Passing of an Ethical Icon
This past summer, we saw the passing of an ethical icon. In July, we learned Elie Wiesel was no longer with us. As I read the obituaries and platitudes written in his honor, I was reminded Wiesel was 16 years old when he emerged from the Holocaust as a survivor. I couldn’t help but think of my youngest daughter, who is now 16, and question how someone this age could have the capacity to survive such a horrific experience. This seemed to have been a question that compelled Wiesel as well, as he has often been described as “a witness who reminded us of the grim realities of the Holocaust in a never-ending pursuit of lessons learned. “ (2016) He was more than just a witness; he was someone who pushed us to ask questions, to seek to understand, and to analyze decisions from an ethical and moral perspective to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. In this sense, he has been describe as, “the very conscience of the world.”
Wiesel was a prolific writer. Much of his work was based on his own experiences, or derived from those experiences. He is perhaps best known for his first piece of writing, Night. Described as autobiographical, this book is narrated by a boy living the horrors of the Holocaust. The narrator questions the reality he lives, the world around him, his faith, and his own very existence. While a powerful book with a meaningful message, this is not the book amongst Wiesel’s many works that had the greatest impact on me. That honor belongs to a later book, Dawn, the second in what became known as the Night trilogy. Dawn describes a single night in one young man’s life when he is tormented by a decision he must make at dawn. I first read this book when I was a senior in high school, and I remember being blown away by the power of what the book had to say. It was the first time I began to think about questions of ethics and morality as I wondered what choice I would have made if I had been in the same position as the protagonist in the story. I think it was probably the first time I recognized there can be more that one right answer to a question, and the line between what is right and what is wrong, or two rights, can be very blurred.
This question of the choice between two right decisions is one I’ve learned to grapple with over the years. While Wiesel was first to present me with the hypothetical reality, I have found the challenge to exist in a variety of circumstances, especially since moving into international school leadership. One of the things I enjoy most about leadership is the opportunity to engage in challenging questions and problems. Years ago, I told my wife that instead of director, my job title should be professional problem solver. Working with problems, whether they are people problems or infrastructure problems, can be described as the bulk of what we do as school leaders. And, the truth is, many of these problems have more than one right answer, and often contain an element of moral and / or ethical perspective.
Several years ago, I was introduced to the work of Rushworth Kidder, who explores the thinking around making tough decisions. Kidder talks about the “ethics of right vs. right,” (2009) and the challenge that exists when you are in a position of needing to make a decision where both sides of an issue appear to be right depending on the perspective one holds. He describes these challenges in terms of paradigms where we are forced to examine challenges from the perspective of conflicts within our core values. He proposes a decision making model based on looking at problems through ethical lenses in an effort to understand some of the deeper conflicts in a particular challenge. I remember the first time I read Kidder, I felt a sense of relief. I didn’t have the answers, but I began to have way of looking at some of these difficult questions as I began to fit these challenges into the larger puzzle of my own beliefs. I often return to Kidder simply to ground me and reorient my thinking.
I believe international school leadership is confronted with a great deal of these right vs. right decisions. It is one of the things making our profession truly interesting. This past week, I read a study conducted by RSAcademics LTD (2016). This study describes some of the considerations that play a part in international school decision making. These include cultural influences, finances, change, growth, and a variety of other factors. Depending on the point of view of those involved in a particular challenge, there can often be many different right answers, and invariably someone not entirely happy with the final decision.
Right vs. right decision-making is one of those constancies that are a part of life for an international school leader. As I think over my own journey of questioning the ethics and morals around decisions, and the challenges of making decisions in our profession, I’ve come to realize everything is what we make of it. We can stress about the problems we face, or we can see them as challenges we can overcome. I’ve come to realize I am most effective at dealing with these challenges when I work from a strong sense of what I believe in, while also being willing to hear a variety of perspectives and looking at how they fit into those beliefs. Ultimately, I find it is about comfort – feeling comfortable in the belief I am doing what I believe to be best for students and in what is best for them in the long term.
As I reflect on the challenges of decision-making, and the making of ethical and moral choices, I feel a debt of gratitude to those I’ve learned from – rather it be through reading or through life experiences. In particular, I appreciate that one book that caused me to think for the first time about the abstract questions that can lead to right vs. right decisions. Thank you, Elie Wiesel.
The Art of International School Headship. RSAcademics Ltd, Web. 4 Sept. 2016.
Berger, Joseph. “Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz Survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Dies at 87.” New York Times 2 July 2016.
Kidder, Rushworth M. How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living. New York: Harper, 2009.
Wiesel, Elie, and Marion Wiesel. Night. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, a Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.
Wiesel, Elie. Dawn. Toronto: Bantam, 1982.