WASHINGTON, D.C. — Discussions on ethical leadership are common in this district. But, according to thought leaders at Emory University, it takes more than talk to change attitude.

It takes an ability to recognize and inspire change.

Speaking at the Washington National Cathedral Oct. 21, university president James Wagner, theologian Robert Franklin, Goizueta Business School dean Erika James and alumnus Doug Shipman, discussed the importance of a moral compass and the necessity for leaders to meaningfully engage with others to solve problems.

“It seems to me moral leadership is played out when decisions are made ethically and it’s making decisions based on moral principle,” Wagner said. “Moral leaders that I admire are folks that… are explicit about the principles, explicit about the values. These leaders teach and challenge in that way.”

The event, sponsored by the Emory Alumni Association, is one of many designed to bring Emory alumni in contact with the schools leadership outside of Metro Atlanta. Shipman, the newly appointed CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, guided the conversation which, tactically speaking, spent time on crisis communication and character development — a speciality for James, who is in her third month as the school’s dean.

“At the root of crisis leadership, as opposed to crisis management, there is a sense of integrity that drives the decision-making leaders have,” said James. “There is a sensibility that is very proactive in order to build strong relationships with company stakeholders, not in the midst of the crisis but before those relationships are tested. Such that when there are tough times and crises the foundation of those relationships already exist. They will be the backbone and support to help peers during the rough times.

“In addition, it’s the ethical approach to decision-making. In times of crisis, one has the sense of needing to act immediately and being very reactive without really providing simple forethought into what’s the best decision. People above property, people above assets… For moral leadership, we pay attention to those people who hold the resources.”

Franklin, who holds the James T. and Berta R. Laney Chair in Moral Leadership at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, noted the opportunities gained when men and woman begin acting on higher moral ground.

He calls it “moral imagination.”

“Imagination for me is illustrated in Nelson Mandela, a man who spends 27 years in prison,” Franklin said. “He formulates a moral narrative that talks about a new country, truth and reconciliation and practical methodology for transformation. Or Gandhi, who transforms the moral code. He takes this code and begins to ask, ‘what can we change structurally, institutionally in order to add to our well-being?’

“He talks about how institutions must become moral agents.”

– EmoryBusiness.com writer Izzi Hughes contributed to this report