“Leadership” and “ethics.”

Putting those words in the same sentence may seem like an oxymoron or a contradiction in terms given today’s volatile political climate.

But Lee Rasch is determined to change both the perception and the reality of that premise. After serving as Western Technical College president from 1989-2017, he is now executive director of LeaderEthics Wisconsin, a nonpartisan organization founded last year that seeks to “promote ethical leadership among elected officials,” he said during a meeting with the Leader-Telegram editorial board.

“It seems like we’re trending in the wrong direction,” said Rasch, a Democratic candidate for Congress in 1994 and 1996. “There doesn’t seem to be anyone in Congress standing up for (ethical leadership).”

The organization defines ethical leaders as honest and truthful, transparent with public information, unifiers rather than dividers, and representative of their entire constituencies.

LeaderEthics Wisconsin (leaderethics wi.org) has chapters in La Crosse and Madison and is seeking to add Eau Claire to that list. Rasch emphasized that it’s a grassroots effort.

“The change is going to happen here,” he said, “not in Washington or even the state Capitol.”

• • •

Key concerns for LeaderEthics Wisconsin include the public’s eroding trust in government and a widening gap between Democrats and Republicans as people slide to extreme positions.

And the dissemination of faulty news is at the core of those trends.

“Disinformation is a bigger issue than campaign finance reform and gerrymandering,” Rasch said.

As for the 2020 elections, LeaderEthics Wisconsin cites a report by Paul Barrett of the New York University Stern School of Business that makes some unsettling digital predictions that include:

• Americans could be manipulated into participating in real-world rallies and protests.

• Fake videos will be deployed to harm candidates.

• Iran and China could join Russia as sources of disinformation.

• Domestic disinformation will prove more prevalent than that from foreign sources.

• • •

LeaderEthics Wisconsin developed a citizens guide that provides guidelines and resources on ethical leadership. One suggestion is to not “like” or “share” social media posts that appear “falsified, exaggerated or dated” and encourage others to do the same.

The nonprofit organization also produces a monthly ethics report that’s reviewed by a panel of judges to ensure its content isn’t biased. “Any content that is determined to lack balance, fairness or objectivity will be removed from The Ethics Report prior to distribution,” reads the group’s website. Tom Lister, a former Jackson County Circuit Court judge who retired in 2014, is a member of the panel.

Past speakers at events have included Dave Skogen, chairman for Festival Foods, and Brian Rude, a former state legislator who is vice president of Dairyland Power Cooperative. LeaderEthics Wisconsin holds candidate development programs as well.

Rasch also highlighted the work of New York-based Better Angels, which describes itself as “a national citizens’ movement to reduce political polarization in the United States by bringing liberals and conservatives together to understand each other beyond stereotypes, forming red/blue community alliances, teaching practical skills for communicating across political differences, and making a strong public argument for depolarization.”

A more local, personal approach also can have an impact, Rasch said.

“When you see good, ethical leadership,” he said, “compliment them, recognize them.”

Nevertheless, Rasch admitted the organization’s goals will be challenging in today’s environment.

“This is going to be a long haul,” he said.

Maybe so, but it’s certainly a road worth taking.

Liam Marlaire, assistant editor