Liberal Education

Preparing Students for Ethical Complexity at the Intersection Where Worlds Collide: The Quest for Character, Civility, and Community

A favorite exercise that I use in workshops with emerging leaders in different cultures and traditions is to ask them to stand, close their eyes, and imagine that they are at the center of a busy intersection with traffic coming from all directions. I ask them to imagine that there are no stop lights or traffic cops—just oncoming traffic. I also ask them to imagine the sounds at the intersection: running motors, screeching brakes, screams and shouts from people on the sidewalks and in cafes. I ask them to visualize the intersection: people of all kinds moving back and forth with the pulsating rhythm of urban life, the beggar sitting in the wheelchair outside a building, children holding their parents’ hands, and the rushing traffic coming toward them from the front, the rear, the left, and the right. Then I ask, “How do you feel?” The responses normally are: I am afraid, confused, paralyzed. “What will you do?” I will run and dodge the traffic. I will tell the traffic to stop! I will cry for help! I will pray to God! I don’t know what to do! “Do you know which way is north? Do you even have time to figure out which way is north?” Most do not know which way is north. Compasses of all sorts, material and moral, come in handy when you are on hiking trips or sailing through life, but they really are useless at the intersection where most of our students live, learn, play, and survive. Finally, I ask, “How will you negotiate this traffic at the intersection?” Very few have credible responses.

How to negotiate the traffic at the intersection where worlds of difference collide, and to analyze and interrogate complex internal and environmental issues; how to interpret data that do not fit into convenient categories or principles; and how to discern one’s fitting decisions and actions—these are dimensions of the problem of diversity and culture. First and foremost, the intersection is fiercely private; it is personal and intimate. This place is not merely psychological or social, but profoundly spiritual. In respect to the formation and role of character education, my concern is with spirituality as a basis for ethical orientation. How might we prepare emerging leaders to recognize the need for spirituality in the development of habits and practices that nurture morally anchored character, transformative acts of civility, and a sense of community? And how might these habits and practices provide students with the resources and skills to live and function well in a world of difference? The intersection is also public in the sense that it is the space where citizens meet and engage in meaningful action and discussion about values, and where they hold one another accountable for what they know and value. In the public sphere, issues such as class, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, and religion both form and inform the relationship between understanding and motivation in student behavior. Yet, the private self must have a public connection. That is, through a web of relationships and networks, students learn to serve certain values and social determinants of behavior.

The development of ethical student leadership

Ethical leadership is the critical appropriation and embodiment of moral traditions that have shaped the character and shared meanings of a people (an ethos). In fact, ethical leadership does not emerge from a historical vacuum, but arises from particular traditions. Ethical leaders speak authoritatively and act responsibly with the aim of serving the collective good. They are, therefore, leaders whose characters have been shaped by the wisdom, habits, and practices of particular traditions, yet they tend to be identified with a specific cultural ethos and narrative. Finally, ethical leadership asks the question of values in reference to ultimate concern (Fluker 2009, 33).

Figure 1 depicts the model upon which this definition of ethical leadership is based. The central triangle incorporates three dynamically interrelated dimensions of human existence: self, social, and spiritual. In the dimension of the self, or the personal, the concern is with questions of identity and purpose: Who am I? What do I want? What do I propose to do and become? The social or public dimension involves the relationship with the other: To whom and what am I ultimately accountable? The spiritual addresses the human need for a sense of ultimacy, excellence, and hope with reference to the great mystery of being: Who am I? What do I want? What do I propose to do and become? Who is the other? How am I to respond to the actions of the other upon me? This latter dimension should not be narrowly identified with religion, although religious experience can be vital resource in one’s spiritual quest. For this third dimension, I am more interested in answering the questions of identity and purpose in respect to how emerging leaders perceive their own quests for meaning in relation to the demands of the other, which raises germinal questions of recognition, respect, and reverence as well as questions of courage, justice, and compassion.

Figure 1. Ethical Ethical Leadership: Defining Virtures, Values, and Virtuosities of Character, Civility, and Community
Figure 1

Following the triadic framework outlined above, the model addresses the psychological, social, and spiritual dimensions of ethical leadership in respect to character, civility, and a sense of community. Within each dimension, there are attendant virtues (good habits that aspire to cognitive competency and emoti­­onal sensibility), values (good habits that drive social practices in public space), and virtuosities (the excellencies of a virtuous life that drive behavior at personal and public levels). Ethical leaders come into being through the development of character, civility, and a sense of community. This triune of virtues, values, and virtuosities is the bedrock for genuine human development, productivity, and peaceful coexistence.

