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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Can Leadership be Successful With Questionable Values? - The Storming of the U.S. Capitol

Jo-Ellen Pozner and Hooria Jazaieri

Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

Jo-Ellen Pozner (@JEPozner) and Hooria Jazaieri (@HooriaJazaieri) are assistant professors, management, with the Leavy School of Business at Santa Clara University, and both are faculty scholars with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are their own.

Many observers might be tempted to look at the events of January 6, including the deadly insurrection at the United States Capitol, as a “failure of leadership.” While, superficially, this may explain the lack of coordination of security forces, some might be tempted to read the events of that day as an example of "successful leadership," executed as the leader envisioned and communicated. We believe that such a dangerous view ignores what we see as one of the most critical elements of leadership: a leader's values.

Understanding this assertion requires us to review what it means to be an outstanding leader. Exemplary leaders begin by identifying their values and articulating these values clearly to others (Kouzes & Posner, 1987). Sometimes leaders’ actions are imperfectly aligned—or even at odds—with their stated values (e.g., valuing honesty but keeping salient information from critical stakeholders), but the best leaders are able to live by those values while inspiring others to do the same (e.g., valuing honesty while disclosing necessary information and encouraging transparency among stakeholders). We typically consider the latter to embody “successful” leadership.

While that assessment requires no further justification for positive, effective, and adaptive values, like honesty, integrity, or physical health, what happens when an individual holds a value that is problematic in the given context, or infringes on the basic rights—like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—of others? What’s more, what happens when a leader holding these problematic values enlists others to share these same problematic values, and enables and encourages others to act accordingly? What happens when a leader celebrates controversial values and praises them as virtues? According to the basic laws of cause and effect, problematic values engender problematic behaviors.

Let’s make this principle as concrete as possible. Based on the rhetoric he has promulgated over the past five years, President Trump appears to value persistence and commitment, or the will to continue resolutely, despite problems or difficulties (Harris, 2011). Under most circumstances, we might consider persistence and commitment an admirable and adaptive value. In this context, however, President Trump’s persistence and commitment to pursuing a challenge to the certified, finalized, and by all official accounts, valid election results—demonstrated through months of tweets, legal challenges, phone calls to election officials, and most pointedly at Wednesday’s “Save America” rally in Washington, D.C.—we might view this value differently. When Trump stated to a crowd of tens of thousands: “We will never give up. We will never concede, it doesn't happen. You don't concede when there’s theft involved,” it is reasonable to conclude that persistence and commitment are largely misplaced.

In context, the values President Trump expressed are founded on a belief that has no basis in reality. Nevertheless, decades of research in cognitive and behavioral psychology illustrate that what people think—even when their thoughts reflect a distorted view of reality—inevitably influences what they do. More baldly: believing untruths has consequences for our actions.

President Trump also demonstrated the value of power, or the strong influence or wielding of authority over others. Again, this value can be quite adaptive in some contexts, when organizing new teams or promoting organizational change, but in other contexts it becomes extremely problematic. Consider President Trump’s statement at Wednesday’s “Save America” rally:

Republicans are constantly fighting like a boxer with his hands tied behind his back. It’s like a boxer, and we want to be so nice. We want to be so respectful of everybody, including bad people. We’re going to have to fight much harder...

In this instance, power is expressed not as a way to influence others, but essentially as a means of forcing others into submission to one’s own will. The influence of this value—to fight like a boxer, to defeat bad people—directly influenced the subsequent behavior of rally attendees, who marched from Trump’s speech directly to the Capitol with the goal of overrunning the building, delaying or overturning the business in which Congress was engaged, and, per an open FBI investigation, perhaps to take legislators hostage, or even worse.

Thus it is not a lack of leadership, or even a lack of values, that created the scene of violence and chaos we witnessed unfold in real time. Instead, it was an impressive show of leadership enabled by imbuing those values with specific meanings to uphold desired, self-serving ends that led to the shocking acts we observed.

Think about the way the leaders you most admire embody the following values, and then ponder the meaning President Trump’s words infused into them as he sent his supporters to storm the Capitol.

Authenticity: to be authentic, genuine, and real; to be true to myself: “And you're the real people. You're the  people that built this nation. You're not the people that tore down our nation.”

Courage: to be courageous or brave; to persist in the face of fear, threat, or difficulty: “The Republicans have to get tougher. You're not going to have a Republican party if you don't get tougher.”

Excitement: to seek, create, and engage in activities that are exciting or stimulating: “Our exciting adventures and boldest endeavors have not yet begun. My fellow Americans for our movement, for our children and for our beloved country and I say this, despite all that’s happened, the best is yet to come.”

Justice: to uphold justice and fairness: “Hundreds of thousands of American patriots are committed to the honesty of our elections and the integrity of our glorious Republic.”

Each of these values was undeniably present in President Trump’s words, but not in ways most of us find inspiring or admirable. None of this should be a surprise, of course. The New York Times reported in 2017 that “[b]efore taking office, Mr. Trump told top aides to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.” His administration has lived by this instruction for the full four years of its tenure.

At the end of the day, what President Trump holds dear above all is winning, no matter the consequences. When a leader frames his followers as morally superior, and suggests that anybody who is not firmly in their camp is definitionally against them, an enemy to be vanquished, it is not hard to predict what behaviors will inevitably follow. When all other values are subsumed to winning, and the articulation of every value relies on uplifting the in-group and vilifying the outgroup, violence is likely to follow.

We teach leadership, ethics, and negotiations to undergraduate and graduate business school students. We do not see our job as telling our students what values they ought to hold, but rather exhorting them to identify their values, to articulate them as clearly as possible, and then to strive to live by them. We also encourage our students to find leaders in whose values they believe, and to interrogate those leaders’ actions for meaning and integrity. Most importantly, guided by the Jesuit ideals of Santa Clara University, we encourage our students to bring into alignment the skills they acquire in their business school education with their values. Instead of approaching negotiation as an opportunity to win or to beat another party, for example, we frame it as a joint problem-solving exercise, an opportunity to satisfy multiple parties’ interests simultaneously.

Steeped in a tradition of the Jesuit, values-based education at SCU, our vision is to ultimately “educate citizens and leaders of competence, conscience, and compassion and cultivate knowledge and faith to build a more humane, just, and sustainable world.” The “3 Cs” we value—competence, conscience, and compassion—represent the core tenets we encourage and model in our community. Competence implies acquiring broad knowledge, adopting a curious, growth mindset, and continuing the pursuit of wisdom. Conscience implies behaving ethically, discerning right from wrong, and committing to social justice. Finally, compassion refers to empathy, concern, and cura personalis, “care for the entire person.”

Of the three, compassion is perhaps the most important, particularly during an unprecedented global pandemic, as it reminds us to look out for the suffering of others and to take care of each other, and is thus a balm against narcissism and self-centeredness. It would be an interesting thought experiment to consider what the world would be like if more leaders, including President Trump and his supporters, centered their public values around the 3 Cs.

While historians and political scientists will continue to extract the many lessons from the deadly storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, one lesson that is worth remembering is that leadership matters. More pointedly, the values of our leaders matter. When we follow leaders with questionable values, we can only expect unethical behavior.


Jan 13, 2021