It’s a pleasure to publish Andrew and Susan’s blog. The call for telos is a call for the virtuous leader uniting both practical and moral purposes. Andrew and Susan introduce us to a virtues- based approach as a framework for ethical university leadership rooted in Greek philosophy. They ask that Vice Chancellors use their practical wisdom to use their virtues in securing their organisation’s telos.
We hope that readers will be motivated to go and read the full MiE article they refer to at the end of their blog. If you have any comments or thoughts about this blog and the points it raises, then do share on Twitter using the hashtag #BELMASblog or contact the BELMAS Blog editorial team by emailing: email@example.com
Who would want to be a Vice Chancellor? They have to manage large and complex businesses in a rapidly changing environment. They need to make difficult decisions that impact on staff and students. They can do this with little experience in leadership, and the organisation and its people bear the consequences.
There are several approaches that university leaders can use when making difficult decisions. These include rule-based ethical frameworks in which guidelines, regulations and concordats, sometimes imposed by external bodies, essentially tell the leader the right thing to do. These provide clarity, but are not helpful in ‘grey zones’ or where there is rapid change. Principle based approaches are also used, often in the form of slogans such as ‘put the student at the centre’. However, often the decisions are based on emotional responses to the situation. While emotions are important in decision making, this approach in the absence of a framework can lead to bias, a failure to take into account all important factors and also can be subject to personal motivations.
We have explored a virtues-based approach as a framework for ethical university leadership. Virtue ethics is based on Greek philosophy, most notably that of Aristotle (Aristotle, 2009), but was incorporated into Christian philosophy by scholars such as Thomas Aquinas. It remained the dominant model for moral philosophy in the West until the Age of the Enlightenment when deontological and consequentialist models came to dominate (Rachels & Rachels, 2007). However, in the second half of the twentieth century there was a resurgence in virtue ethics (MacIntyre, 2007), which has been applied not only to individual ethics but also that of professions and occupations such as medicine.
Virtue ethics is predominantly interested in the character of the individual, unlike other forms of ethics that start with their actions. It can be simplistically described as saying that ‘good people do good things’, and the attention is on understanding of what it is to be a good person.
So, what would it take a Vice Chancellor to be virtuous? And what would that mean?
One key concept is that of the moral purpose of Higher Education. A leader has to understand, articulate and move towards that ultimate end (telos). The telos unites both practical and moral purposes – the purpose for Higher Education should be both morally good and practically successful. The telos of Higher Education should describe how it helps the flourishing of human society.
The leader then has to consider the virtues, or character traits, they need to reach that telos. The Greeks described four virtues; practical wisdom, temperance, courage and justice (Plato, 2021). These four virtues are still a useful starting point for thinking of one’s personal or professional character, though many different lists of important virtues have been proposed (MacIntyre, 2007). These include the character strengths and virtues that are the backbone of Positive Psychology (Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2014).
The context in which virtues operate is critical, and the leader should consider how they are applied in their setting. What is courage for a Vice Chancellor, and how does it compare to the courage of a researcher, an educator, a student? They have to learn how to apply it appropriately – too much courage and rash decisions are made. Too little courage results in timid decisions.
This requires the use of phronesis (practical wisdom) to allow the leader to use their virtues to best effect, knowing how and when to use them. This is a bit like a conductor getting the best from the orchestra, making instruments (or virtues) to play as a united whole, in time and in tune with each other and at the right volume.
Leaders, if they are to drive excellence in their organisations, therefore should consider what the telos of their organisations is (which has to be more than some bland mission statement). All too often a failure to articulate the moral purpose of Higher Education leads to drift and to a managerial decision making that is dominated by following rules and regulations, or seeking achievement of instrumental objectives (such as rankings). It requires leaders to develop their virtues (including courage, justice, temperance and wisdom) to have the character that can help their institutions fulfil their telos.
Andrew George is an executive coach, and has had a career as an academic (including Deputy Vice Chancellor). He holds positions in the NHS and education, including co-chair of the UK Committee on Research Integrity. He is Emeritus Professor at Imperial College London and an Honorary Research Fellow at Henley Business School.
Susan Rose is an academic and executive coach who has held a number of positions both locally and internationally at Henley Business School where she is Professor Emerita. She focuses on coaching and leadership development in Higher Education.
Aristotle. (2009). The Nicomachean ethics (D. Ross, Trans.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
MacIntyre, A. (2007). After virtue (3rd ed.). London: Duckworth.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and
classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Plato. (2021). The Republic. London: HarperCollins Publishers.
Rachels, J., & Rachels, S. (2007). The elements of moral philosophy (5 ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Positive Psychology: An introduction. In M.
Csikszentmihalyi (Ed.), Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology: The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pp. 279-298). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.
George, A. J. T., & Rose, S. (2023). Ethical decision making: virtues for senior leadership in Higher Education. Management in Education, https://doi.org/10.1177/08920206231172027