Character and ethical leadership

As the personal dimension of leadership, character refers to the narrative script that defines the individual, the stories that name the student’s experience, and the “inner experience” or core philosophies espoused by the individual. The cultivation of the private life or the student’s “inner theater” is the basis for spirituality and ethical awareness. Student leaders involved in acts of personal and social transformation must begin by remembering, retelling, and reliving their own stories. They must examine their life experiences in relation to larger historical and cultural narratives. Reclaiming the ethical center requires that the unfinished business of the student’s life story (the pains, the hurts, the unresolved contradictions) be addressed. It also means reattachment to historically grounded values that have protected their communities through ritualistic healing, bringing about integrity and self-esteem, trust and empathy, courage and hope as personal and social practices. Attendant to character, there are three virtues that ethical student leaders should allow to become part and parcel of their focus and personal deportment: integrity, empathy, and hope (fig. 1). 

Integrity refers to a sense of wholeness, a sense of community within self. A threefold process (identity, purpose, and method) begins with the development of a healthy sense of self, which is the basis upon which one comes to understand one's own distinctive potential and self-worth, without which students drift aimlessly through life without a true understanding of their place in existence. This is an especially significant issue for students from marginalized groups who have been misnamed by a culture in often subtle and surreptitious ways. Integrity informs the student leader’s actions and practices and has a definitive impact on how he or she responds to the other with sincerity and truthfulness (Carter 1996; Dreher 1996). It is also the key unifying virtue in the student’s response to dehumanizing actions and other forces that work against human development and community. This idea of integrity, as a good habit that is practiced, is pivotal in negotiating incoherent frames of reference at the intersection of complex diverse cultural situations.

Empathy, the psychosocial dimension of character, is the capacity of the ethical leader to put himself or herself in the other’s place. It is correlated with respect of the other and thrives best where there are shared visions and goals. Empathy is really about intelligent feelings that have been cultivated through practice (Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee 2002). Empathy, in this sense, is a “lower-order virtue” that is connected to respect and justice, as correlates in the development of public and social interactions (Blasi 2005). The practice of empathy for others is a way of creating a moral ethos within communities of discourse and practice. For student leaders, communities of discourse and practice refer to the contexts of their primary social relations with other students, educators, and the larger public where they are called upon continually to negotiate difference. Imagination plays an important role in this process. Through the use of imagination, students are enabled to transcend self and to empathize with others at the seat of “common consciousness.” In doing so, others are addressed at a place beyond all blame and fault—and difference. Integral to the practice of empathy is the ability to listen to the other’s story without incorporation or indifference. Learning to listen involves “sounding” the other out, self-regulating, waiting, and responding to the other, however different, with genuineness and integrity.

Hope is genuine anticipation of the future. It is rooted in the confidence that the future is open and that new possibilities exist. Peter Senge (2000) suggests three ways of thinking about the future: (1) to conceive of the future as an extension of the past (extrapolation); (2) to imagine what might be, independent of what is, or as free of the influence of the present as one might become; and (3) to cultivate awareness and reflectiveness—to become open to what is arising in the world and in us and continually ponder what matters most deeply to us. The third option requires creative use of the imagination. For character education, both awareness and effectiveness—or heart and head—are integral to the practice of imagining. The cognitive faculty is not in alien territory in imaginative adventures; rather, it is a key asset (Ayers 2004). Anne Colby (2008) argues that hope and inspiration may be the missing link in empowering disaffected and disempowered groups to become more engaged in the political processes that determine our corporate destiny as citizens.

Civility and ethical leadership

In common usage, civility refers to a set of manners, certain etiquettes and social graces that are rooted in specific class orientations and moral sensibilities. However, civility is also inclusive of social capital and the inherent benefits accrued by these networks of reciprocity. This is an important distinction for the development of civility among students. Civility also has to do with the student’s social dignity within systems. The power of market-stimulated moralities and the waning interest in civic life forecast an ominous future for American democracy, especially for many students who have been marginalized at the boundaries of a social contract that from its inception was exclusive and xenophobic (Fluker 2003). Beyond the impact of various forms of media on the prosocial behavior of students and adults is the persistent and inadequately documented effect on the question of diversity and the cultural designation of the other as the hostile stranger.

