When leaders don’t practice what they preach


In studying the religions of the world, the German sociologist Max Weber (1864 – 1920) made a distinction between the ethical and the exemplary prophet. The ethical prophet tells us what to do but doesn’t necessarily do it themselves. The exemplary prophet leads by virtue of their lifestyle—that is, they lead a life of integrity.

Justin Trudeau takes yet another tropical vacation on his carbon-heavy private jet at the taxpayers’ expense

The other night I was chatting with an artificial intelligence “Assistant” which isn’t very good, IMO, when discussing politically correct ideas and especially, the hegemony of science over other types of knowledge gathering and problem-solving. But it can write fairly good fiction and does excel as a basic reference tool and summarizer of existing ideas—the history of ideas, that is.

The “Assistant” said that not unlike religious figures political leaders can also behave like Weber’s ethical or exemplary “prophets.” Then I remembered that sociology can be pretty pedantic. Sociological theorists tend to say things we all know and can express in a much simpler way. So I asked the AI “Assistant” to talk about the idea of “practicing what we preach,” which is really what Max Weber was getting at. Or at least, partly.

Here’s the transcript. The first question and answer actually took place at the end. But other than that, the Q&A order is maintained.

What does the saying “practice what you preach” mean?

“Practice what you preach” is a saying that means to live according to one’s own advice or teachings. It means that you should do what you tell others to do, rather than just giving advice without following it yourself. The saying is often used to criticize someone who gives advice or lectures others on how to behave but does not follow that same advice themselves. It suggests that the person is being hypocritical or insincere in their words and actions.

Please talk about Max Weber’s two types of prophets—the ethical vs. the exemplary.

Max Weber, a German sociologist and political economist, developed a theory of social action that distinguishes between two types of prophets: the ethical prophet and the exemplary prophet.

The ethical prophet is motivated by a sense of moral duty and seeks to promote a particular ethical or moral code. This type of prophet preaches a message that is universal and applicable to all people, regardless of their social or cultural circumstances. Ethical prophets often seek to bring about social change by calling for the adoption of a particular set of values or by challenging existing social norms and institutions.

The exemplary prophet, on the other hand, is more concerned with setting a personal example for others to follow. This type of prophet preaches a message that is more concerned with personal behavior and how individuals should conduct themselves in their daily lives. Exemplary prophets often seek to inspire others to live their lives in a particular way, rather than trying to bring about social change on a larger scale.

Weber’s theory of social action suggests that prophets can play a significant role in shaping social and cultural norms and in influencing the behavior of others. By preaching their message and setting an example for others to follow, prophets can inspire people to live their lives in a particular way and to adhere to certain moral and ethical values.

So could we say that one type of prophet teaches by dictating rules, while the other teaches by asking others to emulate their example?

Yes, that’s one way to think about it. The ethical prophet is more focused on promoting a particular set of values or ethical code, and may dictate rules or principles that people should follow. This type of prophet seeks to bring about social change by encouraging others to adopt a particular set of values or beliefs.

On the other hand, the exemplary prophet is more focused on setting a personal example for others to follow. This type of prophet preaches a message that is more concerned with personal behavior and how individuals should conduct themselves in their daily lives. Rather than dictating rules or principles, the exemplary prophet inspires others to live their lives in a particular way by showing them how it can be done through their own behavior and example.

Both types of prophets seek to influence the behavior of others and to shape social and cultural norms, but they do so in different ways. The ethical prophet promotes a particular set of values or beliefs, while the exemplary prophet sets an example for others to follow.

Could this duality apply to political leaders as well?

Yes, it’s possible to apply Weber’s theory of the ethical and exemplary prophet to political leaders. Political leaders often seek to promote a particular set of values or policies, and may use their position of power and influence to try to bring about social and political change.

Political leaders who are more focused on promoting a particular set of values or ethical code might be considered “ethical prophets” in Weber’s sense of the term. They may seek to inspire others to adopt a particular set of values or beliefs, and may use their position of power and influence to try to shape social and cultural norms.

Political leaders who are more focused on setting a personal example for others to follow might be considered “exemplary prophets.” Rather than promoting a particular set of values or policies, these leaders may seek to inspire others through their own behavior and example. They may try to influence others by showing them how to conduct themselves in a particular way, rather than dictating rules or principles for them to follow.

It’s worth noting that political leaders may also combine elements of both the ethical and exemplary prophet in their approach to leadership. Some leaders may seek to promote a particular set of values or policies while also setting an example for others to follow through their own behavior and actions.

Thanks, good answer!

You’re welcome! I’m glad I could help clarify things for you. Do you have any other questions on this topic or anything else I might be able to help with?

OpenAI (2022). “Assistant.” [Online]. Available: https://openai.com/blog/openai-assistant/.

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