The goal of achieving ethical behaviour in the workplace is shared by organisations across different sectors, industries and countries. Of the factors which shape behaviour, leaders are widely recognized as the most influential. As role models, they effectively set the ethical standards of the organisation by the values they demonstrate, by what they say and do, and by what they don’t say and do.

Good leaders and bad leaders

Good leadership implies that the leader acts to entrench the organisation’s values and code of conduct. It reflects what the King III Report on Corporate Governance in South Africa refers to as “responsible leaders” who “do business ethically rather than merely being satisfied with legal or regulatory compliance”, and who are characterized by the ethical values of responsibility, accountability, fairness and transparency.

The winners of the Nobel Peace Prize offer a number of high-profile examples of good leaders: Desmond Tutu (1984), the 14th Dalai Lama (1989), Aung San SuuKyi (1991) and Nelson Mandela (1993).

There are, however, many more examples of unethical leadership. Prominent incidents include Silvio Berlusconi, who is facing charges for having sex with an underage prostitute, and Jacques Chirac who received a two-year suspended prison sentence for diverting public funds for party political purposes. Bad political leadership saw popular uprisings unseat the governments of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya in 2011. Corruption among Hosni Mubarak’s elite in a country suffering widespread poverty was a major cause for the revolution in Egypt that removed him and his government from power. In South Africa political figures who have demonstrated unethical conduct include Jackie Selebi, the former National Police Commissioner, Sicelo Shiceka, the previous Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, and Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, the former Public Words Minister.

In business there are more examples. Misconduct has resulted in jail sentences for businessmen such as Bernard Madoff, the financier whose Ponzi scheme defrauded thousands of investors of an estimated $18 billion, and Raj Rajaratnam, the founder of the Galleon Group, a New York-based hedge fund management firm, who was convicted of insider trading and is now serving an 11 year jail sentence.

In pursuit of more ethical leaders

While the value and importance of ethical leadership cannot be overestimated, the challenge appears to be that there are too few ethical leaders.

Addressing this by focusing on initiatives to develop more ethical leaders is a sound approach, provided it is not undermined by restrictive assumptions.

A primary assumption, arising out of leadership being associated by a small group of individuals at the top of an organisation, is that leadership exists only in certain people. This denies the recognition that leadership exists at all levels in an organisation. It also limits leadership to the few, as opposed to shared leadership which benefits from many more sources of leadership.

An allied view is that only a few select people have leadership potential. This has as a consequence a limited development focus: Only a few potential leaders are developed, rather than developing the leadership potential in everyone. A further assumption was well articulated by Peter Senge, who acknowledged that “when things are going poorly, we blame the situation on incompetent leaders … [and]… when things become desperate we can easily find ourselves waiting for a great leader to rescue us.” This outward focus of looking for someone else to be the ethical leader to raise the level of behaviour in the organisation misses the bigger question, namely what are we, individually and collectively, able to contribute. Taking personal responsibility for exercising ethical leadership in your sphere of influence can make a difference. Coupled to the acceptance that leadership exists in everyone and that shared leadership is optimal, it can make a noteworthy difference.

Paraphrasing Mahatma Gandhi’s view that “we need to be the change we wish to see in the world”, we need to be the ethical leader we want and wish to follow.

Towards being an ethical leader

The traditional approaches to developing leadership include leadership courses, leadership development programmes, executive coaching and succession-planning initiatives, all of which can add value.

All such initiatives should be underpinned by the following steps which are core to fostering more ethical leadership.

  • Understand and live your values. The crucial moral values in the workplace are honesty, integrity, fairness, respect, responsibility and accountability. Living these values entails a personal commitment to the values - not merely superficial compliance - which is evident in all your decisions and actions.
  • Live the organisation’s culture Leaders who live the organisation’s culture offer visible behavioural support for the way things should be done in the workplace. This makes no allowance for the leader who does not make the link between “what I do and what’s being seen” and “what I say”.
  • Comply with and support applicable legislation, rules and regulations. This takes into account that the law is only ever a minimum standard. It means that you should aspire to do more than the bare minimum, and it excludes a “tick box” approach to compliance.
  • Follow the golden rule to do to others as you would like them to do to you. The philosophy of reversibility is a well-recognized approach, and a principle at the centre of most religions. It does not include the variation of doing unto others before they have a chance to do to you!
  • Lead to empower others, not just for self Leadership which aims to empower other and to better enable them to be leaders represents the optimal leadership purpose. This contrasts with leadership which is primarily for personal gain.

The path to ethical leadership is not always smooth

While these factors may appear straight forward, there are challenges on this path of ethical leadership.

One such challenge is that these standards of behaviour are likely to apply beyond your work role. As a role model, good standards at your workplace cannot be seen to be contradicted by poor standards in your personal life. Similarly, being an ethical leader is not a part time pursuit. It is a permanent role which requires constant attention.

Another challenge arises from the fact that even the most ethical leader may occasionally slip and be guilty of some misconduct. The rapid rise of social media and the effectiveness of electronic communications mean that unethical acts can rarely be hidden. The question is therefore how to handle an ethical failure.

An approach which can re-establish trust is the A4 approach (discussed in detail in Newsletter issue 2), which entails four steps: admit; apologise; make amends; and don’t do it again.

Admitting may well cause damage, but when the facts are surfaced by the press, it is almost certain to cause more damage. If a leader admits to the problem as soon as it comes to his/her attention, the admission can even be positioned as being transparent. Apologising is ideally done in conjunction with admitting. It will not right the wrong, but, to the extent that it reflects the guilty party’s acknowledgement of the wrongdoing, it can create a platform for moving forward. Make amends should not be a token gesture, but should recompense those negatively affected appropriately. Ensuring that the ethical failure does not happen again entails not only ensuring that the specific incident does not occur again, but also avoiding another ethical failure. This necessitates an ethics management strategy and appropriate supporting actions.

As good role models, leaders should enhance and uplift the ethics around them: in their teams, their departments, their businesses or their communities. Giving greater effect to this as a primary leadership role and responsibility is a good start to develop more ethical leaders, both in number and quality.