Reflections on Curriculum and Operation

by Desmond Berghofer

The fundamental issue in curriculum design is to be very clear about what outcome you wish to achieve. In skill training this is relatively simple. Break the task down into several sequential steps and devise drills to achieve mastery of each step. If you set a quantitative measure, like being able to strip and assemble an engine part in ten minutes, or type text at 60 words a minute, or consistently return backhand shots in tennis, then you can keep the training process going until you achieve your objective.

Teaching ethical leadership is not so simple. In fact, to think about it as "teaching" would be to begin in the wrong place. Certainly, there are skills involved, but they are skills of mind, heart and spirit, and such things are not taught. Rather they are absorbed, in much the same way as those of us who can remember writing in school with real wet ink know that blotting paper will absorb the ink from fresh writing and gradually become a replica (albeit in reverse) of all that was written. If we want human minds to absorb the skills, knowledge and wisdom of ethical leadership, we must create opportunities for them to absorb the learning from master copies over time.

We have said elsewhere that ethical leadership means doing the right thing; not just talking about it, but doing it. This implies the need to practice, because one is unlikely to learn how to do the right thing without having had ample opportunity to do the wrong thing, many times, and hopefully learn something from the mistake each time. That is where the teacher comes in, as someone who is on hand when the mistake is made to give good feedback.

In everyday life the combination of right teacher and good feedback on one's actions is not always available. In fact, it will probably be the exception rather than the rule. That is why we witness people making unethical decisions over and over again in a corporate or community culture, until they get some unmistakable harsh feedback which usually causes their demise rather than their enlightenment, so that they likely leave that situation and take the wrong learning into a new setting to repeat the process again. The flip side of this example is where a leader tries to do the right thing, but finds the culture unreceptive to right action. Without the skill and support needed, the leader will all too frequently be forced either to leave or to acquiesce, and so the problem continues until some other kind of feedback comes into play.

A Safe Harbour

These examples suggest how an Institute for Ethical Leadership can be most valuable to our society. It would exist first as a place of safe harbour, where the lessons of ethical leadership can be absorbed without the pressure of being in the eye of the storm in the real world. Of course, the learning achieved must be of such quality that the participants can take it with them and use it to advantage as they return to the outside world. Moreover, such coming and going should be available regularly over time as needed, rather than restricted to artificially arranged dates, of a once only conference or infrequent workshops.

If we continue the metaphor of the Institute as a safe harbour, we can ask what might the sailors enjoy while they are there to best prepare them for their return to the open sea. Three things seem appropriate: good food or nourishment, good company, and a place to rest. The food is the curriculum; the company are the students, alumni and faculty; the time of rest is the experience of being in such a wonderful place.

If we look into the cheerful clubhouse or inn at harbour side, we will see good food, cheerful company and restful relaxation all in play in a seamless experience. That is what we seek to replicate in our Institute. While the content of the meal might be prepared by the master chef in the kitchen, the way it is enjoyed in the dining room is through the company assembled.

We could begin as an appetizer with a case study of an issue in ethical leadership, carefully crafted for its instructional purpose. However, the way it is absorbed at the tables by the diners will be in the cut and thrust of seasoned veterans who put their own particular spin on the lesson from their own experience. A good host will be on hand to ensure that in the to and fro of discussion the essential content has been presented.

Next we go to the main course. Here we will have good theory, well presented, which takes the learning into the difficult space of new paradigm thinking, where old values of separateness and objectification of reality will be challenged by concepts from new science and some old original cultures closer to the Earth than ours. Skills of dialogue and listening will be taught so that everyone is challenged at the level of their core values.

After that comes coffee and dessert where people might be given the opportunity to do a personal inventory or some exercise on values clarification where they can work first alone, then quietly with a partner to share and learn new insights.

Afterwards around the fire, there will be time for stories and singing with everyone participating and forming strong bonds that afterwards will be as close as a phone call away to enlist help with the next challenge to do the right thing.

On Board Ship

So that is one metaphor for the Institute in action. In another image, still on the maritime theme, we could see the Institute move on board one of the great ocean liners going down the harbour. The captain has invited us to come on board to work with the crew and passengers. The objective is to raise ethical awareness and to remind everyone that doing the right thing is a requirement of everyone, not just the designated leader. The crew and the passengers they serve have every reason to expect the captain will take the ship safely across the high seas, but he has every reason to expect they will also act responsibly and ethically.