In our model, the term “civility” is used as a framework for understanding the role of social capital within the context of students’ social and public life practices. I do not limit civility, however, to social capital, but refer more broadly to the concept as the social-historical script or contract that the student citizen negotiates within the context of the larger society. Civility is the psychosocial ecology of the student, a certain understanding or self-referential index of the student's place within a social system as it relates to personal character. This description of social capital and its role in creating and sustaining community is important for the ethical student’s moral development in two ways. First, social capital provides networks for community engagement that can be inclusive and socially beneficial for the student and his or her environment. Second, social capital derives its life and power from the norms of reciprocity that it engenders and sustains. Ethical leadership in the classroom is essential for the maintenance of social capital. Moreover, civility is the fuel of a strong democratic culture that ensures opportunity and stability for future leaders. Civility, therefore, protects and encourages the key values of liberty, equality, and friendship without which democracy is impossible and which emerging leaders must learn and practice. There are three interrelated values of civility: recognition, respect, and reverence (fig. 1).

Recognition in ethical leadership practices begins with consciousness, a focused awareness that is extended through the self, others, and to ultimate frames of references. As an activity of consciousness, recognition has neither moral nor ethical significance. It insists, rather, on the development of a sense of transcendence in which one is able to self-observe as one observes others. This mode of consciousness is sometimes called self-awareness or self-observation. Self-observation allows the student to become aware or to recognize himself or herself and to better understand the unconscious motivations that drive thoughts, feelings, and behavior. The primary significance of self-observation for civility lies in the students’ personal quests for self-dignity and respect. It also serves as a major fount for the quest of remembering their story and how that story is intertwined with the stories of others. No greater work can be done by the student in repairing the ethical center than becoming aware of his or her inherent worth and dignity, especially when confronted with the judgment, blame, and mistrust that arise in diverse cultural situations. As a practical consideration in promoting healthy environments of diversity, the aim is to create networks of reciprocity and social capital that are based on trust. Beyond social contracting in the formal sense of legislating and mandating institutional codes and values, civility rests on covenantal relations that require the integrity, empathy, and hope that engender and sustain friendship. Friendship extends beyond utility and duty and rests ultimately upon common purpose and vision (King and Devere 2000).

Respect is the public analogue of civility and has profound implications for global citizenship. In the perspective of civility I am proposing, respect has to do with the accepted standards of association of free people (citizens) and with social dignity. In this view, respect includes: (1) a certain self-referential index that recognizes oneself as inhering and therefore deserving certain acknowledgements of one’s human dignity in public space, and (2) a responsibility to demonstrate in public space one’s obligation to the other as inhering and therefore deserving certain acknowledgements of human dignity. Fundamental to this twofold definition of respect is the relation between empathy and balance. In this view, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s excellent and creative exploration of respect as a non-hierarchal expression of human relationship is invaluable for the task of developing ethical student leadership. Lawrence-Lightfoot notes that respect is often viewed as “a debt due people because of their attained or inherited position, age, gender, class, race, professional status, accomplishments, etc. Whether defined by rules of law, habits, or culture, respect often implies required expressions of esteem, approbation, or submission.” By contrast, her “focus is on the way respect creates symmetry, empathy, and connection in all kinds of relationships” (2000, 9–10), which allows students to move beyond strictly hierarchal, rules-based management perspectives, but aspires to the cultivation of a moral ethos that creates balance, creativity, and imaginative enterprise with others.

