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LEADERSHIP AND ETHICS

Implications for Schools as Centres of Excellence in Education[1]

Leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential

so clearly that they come to see it in themselves. – Stephen R Covey

It is a well attested fact that the challenge of the modern century is a crisis of leadership. It is leadership that steers the course in war and in peace, that ensures that objectives are met, and hopes and aspirations realized. Although leadership has become an all-pervasive study of the human condition in our times, it is remarkable that leadership has tended to be studied largely in relation to business. It was a groundbreaking move when in 1960 the University of South Africa established their School of Business Leadership, as distinct from a School of Business Administration or Management.

Leadership surely entails the capacity to galvanise, or mobilise people by a strategic utilization of available resources to achieve their set objectives. To that extent therefore, leadership facilitates and enables. But Leadership is about people – their anatomy, their psychology and their gifts and skills. The amazing thing is that almost everyone exercises leadership in one aspect of life or another – in the home, in community or neighbourhood, and in various aspects of human endeavor. We all somehow and sometimes exercise leadership. It is to recognize the skills, intelligence and effort that are required of us in different environments of leadership that we get to understand how best we can help achieve what is the best.

I need to express myself with a bit more care and nuance. We speak so often about “achievement”. We are inclined to be “driven” by “success”, profit or objectives. Often we fail to measure that element of leadership that is about human fulfillment, the capacity to realize one’s human worth, and for potential to be unleashed. That “worth” may not immediately translate into the bottom line, but nonetheless it cannot be said that it is without achievement. In other words it is at the level of the confluence of three categories of being that we find Leadership “success”:  human worth, realization of potential and meeting declared targets or strategic objectives.

A great deal of studies on leadership has been about strategies that work to bring about the realized ends. Such studies are often about the social psychology of working with people, designing vision and mission, inspiring people to achieve, working together as a team or as a collective, checking and directing progress, assessing results.

We begin often by analyzing the qualities that leaders possess. We study the biographies of the great leaders of previous generations, we take situational or contextual case studies as in the Harvard Business School method, and we learn lessons from them. In all those, it is without doubt agreed that leaders are possessed of critical qualities: the quality of insight and discernment, the quality to inspire and to be possessed of a vision, ambition to succeed, understanding of and respect for people, and the quality of being a strategist that knows what works when and how. Yes, in recent months much has been said about Winston Churchill., a leader in war-time, and about Martin Luther King Jr, a leader in the struggle for civil rights. But there have also been phenomenal leaders in business. We hear so much about Jack Welch of GE, Steve Jobs of Microsoft and many others. The person (namely, the individual) and personality surely matters in leadership. But often that winning personality cannot always be easily defined. It is that capacity to capture the attention and receive loyalty from others, who may be struck by awe or respect to respond.

Leadership is also not just about personality, or the position of the “leader” – who becomes “the Fuehrer” or “The Brother Leader” as in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. It is also about the people who are led. It is important to understand the people who are led or who follow the leader. They have certain personalities that may affect or influence the tenor of leadership. The leaders may be indistinguishable from the crowd because they function in such an integral manner from within the rest that the leader blends into the whole. Sometimes this is referred to as servant leadership. What I have in mind is that leaders must also understand the people they lead, Followers are not mere passive receptacles of the wisdom of leaders, they shape and inform leadership, and they can make or break leaders. One must share with them something of a vision, and understand what makes them “tick”, internalize the context. In sum, then, however much technology, globalization and the science of humanities have developed, it remains universally accepted that Leadership Matters.

Modern scholarship has now moved from the psychology of leadership, or the behaviourist conceptions of leadership, to leadership by values, or leadership as reflective of, guarantor and creator of the values systems of the community. sometimes also referred to as “leadership by design”. Perhaps, that has something to do with the devastation that was caused in recent years by the collapse of some of the large financial and investment corporations, notably Enron in the USA. It has become apparent that the cost of leadership must also be assessed. In other words it is just as important HOW goals are achieved as the fact that they are achieved at all. In other words the topic that refers to “Leadership” and “Ethics” misses the point. In many respects one can hardly talk about leadership without factoring in values or ethics. Ethics is the necessary means by which leadership achieves goals by paying attention to ways and means, and not just to the ends. It is to understand that leadership is best exercised in an environment of checks and balances, in a responsible and accountable manner, under limitations of law, good order and morality. In other words the driving ambition must never on its own be allowed to become the final end no matter what rights and responsibilities are trampled upon in the process. It also means that leadership must be exercised in a fair and just manner mindful of the human dignity, the environment and rights of others. In other words leadership can hardly be achieved without regard to the principles of “goodness” or “the common good”. It is my submission therefore that there can hardly be any leadership if it is devoid of values and ethics. Failure to have this would result in unimaginable risk and damage to reputation, limit the probable contribution to the wellbeing of society, and might also risk loss to the bottom line.[2]