What kinds of learning experiences might the Institute release into this setting? They would be highly interactive, with the opportunity for different groups to meet in a variety of ways to better understand how each of them contributes to the smooth functioning of the ship, and to its continuing operation in balance with the environment. The interaction will be positive and uplifting, bringing the message that human enterprises function well only when people operate from an ethic of positive enhancement of the other, rather than from fear and control.

The ship at sea is a metaphor for our corporate and institutional enterprises. They run best when people focus on supportive relationships, recognizing that their only reason for being afloat is to help one another achieve their objectives. The passengers want to have a wonderful cruise, the crew wants to feel valuable and recognized, the captain wants to know he has a safe and happy ship, and that he is returning a fair profit to the owners. The ethical learning experiences to support these outcomes will include many opportunities for dialogue, role playing, story telling, presentations and play.

Among the Youth

But the world is much larger than the safe harbour we have described and the corporate and institutional ships which sail the seas. At home and in the schools and colleges a whole new generation of children are learning their way into what can be a successful or unhappy common future. How can our Institute contribute to the former, preferred outcome?

We might change the image now to a large multimedia centre filled with the energy of hundreds of young people, moving about, sitting quietly, interacting with each other and their teachers, reading books and using every form of electronic media. Besides the knowledge that makes them literate and the technical expertise which prepares them for work in the outside world, what are they learning about their responsibilities as global citizens, stewards of the Earth, protectors of the future, active agents of conscious evolution of their species, and custodians of the wondrous living diversity of their planetary home?

As an active advocate for and provider of this kind of learning to young people, the Institute will seek to form positive relationships with teachers, school authorities, parents, the publishers and creators of educational materials in all media, and so on. The strategy here would be to play the role of catalyst; to influence those who have the best possibility to make a difference; to convince them that our world in the 21st century must attain a global revolution in human consciousness toward understanding of interdependence and higher purpose, not just for individuals, but for our collective being.

In Spiritual Space

And beyond the image of the youth-filled multimedia centre lies another important metaphor. It is the temple, the church, the mosque, the shrine--the place of worship that has grown out of the cultural beliefs, values and ways of being of the people who gather there. Each of these traditions brings an ethical teaching, the best of which, if followed, would have given us a much safer world than we now have. How can our Institute support their tentative moves toward ecumenism and unity? This is possibly the hardest place of all to work because we are dealing with minds that all to frequently embrace one part of consciousness and proclaim it as the whole truth. The Institute must not fall into the same mistake, but remain open to all knowledge that furthers the ethic of cooperation, respect for life and service to others. The work of the Institute will be active in these places of worship through the invitation of open minds among those who serve there.

Beyond the Boundaries

Finally, we move to the broadest image of all, the metaphor of the open skies, the Earth as the blue planet in dark space, the undivided geography of continents and oceans. This is the world where electronic communication spreads information and opinion, panic and celebration, tragedy and achievement--all messages moving at the speed of light to touch and impact human consciousness twenty four hours every day. Those who shape and select the messages to be sent exert important influence on ethical judgment. To be effective in its mission, the Institute must learn to work with and influence those who operate and program these outlets. The advantage we have is in the message we bring. The ethic of cooperative interdependence if embraced in all of the other metaphorical settings we have described cannot help but influence this last and most pervasive one. Beyond that indirect influence, however, the Institute will need to develop the skill and expertise to work directly on distributing messages through the media.

Accepting the Challenge

So there is much for our Institute to do. Global awareness of problems is creating a sense among many people that there are some important things to do to restore a sense of order and hopefulness. There is also wider understanding that our most serious difficulties are in our relationships, and that these problems are caused by how we think, which comes out of the values we hold and the beliefs we have unconsciously internalized. Such core beliefs are changed either on purpose or by accident. If we want to avoid the latter, which is usually life threatening and disastrous, we must pursue the former. The immediate task of the Institute is to convince enough people that in the midst of all their urgent agendas, they must make time for this important work and get it done. Once a critical mass moves to that position, then the magic of momentum will carry it on. We look now for those who will put their shoulders to the wheel to get it moving.