in education but also (say) alleviation of poverty, nuclear disarmament, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, and perhaps (say) contra dancing and juggling. Students would often urge me to have Earlham support one or another of their many personal causes. As someone charged with responsibility for Earlham—and even when these were my causes, too—I would refuse to offer such support. I would say I was prepared to devote resources to education only and to none of the other causes unless it was in a way that directly furthered education. I said I had to use Earlham’s resources (including its good name) only on behalf of its mission.

Education as a mission makes this single-mindedness of institutional purposes broader in some ways (students learn by doing), but also even more limiting in others, or at least as I saw (and see) the matter. To educate well, we want people to think for themselves, to explore alternate ideas in an atmosphere of freedom. A student or a teacher should be able to declare himself on either side of a controversial issue without feeling illegitimate or cast out of the community. A student should be free to support war or peace or liberal or libertarian postures towards alleviating poverty without feeling s/he was out of step with the college. As an organization, that is, Earlham should take care not to take on purposes other than education lest it appear to be promoting some points of view in favor of others. (This posture is a key aspect of academic freedom.)

So how about BDS? While I was at Earlham, the Board of Trustees – through its Socially Responsible Investment Advisory Committee (SRIAC) did not support the BDS campaign. I wasn’t involved in that decision: I was not a member of SRIAC. Had I been, I might well not have favored Earlham supporting BDS, either, even though it had my personal support. With the Israel/Palestine, Earlham would want to be helping students make up their own minds about where justice directs, not making up their minds for them by making institutional political commitments. I would have seen the issue as a hard one because, by mission, Earlham is a Quaker educational institution, and in its organizational posture it has long followed some Quaker testimonies or commitments. In investment policy, for example, Earlham has long tried to avoid investments in alcohol, tobacco, gambling or weapons. IF BDS could be seen to fall under the prohibition against investments in weapons, then perhaps the college would support BDS.

The important point here is that the college not be seen as a place for the forceful expression of anyone’s personal political convictions, but rather to remain a place that adheres wholeheartedly to its mission.

Here, now, is the full quotation from Duncan Wood. In it, Wood recognizes the constraints on leaders. He urges the rest of us to ‘stand beside’ these leaders, lifting up the concerns of ordinary people and helping leaders to see a way beyond what he calls ‘worldly expedients.’

“Since we are not in a position of power, the dilemmas are not ours to solve, the choices not ours to make. From time to time at the United Nations we are brought close to those who have to find the solutions and make the choices. On such occasions it may or may not be given to us to make suggestions which promote the better of two choices or solutions; it is more important that we express our conviction that decisions affecting the lives of multitudes cannot be dictated by worldly expedients but must be taken, as we would express it, “under concern”. We must not suppose that those in authority are unaware of this, but we must recognize that their liberty of action is often circumscribed by the nature of their office: the powerful are not necessarily free. We, who are freer than they are to follow what we believe to be the will of God, may at times be called upon to stand beside them as they seek for light on the road to peace.” —Duncan Wood

To me, the phrase ‘moral expedients’ suggests moral corner-cutting or attention to interests rather than values. Are such ‘worldly expedients’ the only constraints on leaders? With not-for-profit organizations, I don’t think so; that’s what I’ve been trying to explain. There are also constraints that arise from fidelity to mission. How about with democratic governments? Are ‘worldly expedients—in this case the possibility of a backlash from voters or donors—the only constraint?

As I am writing this, I have a chance to read an April 4, 1864 letter from President Abraham Lincoln to Albert G. Hodges, editor of the Frankfort, Kentucky, Commonwealth. (It was featured in a posting from the Civil War Book of Days series from the Vermont Humanities Council.)

I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think and feel, and yet I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath that I took, that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take office without taking the oath. . . . I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery. I had publicly declared this many times and in many ways. And I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract feeling and judgment on slavery. I did understand, however, that my oath to preserve the Constitution to the best of my ability imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government — that nation — of which that Constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation and yet preserve the Constitution? . . . I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution through the preservation of the nation. Right or wrong, I assumed this ground; and now avow it. I could not feel that, to the best of my ability, I had even tried to preserve the Constitution, if, to save slavery or any minor matter, I should permit the wreck of government, country, and Constitution, all together. – Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln clearly does not think it is just worldly expedients that have restrained him from steering the nation where his own moral values carry him. He believes there are mission constraints, in his case fidelity to the Constitution. In this letter he is expressing how his fidelity to the Constitution and his personal abhorrence of slavery have now led him to the same place. And thus to the Emancipation Proclamation.

cross-posted to River View Friend


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
This entry was posted in Leadership, Mission, Quaker Matters, Responsibility and Ethics. Bookmark the permalink.

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