Joanne Ciulla opened the symposium with a discussion of leadership ethics from the historical perspective, sharing excerpts from the writings of Plato on the nature of leadership and Confucius on the importance of ceremony and a sense of propriety for leaders.

Ciulla also explored ways in which leadership ethics are related to professional ethics, noting the hallmarks of professions - whether they be expertise or a body of skills or built-in systems of assuring internal ethics - that are less institutionalized when it comes to leadership.

"We don't talk about people as professional leaders," she pointed out. "We might say 'professional managers,' but 'professional leaders' sounds rather odd." The word profession, Ciulla explained, derives from "profess," and historically referred to the public declaration of commitment made by a person entering a religious order or the classic professions of law and medicine.  Ideally, in those early days, professionals were not paid for their work.  Instead of providing a salary for teachers or members of the clergy, community members pitched in with subsidies. Vestiges of the subsidy tradition still remain, Ciulla said, as a French attorney once reminded her.  Describing the traditional long robes that lawyers in that country wear to court, the attorney said her first reaction upon reaching into the enormous pockets was, "You know, it's big enough to fit a chicken!"  And it would not have been uncommon in olden times, said Ciulla, for a grateful client to present his attorney with the gift of a chicken.

Although leaders are often compared to shepherds because of the care shepherds show their flocks, Ciulla favored a different description of a leader's role:  to bring people together by weaving "the meek and the aggressive" into a fabric of community.  But no matter what the standard of comparison, she emphasized one of the most important ways in which leaders show care and concern: their presence in times of crisis.  There is a great deal of truth in the Woody Allen aphorism that most of life consists of just showing up.  "Showing up," she said, "is a really big deal for leaders."

To illustrate the concept of "being there," Ciulla related the story of Nero, the emperor who fiddled while Rome was burning in A.D. 64.  "This would be equal," she said, "to saying George Bush went to New Orleans after Katrina, then got on the White House stage and sang a song about it." Centuries later, Nero is still held up as an example of an inattentive and isolated leader, the word fiddle has taken on negative connotations meaning to trifle or waste time, and the metaphor is frequently applied to activities of the U.S. Congress.

As modern illustrations of Nero-like actions, Ciulla pointed to an incident in which Russian President Vladimir Putin lingered at his vacation home after a Russian sub sank, and was widely derided for his foot-dragging as well as his attempts to rationalize it. Ciulla also recalled the CEO who belatedly showed up after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the Japanese prime minister who went on with his golf game after learning that a U.S. sub sank one of his country's ships.

She also reminded the audience that leaders tend to learn how to "be there" on the job, and that Putin eventually made a comeback by showing up promptly when Chechen rebels took hostages.  Observing Putin's behavior after the hostage incident, Ciulla concluded, "The guy's stiff as a board - but he showed up."

Propriety, etiquette, and ceremony, she stressed, are all a learnable part of leadership.  "Certainly in a leadership school," she said, "one of the benefits of looking at history and looking at case studies is that it gives us a means to learn from what others have done."

When audience members cited examples of officials knowing when to show up - including Rudy Giuliani's actions after 9/11 and Virginia Governor Tim Kaine's prompt response to the Virginia Tech tragedy - Ciulla noted that governors and mayors tend to understand the "being there" concept better than heads of state.  No doubt Kaine's Catholicism helps him as well, she said, since Catholics grow up understanding the importance of ritual and reverent experience.  The ancient Greeks considered reverence or mutual respect the most important virtue, believing that it lessened the sting of punishment and kept leaders from "acting like gods."

Summing up, Ciulla emphasized that it would be "wrongheaded" to dismiss caring gestures as empty symbolism or, as some audience members suggested, publicity stunts. "It's a moral obligation of leaders to look after people...and [gestures] mean a lot to people,"she said. Even if a leader's motives for visiting a disaster area or attending a military funeral are strictly public relations, Ciulla said, it's important for the leader to see people in that context. Leadership falls apart in isolation, and "being there and seeing the suffering might make him better leader." For that reason, she emphasized, "Every president who takes a country into war should be required to meet with the wounded and go to funerals." Such assumptions about leadership are nothing new, Ciulla concluded; they have been with us since ancient times.

"Ever since the time of Nero, at least, we know that leaders are not allowed to fiddle while Rome burns."

March 5, 2008 The Jepson School of Leadership Studies