Walter Earl Fluker: Naming a place called home

Ethical leaders remember, retell and rebuild their stories within the context of larger narratives, says Walter Earl Fluker. They listen to the stories of others with integrity and empathy.

Walter Earl Fluker, executive director of the Leadership Center at Morehouse College, says many leaders today “have difficulty balancing different moral perspectives.” Ethical leaders, however, know and remember their own stories, but always within the context of larger narratives. Though they know who they are, they know they don’t have the whole truth.

Drawing on the work of Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr., Fluker says that in a global community it is important for religious leadership to be both reflective and active in compassionately negotiating various ethical viewpoints.

In addition to directing the Leadership Center, Fluker, an ordained Baptist minister, is the Coca-Cola professor of leadership studies at Morehouse and editor of the Howard Thurman Papers Project. He founded VisionQuest Association Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides leadership training and development. He has taught at institutions such as Harvard, Vanderbilt and the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

In 2009, Fluker published the first volume of “The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman: My People Need Me” and “Ethical Leadership: The Quest for Character, Civility and Community.”

Fluker spoke with Faith & Leadership about the need for ethical leadership and the continuing influence of Thurman and King.

Q. You have written a book on “ethical leadership.” What do you mean by that term?

In the normative sense, ethics is the critical reflection upon morality and systems. In the 21st century we’re going to need leaders who understand and employ ethical perspectives in decision making. As we make decisions that impact groups, organizations and, most importantly, nations, it will be important for leaders to negotiate different ethical perspectives.

Most ethical leaders tend to be identified with a particular cultural narrative, and I take narrative very seriously. Ethical leaders are leaders who remember, retell and rebuild their story. I’m from Mississippi by way of Chicago, within the context of larger narratives. So I’m never claiming that I have the whole truth, or that I’m morally superior, but I can name a place called home in terms of my own ethical reflection.

The best way to understand Martin Luther King Jr., beyond all of his intellectual degrees, is to understand that he was a Southern black preacher. King identified with a Southern church tradition, but he was able to articulate more than one moral tradition in his public presentations.

Now, we seem to have difficulty balancing different moral perspectives in terms of social transformation. I’m seeing more and more a tendency toward a monolithic view of faith. We have difficulty listening to the stories of others with integrity and empathy.

Q. We tend to assume that all leadership is ethical, but perhaps that is not true.

I think most leadership is moral. People have certain moral assumptions that grow out of their particular communities of discourse and practice. Even Nixon would have claimed some kind of moral sense of self. He would claim that he was morally right. So, most leadership has that kind of claim. But the ethical dimension that I’m speaking to gives us an opportunity to engage not only our own story, which produces a moral perspective, but with the stories of others.

How do we then prepare leaders? What are the critical resources and methodologies at our disposal to prepare leaders to think ethically? How do we help leaders stand at this intersection where worlds collide, where very vulnerable life worlds are at stake? We have deteriorating institutions everywhere. And how do they withstand the vast systems dominated by power, by technology, by communication? I see it play out with devastating effects certainly within black communities, Hispanic communities, especially among the youth. I see it certainly in places like Africa, India, China, but certainly where vulnerable populations are at stake. I think it would be everywhere, but for historically marginalized communities, this is a huge question. How do you prepare, train a new generation of leaders who are able to situate themselves consciously at these intersections and negotiate the traffic there?

Q. The subtitle of your book addresses three components of ethical leadership: character, civility and community. Tell us about that.

I wanted to identify the psychological, social and spiritual dimensions [of ethical leadership]. The model I created is interactive. I associate character with the psychological. How do leaders remember, retell and relive their story? Leaders who ask those questions get a handle on the cognitive, affective dimensions of character. I was born in Mississippi; I was raised in Illinois. That’s important. We are constantly reliving our stories. I try to understand character for American citizens within the context of the larger American drama. For African Americans you cannot ignore the racialized drama narrative. Character is there.

Civility is the social phenomenon of character in public space. With character I talk about three attending virtues in the Aristotelian sense: integrity, empathy and hope. In public space I’m more concerned with values. They’re really social practices. In public space civility becomes very important because ultimately at stake is how we live together. It’s the question of democracy.

King says you create rules, laws and regulations, and he calls those enforceable obligations. What keeps society together are the unenforceable obligations, which means that I’ve got to find a way to morally recognize you, offer respect to you. Even though I vehemently disagree, that does not give me the right to injure you, maim you or kill you.

Democracy for me is at stake with this question of civility, and it’s not just the democracy of the United States of America. It’s a struggling, developing democracy all over the world, but I also take it to another place. I’m interested in the question of global citizenship more and more. What does it mean to be a citizen of the world, especially in our world? Religion sits right in the middle of it. I mean, that’s a huge question.

