Ethical leadership – it’s imperative

The importance of ethical leadership is well articulated by our Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng in this excellent interview extract: Power FM 98.7 interview by Aldrin Sampear on 15 May 2019.

An open letter from 28 civil society organisations to the newly elected Members of Parliament and Members of the National Council of Provinces that was handed in to Parliament on 22 May 2019 reiterates the Chief Justice’s views: “The challenge to all of us is to stop kowtowing to corrupt leadership wherever it is to be found. We would never have been where we are right now had everybody been doing what they often take an oath to do …”. The letter reminds MPs that, having been elected in accordance with the rules of our Constitution, “it is to the Constitution - to which you will take an oath to obey, respect and uphold - that you owe your greatest loyalty”, and that “good governance is not an end in itself; it is a prerequisite for effective service delivery and social justice”.

Leadership is widely accepted as having the most powerful impact on organisational culture. The increased power and authority that comes with a position of leadership allows leaders to have a greater influence on others, whether by means of decisions, policies or strategy. Added to that, the higher visibility that generally accompanies a leadership role enables them as role models to have a further impact on an even wider audience than their direct followers, to employees across the organisation or citizens in the country.

Servant leadership reflects an ethical leadership approach that specifically supports the beneficial outcome of leadership for others. The phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert Greenleaf in an essay first published in 1970. The servant leader focuses on sharing power, putting the needs of others first and helping people develop: on using the power of leadership to serve their followers. This contrasts starkly with leadership that is characterised by the accumulation and exercise of power and the pursuit of self-enrichment.

The importance of ethical leadership is well recognised in the King IV™ Report, notably inasmuch corporate governance is defined as being “about the exercise of ethical and effective leadership by the governing body”.

It could be argued that effectiveness has always been required of leaders. Business leaders are expected to deliver sound, sustainable results and political leaders are expected to ensure service delivery to their constituencies. But the combination of ethical and effective is noteworthy as it combines the ‘what’ and the ‘how’: it ensures that the pursuit of being effective is guided by ethical principles and conduct. Crucially that entails being effective for the development and benefit of the affected stakeholders.

What is necessary to give effect to ethical and effective leadership?

The following questions highlight some of the key issues that need to be in place and taken into account.

  • Are leaders up-to-speed as regards current and emerging ethical trends and challenges? This is crucial to equip them to deal more effectively with unexpected ethical breaches and to enable them to build and maintain an ethical brand and reputation.
  • Do leaders advocate a comprehensive or a limited approach to ethics? Specifically, do they view ethics primarily as legal and regulatory compliance with a focus on risk? If so, they are missing the critical impetus that is gained from a focus on strengthening values and improving ethical conduct.
  • Do leaders effectively position ethics as being of significant value to the organisation and its people? Do leaders make a strong, sound case for ethics that pursues the new ROI (the return on integrity) and strives to build ethical capital? If the value of ethics is not high enough it can erode the organisation’s ability to stand firm against the possible cost of being ethical (when, for example, not paying a bride loses the company the tender).
  • Has the leadership (including the board) insisted upon the implementation of a sound, integrated ethics management system, not least because such a system can minimise risk and reputational damage? Or is ethics only managed via limited indicators such as whistleblowing reports or on an ad hoc and reactive basis?
  • Does ethics inform leaders’ decisions? Are decisions made that are consistently fair to all affected parties?
  • Do leaders have a clear, shared understanding of their roles and responsibilities relative to ethics? Do they embrace being the custodians of ethics and accept the responsibility to uplift their organisation’s ethics?

The consequences of the abuse of leadership power can be far-reaching, especially as bad leaders (and those they benefit) have a vested interest in retaining power, so their demise is often not as quick as would be desirable. And, until unethical leaders are removed from office, the negative consequences of the abuse of power will continue to impact others: employees, followers, stakeholders and citizens. All of which makes the case for ethical leadership.

by Cynthia Schoeman
© Ethics Monitoring & Management Services (Pty) Ltd, 2019