Reverence has to do fundamentally with recognition and respect of the other as well as with the other’s keen interrelatedness to one’s self. Reverence is preceded by loyalty. One of the supreme tests of civility has been and continues to be the question of loyalty. For instance, loyalty to friends, groups, and traditions can create serious ethical dilemmas for students in respect to diversity and inclusiveness. The dilemma is how students reconcile contending demands for loyalty: the inclusive demand of one’s own moral vision versus the often contradicting demands of friendship, belonging, ideology, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and religious beliefs. Loyalty is not easily defined; it is one of those elusive terms like “love” because it is attached to something profoundly spiritual. Loyalty in its most fundamental sense is a discipline of informed consent of the will to a higher cause to which the person seeks union within the self and with others. But loyalty, for the ethical student leader, does not seek confirmation from external events or rewards, but finds its genesis and actualization in the integrity of the person(s) or cause(s) to which the leader is committed. The spiritual unity that loyalty seeks finds it fullest expression in reverence for life. Ethical student leaders should not, therefore, allow their loyalties to kin, group, nation, or even religious beliefs to supersede the ethic of reverence for life (Clark 1962; Schweitzer 1936). Reverence for life appeals to something that is fundamentally human and that seeks the ultimate unity found in a sense of community (Capra 1996; Devall and Sessions 1985).

Community and ethical leadership

The quest for community, like character and civility, has a long and ambivalent history in American society and has significant implications for the problem of diversity and culture in a globalized world. Since its founding, the nation has struggled with the antagonistic twins of self-reliance and community. The American obsession with self-reliance, liberty, and individualism has created another dynamic that actually undermines its moral vision of community and challenges the task of creating diversity.

Many of our students come from places on the periphery with distinctive perspectives that dare to see kaleidoscopic visions of America’s future in a world where difference and the jagged edges of history collide at the intersection. We are continually discovering that traditional understandings of character and civility without a diverse community of memory that informs ethical orientation are bereft of authority and influence in our educational environments. Questions of the good, beautiful, and just are spinning at astronomical speeds in our culture, and there is great anxiety about lost values and the need to return to the past for direction. Amidst religiously inspired debates about values and political jostling on leveraging advantage, Americans are asking, “which way is north?” but this is a highly relative question. For those who stand at different places with very different stories, “north” for some may appear as “south.”

Kwame Anthony Appiah (2006) has suggested that the future of cosmopolitanism hinges on how well we distinguish between “thin” and “thick” moral arguments in public debates and that, in the final analysis, learning to live with different interpretations of values relies more on practice than on argumentation. The emphasis ought to be on listening to the other, which is a disciplined practice that involves personal virtues—integrity, empathy, and hope—that are related to character and analogous public values—recognition, respect, and reverence—that form the basis of civility and a sense of community. In fact, the ground has shifted with respect to the question of traditional morals and values and how they inform direction at the intersection. This fact alone challenges some of the very basic presuppositions of character education in America.

Most student development models that use character education as a resource and strategy point toward the individual student as the source and director of the moral compass with emphasis on the classical Western tradition as the narrative repository of virtue. One of the challenges that educators will increasingly face is how this country accommodates students from places that were not a part of the original blueprint. The contemporary debate on immigration policies provides a sobering look at the deep and abiding fissures that plague narrow and myopic visions of citizenship. Immigration is more than an issue of what constitutes citizenship and entitlement in our democracy; it is also an issue of who will lead and, by virtue of this question, who gets educated—and how. 

Community represents the spiritual dimension in the tripartite model of ethical leadership depicted in figure 1. Community as a rational construction is the ideal that serves as the goal of human existence and the norm for ethical judgment. Concretely expressed, it is the mutually cooperative and voluntary venture of persons in which they realize the solidarity of humanity by freely assuming responsibility for one another within the context of civil relations. Character education, therefore, must begin with community as both the source and the end of all practices associated with the development of leaders. Integrity—as a sense of wholeness, integration, and balance—is the work of community within self. One can hardly hope to create community in the world without first looking deeply within the self and discovering the challenges of creating a healthy sense of self. Furthermore, community provides the context for the sensuous articulation of the values of compassion, justice, and courage as dynamic and interrelated practices. Community refers to a sense of unity and interdependence with nature as a whole; the centrality of civil society in the development of self-worth and affirmation; community occurring as a network of extended families; and other institutions as media through which persons share their sense of self and belonging—a common ground upon which the diversity of people and/or ideas and values can unite in a spiritual reality that is marked by appreciation of difference (Fluker 1988).

