Ethical leadership is a concept valued, and even inherently understood, by most Americans, but today, we are seeing fewer individuals committed to making ethical decisions in leadership roles. Moreover, we are often unable to recognize when an ethical decision-maker is before us. Drawing on the works of such scholars as Edgar Schein, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Jonathan Haidt, I evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of Barack Obama, 44th president of the United States and the first African American to hold executive office, in order to determine what factors distinguish ethical leaders from simply respectable leaders. I focus on the role leaders play in forming culture, in engaging in active listening, and the need for balance with regard to four qualities—kindness, toughness, confidence, and humility—and apply these concepts to specific decisions that occurred under the Obama administration. This paper was written as the culminating paper for a course entitled “Ethical Leadership” at the William & Mary Washington Center, which was co-taught by Drew Stelljes, Assistant Vice President for Student Engagement and Leadership at William & Mary, and former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey, in the summer of 2019.

In the fall of 2020 Chloe Harper intends to begin her senior year at the College of William and Mary.

Author's Note

The essay you have before you is the culmination of many months of work. I originally wrote a version of this article as a final paper for a William & Mary class entitled “Ethical Leadership,” which was co-taught by James Comey, former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and William & Mary professor, Drew Stelljes, at the university’s Washington, D.C., campus during the summer of 2019. After completing the course, I was encouraged by Professor Stelljes to submit my article to the VA Engage Journal, where I had the opportunity to extend the project and revise my work. When I first returned to this piece to prepare it for publication, several months had passed since I had written it, and I found it challenging to re-immerse myself in the subject of ethical leadership. Revisiting one’s writing after an extended period of time, however, also reveals aspects one might like to change, and that was certainly the case for me. This piece has evolved significantly from its original form; my initial goal was simply to portray Barack Obama as an ethical leader, but I eventually pivoted to also analyze the influence of his leadership in galvanizing the American public to participate in civic dialogue. My hope is that you will not read this article as an opinion piece but will instead understand it to be advocating for greater awareness of the benefits of ethical decision-making by elected officials and recognition of ethical leaders when they are present. I would like to thank Professors Comey and Stelljes for bringing the concept of ethical leadership to my attention in a formal setting as an undergraduate student. This topic is one of great, albeit frequently unappreciated, importance, and introducing this subject in college, when individuals are in the process of developing their worldview, is invaluable. I would also like to thank Professor Stelljes for urging me to consider pursuing publication. Revising any piece of writing is always challenging, but through this experience, I have been reminded that it is also wonderfully rewarding. Finally, I would especially like to thank my editors, Steve Grande and Emily Kohl, for their generous feedback, patience, and encouragement throughout the revision process. It has been a pleasure working with each of you, and I am grateful for your endless support.



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