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Principled leadership from the perspective of Dr. Dawn Elm, the David A. & Barbara A. Koch (Graco) Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics and Leadership

Below is an interview by Nicole Zwieg Daly of Dr. Dawn Elm.

Nicole: Would you please describe your professional journey up to your current role?

Dawn: I started my professional journey as a Research and Development manager for the Procter and Gamble Company after receiving my BS in Chemical Engineering.

As I worked with P&G, I realized that my real interest was in more organizational level issues such as, why did the company choose to pursue this market or grow in that direction? This led me to leave the company to pursue my PhD in (originally) Organizational Development.

I ended up at the University of Minnesota in the department of strategic management and organization which included a focus on business ethics. I studied with Ed Freeman and other faculty at the university to understand a simple question: Why do people do unethical things at work that they don’t do at home or outside the workplace? That question has driven my career.

I ended up at UST largely because I didn’t want to be at an R1 school and be involved in research to the exclusion of teaching. St. Thomas offered me the opportunity to teach (which I love to do) and do research without any pressure for my career performance. Since that time, I have become very involved with the professional associations in our field as well as working to make sure that the teaching and study of business ethics is related to what happens in the “real world of work.” I have developed an international reputation for my expertise in applied ethical decision making and corporate governance (ethical culture). That is where I am today.

Nicole: How would you define Principled Leadership?

Dawn: Principled Leadership is the development and practice of promoting the values and human considerations of leading people. This requires an understanding of the fact that businesses (and most other institutions) are formed for the purpose of advancing the state of humanity (often referred to as advancing the common good). In short, principled leadership is the embodiment of the desire to make the world a better place for the human beings who we have relationships with.

Nicole: Why do you feel Principled Leadership is important for an organization?

Dawn: Organizations are formed to accomplish what one person can’t do alone – a cooperative effort to accomplish a goal (that’s from Chester Barnard in the 1960’s).

So, organizations are also a key entity in improving and maintaining the quality of human relationships. Principled leadership is required to able to overcome our frailties as human beings to inspire the effort to make the world a better place through what our organizations can accomplish.

Nicole: Would you share any stories of peers that exhibit characteristics of a Principled Leader, in the context of your definition.

Dawn: There are quite a few, but here is a short list:

Tom Holloran (the founder of the Holloran Center in the UST School of Law) was the corporate counsel for a small start up formed by an electrical engineer named Earl Bakken called Medtronic. Tom worked with Earl to form the vision and mission of the organization (still the same today) and served as the CEO of the company for a number of years before he because a faculty member at St. Thomas. Tom has never, in all the years I’ve known him, forgotten that the purpose of organizations and individual effort is to make the world a better place. He is the epitome of principled leadership.

Peter Hegaard was a senior executive at Wells Fargo in banking. He approached me and several other faculty at St. Thomas (and St. Kates) to ask if we would consider educating our students about the ongoing issues of poverty, homelessness, etc. in the Twin Cities that affected how we could integrate these individuals into our business organizations to improve the overall welfare of the community.

John Taft, as you already know! And, Andrew Duff, as you already know!

Nicole: How do you see Principled Leadership exemplified at UST?

Dawn: Principled leadership is exemplified at UST by several things. First and foremost, the faith-based nature of our university creates a foundation for treating people as ends, not just as means and that fosters a culture of caring for each other as human beings.

Second, the collaborations undertaken by members of the UST community are typically conducted with an understanding that ethical conduct is a key part of maintaining our relationships, so we need to do the right thing together.

Third, this university has a culture that welcomes and supports all members as part of the (dare I say) family even when we disagree or dislike each other. The values of our culture are inherent in our actions, and although hard to touch, easy to feel.

Nicole: Let’s take a deep dive into the UST Opus School of Business overall ethics education. Would you share some of its highlights, benefits to the business community and overall organization marketplace?

Dawn: Principled Leadership is one of the three strategic pillars of OCB along with entrepreneurship and healthcare. Required business ethics courses in all programs in OCB, as well as required ethics and theology courses in the core of our liberal arts education.

Faculty who are committed to the mission of the college to educate highly principled global business leaders who create enduring value for society and the university.

The existence of the Center for Ethics in Practice, Veritas Institute and the continued outreach to the business community regarding the importance of principled leadership and ethical business practices.

Additionally, OCB membership as a signatory for PRME as well as the commitment of the professional associations of the SBE, SIM, APPE, ISBEE.

Nicole: How do we train people to be principled leaders?

Dawn: We’re trying to do that with your efforts and ours! Teach people to be authentic in their relationships and to have conversations with each other as human beings!

Nicole: Finally, what do you see as the greatest ethical issues facing organizations today?

Dawn: The greatest ethical issues facing organizations today are:

The lack of human relationships in our interactions due to technology. Without human interactions, we begin to distance ourselves from what is truly meaningful and ethical in the world. This is a huge issue for our society going forward.

The continued emphasis in the United States on business as different from ethics. We need to continue to work on this for the foreseeable future.

The lack of our ability to face and feel uncomfortable with situations and actions in our lives. We have become complacent and unwilling to rock our own worlds to address serious issues with our society.

Dawn Elm, professor of Ethics and Business Law, the David A. and Barbara A. Koch Distinguished Professor of Business Ethics and Leadership, and executive director of the Center for Ethics in Practice at the University of St Thomas Opus College of Business.