Ministry of Ethics

From business to government to private life, Ambassador James Joseph has been striving to act ethically and develop new models of leadership.

James Joseph has a word to describe those who take their concerns about private morality and wield them like a weapon against individuals. He calls them “virtuecrats.” And while the former U.S. ambassador to South Africa is as concerned as anyone about ethics and morality—more concerned than most, actually—he is just as concerned that the focus on private virtues be matched by an equal emphasis on public values.
“In this society, we are beginning to see that people who have been demanding that their leaders act morally as individuals are now beginning to demand that their institutions act ethically,” Joseph says. “We have an opportunity now to enlarge that conversation —to talk about ethics and government, ethics and business, ethics and social change, ethics and protest. The moment is basically right.”

Joseph has experience in knowing when the moment is right. His office at Duke’s Sanford Institute of Public Policy provides just the latest in a long line of opportunities for him to expound and act upon his long-held ideas of an ethical society, from his days as a civil-rights organizer in Alabama in the early 1960s to his appointment by President Clinton as ambassador to the post-apartheid South Africa of Nelson Mandela. He has spent the past year as professor of the practice of public policy studies at the Sanford Institute and as leader-in-residence at its Hart Leadership Program. In February, he traveled halfway around the world for four months in South Africa, a schedule necessitated by his alternating semesters at Duke and at the University of Cape Town, and by the project for which one could say he has been preparing since his boyhood: the Center for Leadership and Public Values, based in Chapel Hill and Cape Town.

“I think I have a point of view and a perspective that ought to be part of the national conversation,” he says, “and so I will want to find some time to begin to translate these ideas into the sort of workable concepts that the public can identify with.” That translation has taken the form of his “Leadership and Public Values” class, a book on ethics and public life, and the nascent Center for Leadership and Public Values, which will be an independent center affiliated with Duke and the University of Cape Town. 

It is no accident that leadership is the common denominator. Joseph has been learning and teaching about the subject for decades, in arenas far removed from the classroom. “I have decided to focus on leadership because of my experience in all three sectors of society: business, government, and civil society,” he says. “I know a lot of people whose experiences could be beneficial to emerging leaders. One of the best things I could do is bring those people together, emerging leaders with experienced leaders, so leaders could learn from leaders. I’m not developing leaders—I’m identifying leaders who are emerging and who have the potential to provide leadership in a much larger way. And I’m identifying experienced leaders who are models of public accountability and efficiency, who can be not only models but mentors for emerging leaders.

“That’s why I’m establishing the center. The focus is not on what can the university teach these leaders. It’s what these young leaders can learn from experienced leaders. Best practices: What did you consider when you were mayor to be best practices in terms of the way you operated as a mayor, and the way in which you responded to your constituents as mayor? Even more important, how do you avoid burnout? What do you do for spiritual and intellectual renewal?”

While he doesn’t hold himself up as the model of leadership, pointing instead to other leaders, from Nelson Mandela to philanthropist-industrialist J. Irwin Miller, Ambassador Joseph is one of those who has been through it, and whose going through it holds the lessons emerging leaders can follow. He has come a long way from the Jim Crow South of his youth, when the rules of segregation were clear and brutal—separate and unequal facilities for education, transportation, and recreation. Whites only. No Colored allowed.

In his hometown of Opelousas, Louisiana, where he grew up in the late 1930s and through the 1940s, this was a way of life. It was still a way of life when he was a student at Yale Divinity School, where, upon earning an internship to spend a year in a college chaplaincy, he had to request an assignment to an integrated school. And to his dismay, it was still a way of life when he got his first job after seminary—a teaching post at historically black Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Alabama had been feeling the pressures of change for nearly a decade when Joseph arrived there with his wife and month-old son in 1963. The Montgomery bus boycott of 1954-55 had shown the success of non-violent social protest and catapulted a young minister named Martin Luther King Jr. into the national spotlight. Freedom Riders had taken Greyhound buses into the heart of Dixie’s segregated travel laws, facing a bus bombing in Anniston, Alabama, and beatings in Montgomery. The Birmingham movement had survived the dogs and fire hoses of Sheriff Bull Connor and a bombing directed at King and his lieutenant, Fred Shuttlesworth. Even in Tuscaloosa, the enrollment of Vivian Malone and James Hood had prompted bantamweight governor George Wallace to stand in the door of the University of Alabama’s Foster Auditorium to fulfill his pledge, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

But there was no real movement in Tuscaloosa. Despite the currents of social change swirling around the South, it was clear that the city remained a stagnant pool of racism. For downtown, where blacks worked and shopped, a new courthouse was being built—with one particular design feature that was, for this young professor, the last straw.

