The Javert-Bender Divide: For a Postconventional Leadership Style

By Nikki Fisher | 3/19/14 7:47pm

My freshman year in the Niemeyer dorms, a bunch of the kids from my floor would often sit down in the long-carpeted hallways between our individual units and talk. Now in my senior year, I don’t remember what these conversations were about, I don’t even remember everyone involved, but I do remember that they were crucial to whatever social blossoming I experienced during my freshman year. The ideas and friendships I gleaned from this community living style couldn’t have been more valuable to freshman-me.

A couple times a week, one of the R.A.s from a neighboring building would kick us out of the hall, citing the fact that loitering in the hallway presented a “fire hazard.” If there were a fire, she argued, we would be an impediment to others, a blockade in between them and their route to safety.

As if Honors students, in the face of a flashing, screeching fire alarm, would remain firmly seated in the hallways of a burning building. As if we wouldn’t move out of the way for those trying to pass through the halls.

I understand the Housing office’s need to establish such rules in order to protect themselves legally and/or prevent against extreme situations in which a true fire hazard may exist. That being said, trust me, the Niemeyer Living Center had a far bigger issue with social isolation than with fire hazards.

Our R.A. had a better approach to this rule. He would often tease us for breaking the rule, effectively reminding us of the risks, while simultaneously recognizing that our actions did not pose a real threat.

Rules are weird entities. We impose them upon ourselves, upon others, and upon the world in attempts to create order and inefficiency. Both as an individual and as a leader, I’ve always struggled to figure out my own relationship to rules.

The media often depicts people who follow one extreme or the other a little too closely: one one side you have Javert from Les Misérables, who ends up killing himself upon finding a flaw in his structured reality. Then there’s John Bender from Breakfast Club, who ardently challenges every rule presented to him without discrimination and ends up as a social outcast in an interminable purgatory of high school detention.

Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg provides insight here with his three stages of morality: preconventional morality, where individuals follow rules to evade punishment; conventional morality, where individuals follow rules for the sake of following the law and promoting social harmony; and post-conventional morality, where the individual determines his own universal principles through reason.

The self-evident solution to the Javert-Bender dichotomy is to abandon conventional morality contextualize rules in favor of a more postconventional approach. But this is easier said than done, isn’t it? How does one go about contextualizing rules? What criteria does one compare them to?

I think what I’m really arguing is that it’s important to think about the “why” behind rules, always, even if these rules seem trivial. In the hallway-fire-hazard example, for example, I would argue that the “why” behind the rule was not ameliorated by the enforcement of said rule.

Following this logic, as leaders with postconventional morality, we must be willing to take risks (e.g. punishment, social discontent) in order to be true to our principles, to be allowed to make decisions using our common sense within a particular context rather than blindly following a pseudo-universal law.

I think it’s the common sense part that really gets me. Why anyone in a young Democratic nation such as ours ever want to promote a system in which individuals are encouraged to follow rules blindly rather than to think critically?

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