Rising to the Challenge
Building Strength in Ethical Leadership

by Art Cowie

On December 27th, 2002 while taking the role of Lieutenant Governor, I had the privilege of opening the 74th British Columbia Youth Parliament (BCYP) at the Legislative Chamber in the Parliament Buildings, Victoria.

Attending parliament were 95 youth aged 16-21 from right across British Columbia. For five days members of BCYP enthusiastically introduced, debated and assessed important topics affecting the future potential of youth in British Columbia. These young people will become leaders in industry, professions and business and some will seek political office at local, provincial and federal levels of government.

The same week of the BCYP the Vancouver Sun Newspaper reported on an Evironics poll done for the Centre for Research and Information on Canada, which found that Canadian voters no longer believe politicians are honest, trustworthy or competent. The poll found that more than half the respondents had little or no confidence in political leaders. About three quarters gave leaders a low rating for honesty and ethical standards and the same number said political leaders don't tell the truth or keep their promises.

The findings are particularly alarming for young people thinking of entering political life. Like our personal relationships, our political system rests on trust - trust that taxes we pay are used for the community good; trust that giving up some of our individual wants and freedoms produces a collective benefit; and trust that politicians will keep their promises.

Political leaders fared badly across the country, trusted less than environmental, business, military and religious leaders. They were least trusted in British Columbia. "British Columbians stand out most consistently on this issue," the report found. In B.C., more than half of the people surveyed said government is making their lives worse.

What to do about it

Lack of trust is one of the most serious problems in any society, for without trust no enduring relationships can be built, and the success of any community depends on the strength of the relationships among its members. The findings of the Environics poll referred to above indicate a serious gap in trust between the people of the province and the politicians elected to serve them. This clearly suggests a crisis in ethical leadership at the political level.

Recognizing that ethical leadership is essential to a healthy civil society, I joined with colleagues several years ago to become a founding member of the Institute for Ethical Leadership in Vancouver. I believe the work of the Institute has great potential to assist in bridging the gap in trust between the people and our political leaders. It can ensure that the young people I witnessed debating with so much enthusiasm in the BCYP grow up in a better political climate of trust than exists today.

The Institute for Ethical Leadership has identified the issue of ethical competence as the key factor in building institutions on a firm foundation. To be competent means having an ability in sufficient measure that one can perform at a high standard. To be ethically competent in today's complex, interdependent world means that we have to integrate certain specific personal and social skills with an understanding of how to build a successful economy while taking care of the natural world on which all life depends.

The Principals of the Institute for Ethical Leadership, Dr. Desmond Berghofer and Dr. Geraldine Schwartz, believe that ethical competence can be measured and taught. They have designed a way of doing this, which they have recently introduced as a means to raise the level of ethical behaviour across the community from business to education and government.

Dr. Berghofer, sums up the challenge in these words, "The 21st century is governed by a new watchword: interdependence. Economies and cultures are now so intertwined that the pursuit of advantage in one quarter based on self interest without due regard to the impact on others can set off a chain reaction that ultimately bedevils everyone. In this environment the old has become new again. The ethical rules of the past acquire a new urgent prominence in the present. We are challenged as individuals, organizations, and society to become ethically competent."

The political leaders of today can show the way by re-energizing our political institutions through rigorous examination of ethical practice. In this way they will show ethical leadership to the political leaders of the future emerging from BCYP and other fields of political activity, who will constantly be met with the challenge of being ethically competent in an interdependent world.

As former members of the B.C. Legislature representing a wide diversity of political beliefs and communities throughout British Columbia, our non-partisan organization can best help the emerging young politicians by sponsoring and supporting activities that promote ethical competence. One way to do this is to
honour past politicians who have set a high standard of achievement. Hugh Curtis, our Secretary-Treasurer, promotes this very well through his personality profiles of Former MLAs published in the Orders of the Day.

All of us are responsible

All of us are ultimately responsible for how well civil society works. Opening up the legislature to youth groups is a valuable educational process, but we must ensure that their confidence in government is strengthened by the way we confront the current crisis in trust between the people and their political leaders. Each of us needs to take steps to learn more about ethical competence by reading, engaging in dialogue and participating in activities where we may consider our own ethical behaviour and beliefs with the view to continuous improvement.

The most powerful way young people learn is by observing adults who model ethical behaviour. To close the gap between what people, young and old, say about what they believe the ethics of political leaders to be and what we would like them to believe, we need to champion those who stand for values like honesty, justice, fair play and compassion and demonstrate our own commitment to such values. I hope that by raising these issues in the context of my role as Lt. Governor in the 74th BCYP, I have made a small but worthwhile contribution to meeting the challenge.