All that may be too theoretical. It is my view that in South Africa we are guided by the Constitution and the values enshrined therein. Those values are set out in the Preamble to the Constitution that speak of human potential, and in the first paragraphs of the Constitution we are told that South Africa is one sovereign, democratic state founded on the following values… human dignity, the achievement of equality and social justice. It has been my opinion that this suggests that whatever the actions of state or the agents of public power might be, it is about enhancing the quality of life and dignity of others. This also means that leadership and public resources are at the disposal of the state to advance and enhance the purposes clearly set out in the Constitution.  One observes as a matter of concern that some of the judgments of the justices of the Constitutional Court fail to draw on the intricate relationship between law and ethics that one believes is embedded in our Constitution.

One example is the recent case[3] on the application of the regulations on pregnancy by learners. The principles of legality and constitutionality were considered without regard to the ethical issues that are as much the mission of the school environment as are the rights and best interests of the learners. Of course the issue of law and morality is a vexed matter in jurisprudence. Nevertheless, especially in a country where values are entrenched in the Constitution, and where one ought to be mindful of the social environment of conduct in public life, schools are an important if not vital area for the practice of moral principles. South Africa’s judiciary ought to be mindful of words once stated by Leon Fuller “internal adherence to the internal morality of law would, in practice, significantly inhibit a government’s ability to engage in grossly immoral behavior…” (Bradney: Two Links of Law and Morality, ETHICS Vol 103 January 1993 No 2, 283). What is under question in our country is whether people believe that the “internal morality of law” has currency any longer. I wish to suggest that that “internal morality” of law is expressed in our Constitution, but its lifeblood is in the practice of law and governance.

I disagree with many others who decry the fact that South Africa is not possessed of a unifying vision and a compelling idealism. I believe that Nelson Mandela was able to rally this nation away from its sordid past towards embracing reconciliation as the means by which we could continue to live for and realize the vision of the liberation struggle and the benefits of the historic negotiated settlement. I believe that Thabo Mbeki, likewise, captured the imagination of this nation with his eloquent statement “I am an African…” African Renaissance thus became a rallying cry of connecting South Africa with its inner being, and to be conscious of itself as an African country with a shared destiny with the rest of the Continent.

For both former heads of state there was this sense of decent government, kind and caring especially to the poor and needy - the soft side of politics that is designed to enhance human value and to lift people towards a higher value of themselves. In other words the focus had to be on honest living, peaceful co-existence, and a pursuit for peaceable relations with others. The picture that emerged was therefore not one of power as brute force, but of power as an inner resolve to be good and to do good.  To be a nation at peace with itself, and seeking to be an influence for peace and goodness in world affairs was an ideal former President Nelson Mandela often articulated during his term of office. This element of the pursuit of the good is often lost sight of. But it was in my view that understanding that as South Africans we were capable of being good for the sake of the other.

South Africa can do without the aggressive and angry conduct that has become our national pastime, violence-ridden, selfish and self-centred, living with distrust and mutual suspicion. We could live to pursue genuine equality as a common project, and address the pathologies of inequality. We could be a caring nation that is outraged both by the debilitating poverty that surrounds us as well as by the obscene wealth that gets flaunted by those of excessive means. We could address the plight of the unemployed by electing governments and for corporates to be prepared to take fewer profits. We could achieve more by treating our fellow South Africans as fully human, men and women of dignity who may be silent for now but are never without voice. The politics of our country could reflect the “decency” that our Constitution and laws promise. That it does not happen can be attributable to bad leadership. Besides bad leadership there is a meta-narrative that undermines development and promotes dependency and clientelism. The messages of “The Big Man” or the Big Party” can only induce despondency about our political and social life. The problem we have these days in South Africa (i.e. in the Zuma Presidency) is that governance tends to proceed in a peripatetic fashion like a drunken sailor without direction, form or order, and certainly without evidence of a driving, overarching, organizing principle, or vision. The result is Leadership that is not value-based.