Q. What’s your assessment of the current state of civility in the public arena?

It’s terrible. It’s scary. I don’t know another word. It’s highly dysfunctional because we’re not really listening. Most days I have to strain to hear the other with authenticity. [Howard] Thurman said that the most valuable organ on the body for these kinds of discussions is not the mouth, but the ear. It’s listening, and he calls it listening for the sound of the genuine in the other.

Q. What about community, your third aspect of ethical leadership?

The community is the spiritual ideal. By spiritual I’m not thinking of detachment from the world. It’s spiritual in the sense that it’s an ideal we reach for, always elusive. Consequently, it’s also a critique on every existing social arrangement; the ideal itself is the critique. It’s the higher vision. It’s utopian in some sense, the beloved community, the kingdom of God, which always stands as a critique on the existing social structure.

A sense of community dimension is important for leadership. That’s the theologian in me who doesn’t want to forget that. I do take the question of the fall very seriously. There’s something that goes really awry, but the community is the spiritual ideal. The other thing about community that’s important for leadership is what I’m referring to as a sense of community. Thurman was a genius at this. He never overstated this idea of the kingdom of God. He says we must develop a sense that you and I share the same earth; we’re all part of nature. It might be possible that you and I can share certain streams of consciousness if we’re still and awake long enough to be aware of it.

Because of global economic reality we already share a lot of space; politically these questions are going to have to be resolved. We share a common humanity. I’ve seen it more in places that are not blessed with the gifts of technology and science and modernization. People understand why it’s important to be hospitable to a stranger. But, friend, I’m telling you, that is one of those traditions that is in sore need of repair in the American ethos.

Q. What is the impact of modern technologies on community?

I don’t want to downplay the marvels and the gifts that science has given to us, but pragmatism without the value question is dangerous. In the last century [values have] been driven by the spread of capital.

I was in South Africa lecturing at an AIDS conference. A young, black South African approaches me. He’s a really cool, young guy. His hat is turned backwards. He walks up to me and he says, “What’s up, my nigga?” I was cool, because I knew where he was coming from, but I let it settle and then I said to him, “I know what’s up. You’re at the intersection where worlds collide and you don’t even know what hit you. That’s what’s up.”

That same year, Time Warner and AOL.com had merged and the sounds that young man was hearing over the airwaves were really hard. Complex systems of technology and capital made decisions about what music sells; it also told him what kind of clothes to wear and what kind of deodorant to buy. It’s both subtle and not so subtle, but we see how it impacts especially the youth and the vulnerable. We have to think about leadership within this context.

Q. You are the editor of Howard Thurman’s papers and you’re at Duke lecturing on Dr. King. What are the most important lessons these men offer for leadership in the church and in the broader culture?

The greatest challenge for leadership in the 21st century is to stay awake. Both Thurman and King helped me tremendously with that.

For Thurman, it’s about awareness of the interiority of experience and especially religious experience, to be aware of where we find ourselves, of our immediate environment and the larger social historical context.

To be aware is to be conscious, and not only to be conscious but also to be conscious of consciousness. It’s a reflexive mode of being. From the Thurman angle I am constantly questioning who I really am and what I really want. If we’re not doing that over and over, then we probably are not being authentic. Then you’ve got to ask who’s asking the question. It has a ring of Zen. Thurman saw that there had to be a balance between the internal and external environment, which is Thurman’s distinctive contribution. King, on the other hand, is the warrior. He goes right to the nuts and bolts of it. He said this stuff is really about justice and it’s about compassion, but it will take courage to pull it off. Courage is the same thing as faith, and of course [King] paid a very high price for it.

Q. Why do you think so much attention is being paid to leadership today?

Media is responsible for a lot. The language is overworked, but the very discourse that we use is market-stimulated. It evolves from a managerial discourse which is embedded in business and corporate practices; but it is also public, as it is demonstrated in many of the legislative and judicial practices that underpin a type of utilitarian individualism.

The other reason is that people sense the need for a certain kind of leadership -- there’s moral leadership, there’s ethical leadership, there’s authentic leadership, there’s primal, and we go on and on -- but it’s a certain kind of leadership that helps people to feel that they’re not alone. If there is any pain to endure, I need to know that somebody will model genuineness and authenticity.

As the Heideggers of the world told us a long time ago, in the Western world we miss home. Where is home? There’s a kind of estrangement, and we want someone to show us the way. For those who are religious among us, and for Christians like me, we want leaders who bring this huge spiritual dimension that is deep and loving, but it is also just. Some social commentators misrepresent their own feelings when they say all we want is justice. We need something that’s deep and caring; we call it compassion.

In the Dalai Lama’s language, [compassion] means “I cannot bear the sight of your suffering.” We want someone who will come along and help us in our suffering, in our lostness.