“They were starting to put up the Colored and White signs,” Joseph says. He and three other local ministers wrote a letter to the editor in protest and—not knowing quite how else to sign it—called themselves the Tuscaloosa Citizens Action Committee. Once the letter was published, no one knew who the group was. “We decided, well, we ought to do something. One thing led to another, we had a big mass meeting, and we organized a real movement and demonstrations and successfully desegregated a lot of things.”

He recalls the Tuscaloosa Citizens Action Committee’s first boycott as a lesson in ethics. Tuscaloosa’s white downtown merchants were feeling an economic pinch, but this was in part because a group of young blacks were “policing the boycott by tearing up any bags of anything they saw blacks buying. It was clear that we were so successful because there were enforcers to make sure that people didn’t buy, and the ethical question was, what is the primary good here? The success of our movement, so we can get jobs for people? Or is the process of nonviolence so important a statement that we cannot allow the use of violence, even against property, to enforce nonviolence?

“Even then, my concern with ethics was not just a concern with social justice, but it was also with the ethics of protest. What standards ought to apply to trying to deal with change in the community?”
It’s a concern whose roots reach as far back as the Star Light Baptist Church in Opelousas where his father was the minister. “His approach to ethics was inspirational ethics, but rule-oriented ethics—very strict, what you should not do,” he says. “I began to feel early on that there had to be more to ethics than just what I could not do. I began to get concerned that when people talked about ethics—not only my father and his church, but in the white churches and everywhere else—they really were talking about dancing, and going to the movies on Sunday, and playing cards. They were not talking about the injustices that really characterized the predicament of the black community. So from a very early age, I began to make a distinction between personal ethics and social ethics.” 

After graduating from Southern University, Joseph decided to go to divinity school “to develop a more sophisticated capacity for moral reasoning, so I could probe and pursue those questions that I had been asking ever since I was a kid.”

He has asked those questions over and over again throughout his career, whether teaching and organizing in Tuscaloosa, serving as a college chaplain at the Claremont Colleges in California while also protesting the Vietnam War, or working in the corporate world as a business executive and philanthropic leader. “My feeling is that wherever you are professionally, if you bring with you certain commitments and certain values, you can find the space to act on them, whether you are in a traditional orthodox institution or fully engaged in a social-change institution,” he says. “So I never was just the organizer of the local civil-rights movement. It is something I did while I was teaching at Stillman. I never was just the Vietnam War protestor, I was chaplain of the Claremont Colleges and it is where the moral obligations of my faith took me. And then I left Claremont and I went into business, and it was for a corporation that allowed me to raise the ethical questions both within the corporation, in terms of what it means to be responsible as a business, and on the outside, in terms of what it means to be responsible to the communities and the society in which you do business.”

One important component of Joseph’s plans for the Center for Leadership and Public Values is the opportunity for experienced leaders to mentor emerging leaders. Indeed, the center will be focused on helping to develop those relationships. Joseph says he benefited from such a relationship when he was hired to help organize the family and corporate philanthropy of the Cummins Engine Company, which “was at that time the most socially responsible corporation in the United States.”

“The opportunity to work for J. Irwin Miller really set my career on the path that has led to the many things I have done since,” he says. “If I became diplomatic, then it’s because of the influence of Irwin Miller—I was much more confrontational before. Once I went to Cummins, J. Irwin Miller used to talk to me about really getting to the levers of change, the boardrooms, and one had to be willing to be diplomatic in order to do that. I began to see the way he exerted influence; he had been an adviser on civil rights to Kennedy and Johnson, and he was chairman of the National Council of Churches at the time of the Mississippi Freedom Summer. Here was this businessman, this successful, highly admired businessman who produced a quality product and made a profit, but who was very influential as a humanitarian as well. 