I am very impressed that one of the universities in Kenya holds an annual Ethics Conference in partnership with government. The National Ethics Conference brings to the attention of the ordinary public the importance of living an ethical life, the human fulfillment that derives therefrom, and how in small ways ordinary people can become conscious of their own ethical living. In this way, the nation could become aware of the innate goodness that is part of the human condition, a message that counters the prevailing ideologies of acquisitiveness and materialism. Finally, this should empower ordinary people to demand accountable and ethical leadership, and to restore their human dignity.

Of course, leadership should never simply about the lone ranger mentality. There is not likely any longer to be anything like a messianic leadership. That is because leadership reflects the values of the society it comes from but with this difference: Leadership calls us to our higher values rather than to wallow in our most base instincts. It is not just about popularity or approval per se. It is rather about that capacity to be moral and call the nation to be self-corrective about the values it wishes to espouse, and how such values are representative of its nature and character. Leadership is responsibility.

The German Philosopher Immanuel Kant talks about the “categorical imperative”. It is a principle that says that "I am never to act otherwise than so that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law."  If it is good enough, it must be good to be shared. That is my idea of a common good. This Kantian adage is really about living in practice that which one believes, to share with others that which one holds dear, and to act at all times with moral consistency. In this regard one cannot but express alarm at times at the moral bankruptcy in public life both in matters of state and well as in the private sector. For some reason, words have lost their meaning. One listens to politicians decry to high heaven the incidence of crime and threatening that action will be taken against any found guilty of corruption. In truth, we know, that in the same vein the same politicians are actively engaged in corrupt dealings, and that the resources of the state are being diverted to non-legitimate purposes. Huge infrastructure programmes have less to do with a desire to improve the wellbeing of people and create employment than with huge deals that are to be made, and the private sector aids and abets corruption by engaging in corrupt dealings to divert the resources of the state. No wonder therefore that the word “honour” no longer has any meaning, as ministers and senior public servants are engaged in a culture of corrupt activities. The real danger, though, is that this will all become so inane (meaning, without significance, empty or void) to ordinary citizens that they have come to expect no better from politicians and immoral behavior becomes the common expectation of the people. When people become cynical and get to expect no better from leaders and from politicians, then we are on course to make of our national life the Wild West. A leader therefore has no choice but to be the exemplar and model of the nation’s good idea of itself.

In a recent article in Al Jazeera on line, Hamid Dabashi, a scholar of Persian Studies at Columbia University has this to say:

Therefore the agent "must" act according to a "model" which he would like to see diffused among all mankind (sic), according to a type of civilisation for whose coming he is working-or for whose preservation he is "resisting" the forces that threaten its disintegration (Dabashi).

It is precisely that self-confidence, that self-consciousness, that self-assuredness, that audacity to think and plan ourselves into an unimagined future, that the seeds whose birth lie embedded in the loins of present time, are brought to birth.  If only leaders would think not just of the present time, but recognize that they are indeed planting the seeds that may lead to destruction in the nascent future, then they would recognize that their present conduct makes the future they wish to see. Jim Wallis in his book, The Soul of Politics (1994) says that without the value of moral conscience, our political life quickly degenerates into public corruption, cultural confusion and social injustice. It is not enough just to mouth a vision, The vision must however be compelling on one’s conduct because the vision must direct the way we act. This is perhaps what may be referred to as “transformative ethics”. In other words leadership that must be possessed of the imagination to think radical ideas that go to the heart of the matter, that are imbued with idealism that dare to imagine the unimaginable and to desire only that which is the best. Leadership ethics should be by its nature transformative because it is capable of challenging given norms and orthodoxy to a better ideal of itself.

Understandably there are some voices in South Africa who have been advocating African values in leadership. Reuel Khoza is probably the main proponent of African values in leadership. Sometimes, this is articulated under the umbrella of Ubuntu meaning a philosophy of life, sometimes ethical values, that are drawn from traditional African culture. Besides Archbishop Tutu[4] who had been promoting this from his earlier years as a scholar of African Christian Theology, Ubuntu found its way into the Postamble of the Interim Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1993), and consequently became the foundation for our earlier judgments in the courts of our country. The problem, though with Ubuntu is that it has become rather nebulous, a referent for all things that may sound vaguely good. It transpires that for many people who articulate it, Ubuntu refers to some distant ideal that makes us feel good but that there is no danger it might become applicable today, otherwise its demands could be unbearable and onerous. This is the reason, Nigerian philosopher Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze[5] has declared that Ubuntu is both “not enough” and “too much”. This is what he says:

Ubuntu is too much because… as an ideology it relies too much on the ‘extraordinary: luck, miracles and an ambiguous concept of natural goodness. Ubuntu is not enough because it fails to supplement- or one might say, to moderate – its innate optimism about natural goodness of humankind with what I will call ‘the ordinary’ (111).