The significance of community for self and civil society is the primary concern of our model for the development of ethical leadership and global citizenship. A healthy sense of self is intricately related to the interaction between self and society. The quest for personal identity is inextricably bound to the quest for wholeness, harmony, and integration in society. Our model seeks to engage students in the quest for community at personal and social levels through the production of their own rituals or creative exercises. For ethical student leaders, the primary questions are: How do we create and maintain a responsible and respectful relationship with each other in the quest for community? And how does this model relate to the broader and critical issues of ethical student leadership that have been already discussed? Community is defined by three attendant practices or virtuosities: personal and social quests for courage, justice, and compassion.

Courage is considered a virtue by nearly every ancient philosopher. It is no small accident that the ancients located courage around the heart. Courage is a balanced coordination of both the mind (cognitive) and the will (volitional). While courage has a rational component, as Aristotle pointed out, it requires more than knowledge; it has, rather, to do with achieving balance between extremes of foolhardiness and fear. Character education that promotes global learning must include nontraditional strategies that teach students to balance these extremes through practice.

Justice refers to the social and public spheres that students engage, but it begins with a sense of justice. Human beings, especially children, display what James Q. Wilson calls “the moral sense,” certain natural sensibilities that are “formed out of interaction of their innate dispositions and their earliest familial experiences, [which] shape human behavior and the judgments people make of the behavior of others” (1993, 2). The moral sense of justice, according to Wilson, precedes social constructs of justice as in rules, principles, and laws, yet it informs how certain rational renderings of justice are shaped by traditions and customs of different cultures. Human beings are characterized universally by “the desire for survival and sustenance with the desire for companionship and approval” (Wilson, 1993, pp. 122–123) and are constantly in pursuit of social arrangements that best provide for these basic needs and desires. A sense of justice as fairness arises from this basic human instinct.

Compassion is the supreme virtuosity of ethical leadership. Within our proposed framework, compassion is located on the spiritual side of the triangle and is the culmination of hope and reverence—and indeed all the practices. The model begins with integrity and ends in compassion. Compassion is the fulfillment of the virtues of character—integrity, empathy, and hope; it provides the moral tissue for the values of civility—recognition, respect, and reverence; and the virtuosities of courage and justice find their fulfillment in acts of compassion.


Appiah, K. A. 2006. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: W. W. Norton.

Ayers, W. 2004. Teaching the Personal and the Political: Essays on Hope and Justice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Blasi, A. 2005. “Moral Character: A Psychological Approach.” In Character Psychology and Character Education, edited by D. K. Lapsley & F. C. Power, 67–100. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Capra, F. 1996. The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. New York: Anchor Books.

Carter, S. L. 1996. Integrity. New York: Basic Books.

Clark, H. 1962. The Ethical Mysticism of Albert Schweitzer. Boston: Beacon Press.

Colby, A. 2008. “Fostering the Moral and Civic Development of College Students.” In Handbook of Moral and Character Education, edited by L. P. Nucci and D. Narvarez, 391–413. New York: Routledge.

Devall, B., and G. Sessions. 1985. Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith.

Dreher, D. 1996. The Tao of Personal Leadership. New York: HarperCollins.

Fluker, W. E. 2009. Stones and Ethical Leadership: The Quest for Character, Civility and Community. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

———. 2003. “Recognition, Respectability, and Loyalty: The Quest for Civility among Black Churches.” In A New Day Begun: Black Churches, Public Influences, and American Civic Culture, edited by R. D. Smith, 139–78). Winston-Salem, NC: Duke University Press.

———. 1988. They Looked for a City: A Comparative Analysis of the Ideal of Community in the Thought of Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr. Landam, MD: University Press of America.

Goleman, D., R. Boyatzis, and A. McKee. 2002. Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

King, P., and H. Devere. 2000. The Challenge to Friendship in Modernity. Portland, OR: Frank Cass.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, Sara. 2000. Respect: An Exploration. Reading, MA: Perseus Books.

Schweitzer, A. 1936. “The Ethics of Reverence for Life.” Christendom 1: 225–39. 

Senge, P. 2000. “Systems.” In Imagine What America Could Be in the 21st Century: Visions of a Better Future from Leading American Thinkers, edited by M. Williamson, 167–78. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Books.

Wilson, J. Q. 1993. The Moral Sense. New York: Free Press.

Walter Fluker is the Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Ethical Leadership at Boston University. This article was adapted from an address to the 2011 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

To respond to this article, e-mail, with the author’s name on the subject line.


Previous Issues