U01: Is a Leader a Leader if She Performs at Level 1 of Kohlberg’s Stages of Morality?

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, a public servant is “an elected official or someone employed by local or national government” (Public servant definition, n.d.). The role of a public servant includes conducting or carrying out work on behalf of the people. Public servants, therefore, must act on behalf of those they serve—who are often those who either voted for that person or against them. That being said, public servants walk a fine ethical line because they must work on behalf of all individuals, not just those who are in favor of their own personal views, platforms, policies, or otherwise political endeavors. According to Cornell University Law School, “Public service is a public trust, requiring employees to place loyalty to the Constitution, the laws and ethical principles above private gain” (5 CFR 2635.101 – Basic obligation of public service, n.d.).

Further to this point, the Cornell University Law School document states in section 2635.101 the following description and set of guidelines:

“Public service is a public trust. Each employee has a responsibility to the United States Government and its citizens to place loyalty to the Constitution, laws and ethical principles above private gain. To ensure that every citizen can have complete confidence in the integrity of the Federal Government, each employee shall respect and adhere to the principles of ethical conduct set forth in this section, as well as the implementing standards contained in this part and in supplemental agency regulations” (5 CFR 2635.101 – Basic obligation of public service, n.d.).

Thus, it can be concluded that public servants—those elected or those appointed through elected officials, civil service offerings, and otherwise offered employment in a government role—must act ethically and with a swift sense of personal integrity and moral reasoning. These individuals are expected to respect the law and the statutes that encompass their roles in their locale.


Kellyanne Conway serves in the White House as a counselor to Donald Trump, following her success as a campaign manager during Trump’s campaign leading to his subsequential win. In her role, Conway is a public servant playing a role in the White House, working on behalf of the nation and the nation’s top office. Conway should, in essence, follow all guidelines lain out before her and as mentioned above in the section 2635.101 stipulations. However, to this point, Conway recently made headlines after promoting a private clothing brand owned and run by Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, during a press conference—questioning her ethics in her position and crossing lines deemed by certain statutes against the law for someone in her position. This topped the charts for news headlines on February 9, 2017. In the opening paragraphs of a Business Insider article on the same day, writer Maxwell Tani states: “Kellyanne Conway violated federal ethics rules when she appeared on Fox News on Thursday and explicitly endorsed Ivanka Trump’s fashion line, which was dropped by Nordstrom after the retailer claimed the sales were slow” (Tani, 2017). It was recommended by Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the US House Oversight Committee, that the case immediately be investigated by the Office of Government Ethics (Tani, 2017).

The Washington Post (2017) added that Conway’s actions “appeared to violate a key ethics rule barring federal employees from using their public office to endorse products” (Harwell, Hamburger, Helderman). This article in particular pointed to other examples of the Trump administration straddling the line between ethical and unethical behavior in office. “The incident was the latest illustration of how the Trump White House has struggled to grapple with long-established ethics rules as the president has attempted to balance the potentially competing interests of his new public position and his family’s vast business holdings” (Harwell, Hamburger, Helderman, 2017).

While Conway should have known the bounds by which her role and responsibilities are confined, it seems she did not follow them. In choosing to speak about the clothing line, Conway acted unethically and outside of her role. This encroaches on private dealings and essentially provides a platform for the promotion of sales by a government employee. While Conway should have been familiar with the potential consequences of such actions, she ignored them in acting how she did. According to Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development, Conway’s job may be require her to act on level three: post-conventional morality as it requires “reasoning based on conscience and creating a just society” (Northouse, 2016, p. 331), but her actions place her on level one: preconventional morality. This is because she acted with disregard to consequences to her actions and she took self-interest into mind in her actions and words. “In regard to leadership, ethics in concerned with what leaders do and who leaders are. It has to do with the nature of leaders’ behavior, and with their virtuousness” (Northouse, 2016, p. 330). If our actions and words are a mark of our leadership capabilities and understanding of the duties of our roles, it is entirely important for public servants to follow basic rules and display ethical judgment if they wish to be viewed as effective leaders.




5 CFR 2635.101 – Basic obligation of public service. (n.d.). Retrieved February 09, 2017, from https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/5/2635.101

Harwell, D., Hamburger, T., & Helderman, R. (2017, February 09). White House says Conway has been ‘counseled’ after touting Ivanka Trump’s products. Retrieved February 09, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/conway-may-have-broken-key-ethics-rule-by-touting-ivanka-trumps-products-experts-say/2017/02/09/fd1cc64a-eeda-11e6-b4ff-ac2cf509efe5_story.html?utm_term=.df07d4e8deaa

Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Public servant definition . (n.d.). Retrieved February 09, 2017, from http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/public-servant

Tani, M. (2017, February 09). ‘What she did here was wrong, wrong, wrong’: Oversight chairman requests ethics review of Kellyanne Conway. Retrieved February 09, 2017, from http://www.businessinsider.com/jason-chaffetz-ethics-review-kellyanne-conway-ivanka-trump-2017-2

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