His conclusion is that as a moral philosophy Ubuntu is deficient because it promises what it cannot deliver. My own reservations stems from a different perspective. In fact it is much more as a warning to myself than a rejection of the concept. I fear that in pointing to some imaginary past, that does not appear to be grounded in present realities of life, Ubuntu may be guilty of undermining the challenge of revolt and critical consciousness and lead to paralysis and atrophy that Karen van Merle in her chapter, Lives of Action, Thinking and Revolt: A Feminist Call for Politics of Becoming in Post Apartheid South Africa, talks about[6].

“a complacent society where political action, thought, eternal questioning and contestation are absent and replaced by an understanding of freedom as mere commercial/economic freedom and of thought as calculated and instrumental (2007:34 -58).”

Where should such leaders come from? How does society produce and reproduce its best? I start by mentioning that good leaders distinguish themselves by “intelligence”, by that capacity to have insight and wisdom to aspire to higher ideals and resolve, and to be able to “read” the signs of the times. Prof Hellicy Ngambi[7] of Mulungushi University in Zambia takes the statement below to make the point:

… there is most likely to be a tendency from leaders who are without intellect to also lack in moral fibre because they fail to understand the limitations of governance, but also that they may be incapable of drawing from their own capabilities to provide the nation with a new, compelling and confident vision of itself and idealism, to be, at times above the fray, and help guide the nation in its most difficult moments (Pityana, 2012:7).

It is not unusual that poor leaders are often without intelligence, poor readers of human character, who govern by fear and distrust and are ruthless to opposing views. Such leaders never act with an ethical impulse but are often driven by self- preservation.

While I never believe that “leaders are born” I accept that there are some who may well have leadership qualities and characteristics as a part of the gifts that are natural to them. Without doubt, however, leaders are best nurtured in the school of leadership in a life devoted to service, with a sense of well-being about the other.

But leaders are also “entrepreneurs” who make something out of nothing, bring out the best in others and create a “buy-in” by others into the common pot of ideas. But the “entrepreneurship” must be driven by ideals, if it is not to be merely commonsensical. It should be less about the self in interests and enrichment, or merely of those close and dear to one, but genuinely “the common good”. That common good must also derive from the context and real-life situations of those who are to be beneficiaries. In a place where the greatest social challenge is poverty and unemployment and inequality, then surely the common drive has to be devoted to finding ways and means of addressing those challenges to the benefit of the people.

N Barney Pityana GCOB

Rector: College of the Transfiguration Grahamstown;

Honorary Visiting Professor: Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics, Department of Philosophy, Rhodes University, Grahamstown.

13 September 2013.


[1] Keynote Address delivered at the Conference of Heads of Centres of Excellence, in partnership with the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, held in Cape Town, 13 September 2013. The topic for the address as set out in the Programme for the Conference is: “Leadership and Ethics: Gaining Insight into nurturing ethical leaders with strong entrepreneurial abilities in addressing our socio-economic challenges.” This was changed to the shorter version as appears above.

[2] Prof Martin Prozesky ends his book Conscience: Ethical Intelligence for Global Well-being, 2007; UKZN Press, with some reflections on how ethical wellbeing can be advanced. His point is that a positive and ethical outlook on life is marked by generosity and integrity, rather than greed and dishonesty (150). He also advocates that persons and institutions should undertake an annual ethical audit; strive to make the power in our hands humane and truthful.

[3] Head of the Department, Free State Department of Education v Welkom High School & Another; Head of the Department, Free State Department of Education v Harmony High School & Another (CCT103/12), delivered July 2013.

[4] See Battle M: The Ubuntu Theology of Desmond Tutu in Hulley L, Kretschmar L & Pato LL: Archbishop Tutu: prophetic Witness in South Africa; 1996, Human & Rousseau, 93ff.

[5] Reason, Memory and Politics, 2008, Unisa Press, at 111 and 114.

[6] In Roux W & van Marle K: Post-Apartheid Fragments: Law Politics and Critique; 2007, Pretoria, Unisa Press; 34-58

[7] in a forthcoming publication to mark the 70th Birthday of President Thabo Mbeki.

Last Modified :Tue, 11 Mar 2014 16:27:45 SAST