Evans Schools Patrick Dobel pens book on ethics in public leadership

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“Practice makes perfect” is age-old wisdom that applies to musicians, gamers, speakers — even fly fishermen. A new book by University of Washington professor Patrick Dobel argues that such thinking can also guide public leaders to manage their organizations more ethically and effectively.

Patrick Dobel

Dobel, professor emeritus of public policy in the UW Evans School of Public Policy & Governance, is the author of “Public Leadership Ethics: A Management Approach,” published this year by Routledge.

In the book, Dobel offers a framework for “value-driven leadership” that public leaders can focus on — and practice — to achieve these goals.

Four dimensions of value-driven leadership

According to Patrick Dobel’s book, public leaders can “call up and work through” these to keep ethical leadership ever-present in mind. “Each of the four dimensions generates a range of considerations that should inform a person’s judgment.”

  • Understand one’s values, character and mission commitment
  • Manage the meaning of individual incidents or challenges
  • Act to build organizational norms and policy direction
  • Secure the power and resources necessary for resilient outcomes

The guide, he writes, is designed to help managers, leaders, even students, develop self-awareness in their leadership and learn to “incorporate ethical and character commitments” into their daily lives and work.

And such self-aware practice, Dobel said, can help reduce or prevent what he calls “ethical slippage” — the normalizing of inefficient, wasteful or even discriminatory behavior in organizations.

“My contribution,” he added, “is to claim that active, ethical leadership can help both make institutions better and fight the tendency toward slippage and corruption.”

Dobel discussed the book and ethical public leadership with UW News.

Much has been written about leadership — what new ideas does this book bring to the discussion?

The book, he said, integrates modern cognitive social psychology with understanding of how we make decisions, and then applies this to ethical decision making and being a responsible person.

“It emphasizes that anyone, anywhere in life and an organization, has the capacity to take the lead and change the conditions of life and people around them. That leading is not a special and unique attribute of the elite but a possibility for all of us within an organization, whether we are organizing a small team, changing another person’s mind or just getting resources to help people do their jobs.”

Anyone can lead “from where they are” in an organization, and can practice ethical leadership skills,” he said, and “over time we change how we see and act in the world.”

How did the book come about? 

He said it emerged from his work with participants in the Evans School’s Executive Management masters program, and from his consulting work.

“So often, the way we approach leadership and ethics is too theoretical and abstract,” he said. “(The program participants) pushed me to revise my thinking. They wanted an approach to leading and being ethical that was realistic and usable and that is what I tried to provide.”

You write that “self-awareness” and “self-mastery” are key to effective and ethical leading. Why are those key attributes, and how do they promote better leadership?

“Being self-aware is critical because it is the anchor of integrity,” Dobel said. It helps leaders see challenges in new ways and opens them to new and diverse insights that can make them better leaders. We all tend toward denial, rationalization, self-deception and confirmation bias where we perceive only what we expect to see, he said — but leaders must fight these tendencies and the discipline of self-awareness is critical to the process.

Our self-awareness can get “worn down and smoothed out by peers, daily compromises and the demands of bosses,” he said. “We quietly and without awareness become different human beings, and what we once believed was wrong we start to take as normal under the pressure of work, peers and no time to think.

Dobel said leaders also can be “trapped” into accepting a status quo “that can have hidden prejudices and accepted inequalities that we just take for granted.”

He emphasized the need for friends and peers outside of work — calling them “anchors for our identity” — and the candid insights they can offer. “Being self-aware,” he said, “enables us to stand back and recapture our own values.”

You write that though senior leaders set “tone and vision” for an organization, middle managers are often on the front line in ethical performance. How can middle managers benefit from the points in this book?

“Middle managers are really the key here, and the book emphasizes they lead and have responsibilities and have a powerful set of unique values, responsibilities and character attributes.

The book provides an ethical and moral rationale for their power and responsibility and to encourage them to take initiatives and to actively seek out corruption and increase the quality of efficiency, performance and accountability. The book is aimed at refurbishing and emphasizing the importance of their position.”

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