Popular Faculty Offer Advice on Forming Conscience

Leadership and conscience, and their critical relationship, drew hundreds of students on Tuesday to a discussion on the topic titled “Leadership, Service, and Relationships,” featuring a panel of popular Boston College faculty.

The event was sponsored by the Church in the 21st Century Center at BC and moderated by Michael Sacco, the director of the Center for Student Formation. Featured were Stephen Pope, professor of theology, Mary Troxell, associate professor of philosophy, and Kerry Cronin, associate director of the Lonergan Institute.

Beginning the evening’s discussion, Pope said that while one’s personal conscience is a complicated and fraught conversation topic, it is perhaps life’s most important ethical issue, and doubly in the context of leadership.

Pope proposed two criteria to evaluate a leader’s worth, the first of which he called “efficiency”: the ability to effectively mobilize people to achieve a goal. This quality relies on skill, organization, and a shrewd use of relational intelligence, but it does not require virtue. He argued that the popular definition of leadership—mere competence in leading others—is dangerously narrow.

“Most of the world’s greatest evils have come from good leaders,” he said. “Leadership can be constructive or destructive—it can facilitate good or evil.”

The second criterion Pope offered to appraise the worth of leaders is their “trustworthiness,” which must be rooted in firm ethical principles.

“Morally good leadership is made possible by people who are trustworthy,” Pope said. “To have trustworthiness you have to be a person of integrity.”

Ideal leadership is the synthesis of both qualities—competence and conscience—into a fully formed and wholesome outlook, Pope said.

He expressed a hope that, while at BC, students will be enabled to form strong consciences so that in the future, when they have opportunities to lead, they don’t simply conform to what he  sees as a conventional drift toward cold, opportunistic, and morally indifferent leadership.

Pope said consciences are formed by communities—by family, friends, neighbors, and teachers—and are developed by absorbing their ethical messages, for good or ill. Individuals are powerless to choose their own conscience, or form it themselves—for that, they need the moral osmosis that only a community can provide.

“We have to ask, ‘What communities have formed me to be the kind of person I am, and what communities in the future do I want to be a part of that will help be become the person I want to be?’” Pope said.

In addition to his binary blueprint for good leadership, Pope also offered four specific traits for good leaders to aspire to: profound allegiance to the truth, commitment to justice and the common good, personal integrity, and comprehensive compassion.

Troxell said that the concept of “accompaniment” is an intriguing leadership model. This leader-follower relationship is not primarily founded on traditional, deferential respect, but on a feeling of mutual belonging.

“True service leadership is not about ‘leading from the front,’” Troxell said. “It’s not about ‘leading from behind.’ It’s about leading from the middle.”

Cronin began her remarks by saying that the “alphabet soup” of BC student leadership programs sometimes prompts her to, half-jokingly, comment, “I’m so tired of leadership programs—I would really like some programs for followers.”

While BC students are generally cut from leadership cloth, Cronin said, it’s also important to think about what being a good follower means, on an individual level, in the face of both good and bad leadership.

Going on to offering her own dual vision for leadership, Cronin said that the two functions of leaders are to “create” and to “heal.”

“Creating is what a leader does when she’s trying to understand what’s worthwhile, and what’s worth pursuing,” Cronin said. “Healing [occurs] when she’s loving what’s worthwhile and worth pursuing.”

Armed with this dichotomous leadership metric, Cronin differentiated between the “good” leader and the “great” leader. While the merely “good” leader fills one of these two roles, the “great” leader will perform both of them well, Cronin said.

Cronin argued that neglecting either role can have serious consequences—a person only focused on emotion is at risk of shallow and ineffective leadership, while the exclusively rational leader can often be coldly unable to authentically connect with those they lead.

While the first critical leadership quality—identifying and understanding what needs doing, and possessing the ability to get it done—can be learned in the classroom or alone, the second—emotionally connecting with both people and the task at hand—cannot, Cronin said.

“We cannot teach you how to love well,” Cronin said. “You can’t learn it alone; you can’t learn it from a book. You have to learn it in relationships.”

At the end of the evening, in response to an audience question, Cronin said that regardless of the leadership opportunities a person finds in their path, working to become a fully-formed leader is always possible.

“You might not get chosen for a service trip, or a leadership role, but you are a roommate and you are a friend, you are a classmate and a colleague, and you are a sibling and a cousin,” Cronin said.  “[These relationships] will grow your capacity to love and have a vision of what is worthwhile to pursue.”

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor