Global Ideas Labs – Reflections on “Ethics in Leadership”

Global Ideas Lab: Ethics in Leadership


“A talent for following the ways of yesterday is not sufficient to improve the world of today” – King Wu-ling, 307 BC


One of the most fundamental challenges involved in global health leadership – and indeed, leadership in general – is distinguishing between what is familiar and what is right. It’s a challenging distinction to make because the arguments used to defend wrong and ethically unprincipled ideas can be diverse: for example, scientific discourse has been used to defend smoking and discourage immunisations, and social and political structures have entrenched domestic violence. Amidst this diversity, how can modern leaders identify which way is up?


The focus for the June Global Ideas Lab was “ethics in leadership.”Held in partnership with the Cranlana Programme, it took up the mammoth question of how to identify and address ethically unprincipled norms. These were big questions, so we were lucky that some of the most celebrated of philosophers had beaten us to them. The most famous of the texts we considered was Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.  


Allegory of the Cave is a fictional discourse between Plato’s student Socrates and his interlocutor, Glaucon. In this dialogue, Socrates describes three inhabitants of a cave that have always been chained in such a way that they can only look towards the cave’s back wall. These characters cannot imagine a reality beyond the shadows they observe dancing on the cave’s wall until one character is torn from his chains, thrust into the sunlight and then tasked with describing the world outside the cave to his companions.


As was Plato’s tradition, the text is written in a very didactic style. The contrast of the shadow puppetry to the world outside the cave and the explicit definition of the story as an allegory emphasises the inherent subjectivity of perspectives, the possibility for and potential burdens of enlightenment, and the duty and challenges of moral teaching.


However, the clarity of Plato’s style extends little further than casting a spotlight on these themes. Under the guidance of our expert facilitator, Professor Paul Komesaroff, we identified several ambiguities regarding Plato’s teachings on each of these themes. Fertile debate ensued, focusing largely on:

  • developing a practical approach to distinguishing what is morally right from that which is wrong
  • the extent to which these issues should be debated in public society
  • what is the best way to engage people in reconsidering the morality of the familiar.


Given the antiquity of the text, it was startling how close the discussion landed to contemporary debates. Is it morally inconsistent to be outraged over the human rights abuses being perpetrated in the conflict zones across the Middle East, yet be complicit in Australia’s treatment of refugees and complacent about the gap in social outcomes between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians? Importantly, we also discussed whether what is right can be distinguished from the subjectivities of one’s opinion, and strategies that could be effective for communicating moral arguments that run across the contemporary public opinion.


After several hours of robust conversation, the June Global Ideas Lab participants can attest that Plato was right when he surmised, through the character of Socrates in the Allegory of the Cave, that “in the field of deep knowledge the last thing to be seen, and hardly seen, is the idea of the good”. Alas, no amount of wine revealed a universal technique for looking beyond the limitations of our cultural perspectives. However, the evening spent practicing philosophical inquiry through the Socratic method and the good friends made along the way have, no doubt, made us all more discerning consumers of the status quo.


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Lucille Danks, Labs Participant