Is it time to recommit to ethical leadership in SA?

“[It] really isn’t an option but a national imperative because when you are a leader you have the authority to influence those that you lead, and it is what you do that largely determines what those who follow you are likely to do… We are where we are as a result of what unethical leadership did to us as a nation.” (News24, 12 April 2016)

These are the words of Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, who spoke yesterday at a conference at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. And they strike a poignant chord with hundreds of thousands of South Africans who of tired of corruption at the highest levels of government. But this powerful message is not just for politicians, but all South Africans who are privileged enough to be in a position of leadership.

And it begs the question: Isn’t it time for all South Africans to recommit to ethical leadership?

But how do we become and build more ethical leaders, leaders who will become powerful custodians of the future of our country?

Cynthia Schoeman, in her recent book Ethics Can, highlights that while traditional approaches to developing leadership such as leadership courses, leadership development programmes, executive coaching and succession-planning initiatives, all add value, to enhance the impact of ethics, these initiatives should be underpinned by the following five behaviours:

5 Steps to become a more ethical leader

  1. 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 the leader’s decisions and actions.
  2. 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 is being seen” and “what I say”.
  3. 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 leaders should aspire to do more than the bare minimum, and it excludes a “tick-box” approach to compliance.
  4. Follow the golden rule to do to others as you would like them to do to you: The philosophy of reversibility is a well-recognised approach and a principle at the centre of most religions which includes considering the effect of one’s actions and decisions on others. (It does not include the variation of “doing unto others before they have a chance to do to you”!)
  5. Lead to empower others, not just for self: Leadership that aims to empower others and to better enable them to be leaders represents the optimal leadership purpose. This contrasts with leadership which is primarily for personal gain. This leadership style is reflected in the works of both Robert Greenleaf and Peter Block. Greenleaf uses the term “servant leadership” and Block refers to “stewardship” to describe leadership that chooses serving, supporting, empowering and developing others above self-interest (Greenleaf, 1977; Block, 1993).

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 towards developing more ethical leaders, both in number and quality. Paraphrasing a quotation attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that “we need to be the change we wish to see in the world” summarises the issue of ethics and leaders well, namely, that we need to be the ethical leader we want and wish to follow.

To learn more about Cynthia Schoeman’s book (this is also available as an e-version), Ethics Canclick here now.


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