“So I began to think differently about how you leverage power and influence change. It took me in another direction. I had been on the outside trying to influence change, and once I got the opportunity to be on the inside, I didn’t change my values because I was in business; I just took those same values with me and used a different vehicle to try to achieve the same purpose. Running through everything I have done is this commitment to the well-being of people and improving the quality of life for people, so whether it was business or it was government, nothing changed about me. I just changed the vehicle through which I worked.”

In 1973, just ten years after Tuscaloosa, Cummins Engine Company gave Joseph the opportunity to go to South Africa. The company had been invited to open a diesel-engine plant there, and Joseph had already helped found the anti-apartheid organization TransAfrica. “We were debating whether or not Cummins should indeed take advantage of that opportunity,” he says. “The divestment discussion was taking place, so we needed to take a careful look. I wanted to go anyway, to take a look around and gather ammunition for the war we were waging against apartheid.” He went and stayed three weeks. 

While he was there, he landed on the front pages of South African newspapers for a speech condemning apartheid, with his photograph—a successful black American businessman standing on a South African beach posted with signs reading “Whites Only. No Dogs Allowed.” He had to leave immediately because of numerous death threats received after the article’s appearance. Cummins did not build the engine plant, and Joseph did not return for seventeen years.

With each new career opportunity, Joseph’s message about ethics could reach a wider audience and effect greater change. He took a job as Undersecretary of the Interior in Jimmy Carter’s administration, the first of four presidents he would serve. When his term was over, he was invited to apply for a position at the Council on Foundations. Again, his mentor, J. Irwin Miller, made a difference in his direction, referring to the opportunity to work with the philanthropic organization as a “ministry.”

“He’s the one who really put into words what I had been feeling,” Joseph says. “He said, ‘The ministry to the wealthy and powerful is much more difficult than anything you’ve done, but I think it’s what you’ve been preparing for, and you ought to seriously consider whether you should do it.’ ” 

“Everything I’ve ever done has been a form of ministry,” says Joseph, explaining why Miller’s words had stayed with him. “I never served a regular parish, but I’ve always retained my ordained standing in the church, and I saw what I was doing as my sense of ministry. Whether I was at Cummins Engine Company, the Department of the Interior, or wherever.”

He became president of the Council on Foundations, a job he describes as “a spokesperson for benevolent wealth. But not just a spokesperson for—a spokesperson to. I brought to the Council on Foundations and to the field of organized philanthropy the consideration of values, raising questions about the fundamental purpose of what they do, and how they do it, and the relationship between means and ends.”
The point, he says, was to make a distinction between philanthropy and charity. “Charity is aimed at ameliorating the consequences of something, and philanthropy has an opportunity to get at the causes. I began to try to get people to look beyond the fact that people have needs, and to say, why do they have these needs?”

In his Hart Leadership Program Distinguished Speakers Series lecture last fall, he used a familiar parable to illustrate the point. “The most often repeated example of compassion is the story of the Good Samaritan in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. A traveler comes upon a man, who had been badly beaten, on the side of the road. He stops and provides aid and comfort. But suppose this same man traveled the same road for a week and each day he discovered in the same spot someone badly beaten. Wouldn’t he be compelled to ask who has responsibility for policing the road? His initial act of compassion must inevitably lead to public policy. It is this progression from private compassion to public action that is often missing in our discussion of private virtue. Genuine compassion requires that we not only ameliorate consequences, but that we also seek to eliminate causes.”

Nowhere does Joseph see this being as essential as in the area of race relations in the United States today. Speaking before the campus controversy over an advertisment in The Chronicle, he said, “I use the word ‘reparation,’ which is emotional and sensitive to some people, but I’ve made it clear that I am not necessarily talking about just some form of cash payment. Reparation is an attempt to redress the problems of the past in some significant way. I’d settle for putting an educational floor under everybody, so everybody has a chance to compete. That, for me, is reparation. 

“When I use the word ‘reparation,’ I don’t mean to give every African American $20,000, like we did the Japanese [survivors and descendants of World War II internment camps]. But I certainly consider affirmative action a form of reparation, and affirmative action as it was originally intended, not as it is now stereotyped. That is a recognition, as I said in the [Martin Luther King Jr. service] sermon, that if you break a person’s leg and you put them on the starting line of a hundred-yard dash and say, you have an equal opportunity, it’s a joke. But, if you help to mend that individual’s leg that you’ve broken and then you say, you now have equal opportunity, that’s the kind of reparation I’m talking about.”

Joseph doesn’t actually bristle when he is asked whether pervasive racism and a clear political divide in the United States would be ameliorated by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission akin to that put in place in South Africa after the fall of apartheid. But he is clear about the inadequacies of such a solution for this country’s problems. “The truth that the South Africans wanted to deal with was the truth about the past. What we need to deal with is the truth about the present,” he says. “If we’re going to talk about truth and justice and reconciliation, rather than just truth and reconciliation or rather than just justice and reconciliation, we have to make sure that Americans understand that race still matters. Most Americans now are saying, because they know at least one black American who is doing well, that race no longer matters.

“I think the word ‘reconciliation’ sounds too much like the human-relations committees that were established in the late Fifties and early Sixties. There was one in Tuscaloosa when I went there, and I went to one of their meetings, where people sat around and talked and they considered that ‘reconciliation.’ And in the meantime, folks were still prohibited from eating at restaurants or getting a drink of water at a clean water fountain or getting an education. They were sitting around talking about improving human relations when what black people really wanted was access to jobs and opportunities.”

Talking didn’t work then, and Joseph says it isn’t what’s needed now. “People want to sit around again and have reconciliation groups and let people tell their stories. There may be a few individuals who are willing to do that, and it may be helpful for some who have already been successful. They can talk about, ‘when I tried to join a private golf club, I ran into discrimination.’ But they’ve already made it. They’ve got the money to join that golf club. What we really need to talk about is the majority of the black community, and how you benefit the majority. How to reconcile them with the rest of society is by equipping them with skills and making sure they have an opportunity to compete. It’s not a conversation. It’s action.”

Action is what Joseph wants to continue to facilitate through his work on leadership and ethics. He returns to the idea that public values—what he calls “macroethics”—are increasingly becoming a part of the larger dialogue. “I argue in my ‘Changing Role of Ethics’ lecture that, increasingly, ethics is power. Business corporations are beginning to see that being ethical is good business,” he says. “Whether they see it from the language of self-interest or they are driven by something transcendent doesn’t really matter. What I am interested in is their acting ethically. Once you engage them from the language of self-interest, you may be able to take them to a much nobler and higher level. In the process, some of those companies begin to look at the larger need of the community, and they begin to realize that the success of the corporation may be dependent upon the quality of life for the communities in which they operate.”

Even as Joseph stresses the need for “public values appropriate for an interdependent world that is integrating and fragmenting at the same time,” as he put it in his Hart lecture, he does come full circle to the responsibility of and the necessity for the ethical individual to act. “In the midst of all the reasons for pessimism,” he said in that speech, “I think I hear what Albert Camus described as the flutter of wings. I think I see what Robert Kennedy called a million points of daring.”

Back in his office, as he points out a picture on the wall of him and his second wife, Mary Braxton Joseph, with President Mandela, and a notepad filled with reminders of things to do when he arrives in South Africa the next week, the ambassador reflects on the private virtues that can lead to these public values.

“The individual’s responsibility is to remain committed to a core set of values, wherever you are, and to act on those wherever you are, rather than simply to say, I’m in business now and so, while I have these individual concerns, my job now is as a business executive,” he says. “Well, you need to focus on where you are. You begin where you are. You try to find some space where you are to change where you are, and that is the responsibility of the individual. There’s the opportunity always to work outside, too, to find some time to volunteer, to work with some sort of change organization. You find yourself doing both, if you remain committed to your values.”
That commitment is clearly not impossible. Joseph’s own career is the proof. And the philosophy that he began to develop in that Opelousas church, the pursuit of which took him to divinity school, has given him a pulpit where he can lead by example, where every speech and every action can be seen as a sermon on ethics, and the congregation grows larger than he might ever have thought it would.

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor