Rhodes University Logo
Rhodes > Vice-Chancellor > Latest News

It's up to us all to see we get the leaders we need - Saleem Badat

Date Released: Sun, 22 April 2012 07:27 +0200

REUEL Khoza of Nedbank recently remarked on the "emergence of a strange breed of leaders" whose "moral quotient is degenerating". He raised the concern whether we have an "accountable democracy" and said that "we have a duty to call to book leaders who cannot lead".

If this is so, the new Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics at Rhodes University, whose slogan is Where Leaders Learn, is timely.

Too many in positions of power and entrusted with leadership of key institutions are sorely wanting in values and conduct in tune with ethical, responsible and accountable leadership.

Witness the flagrant abuse of power for self-enrichment, as shown in corruption, fraud and dubious tenderpreunerial activities, in antidemocratic practices, and women's oppression in the name of culture.

Witness, too, the failures on the part of those entrusted with leading to grasp fully their profound constitutional, moral and social responsibilities in a society that proclaims a commitment to human dignity, social equity and justice.

Recall how a futile debate on the cause of Aids prevented leadership from dealing with the pandemic, and how the tardy response resulted in unnecessary delays in treatment and the tragic loss of lives.

Recall, too, that we were promised an innovative "public service that will provide an excellent quality of service", be the "servant of the people (and be) accessible, transparent, accountable, efficient and free of corruption".

Batho Pele was to be the watchword of our public service. Instead, in many areas, there is a culture of disdainful conduct and service, sheer indifference to the needs of, people, and a sore lack of ethical and accountable leadership.

The elites have recourse to private and Model C schools, private hospitals and private cars. The poor, on the other hand, depend hugely on public services for their basic needs and for improving their lives.

The lack of leadership and poor public services undermine the dignity of the poor, retard the educational development of millions of children and youth, thwart the realisation of constitutional goals and violate human and social rights.

Our schools cry out for courageous and effective educational leadership from state departments and school heads. A key distinguishing feature between well-performing and poorly performing schools is effective leadership.

Caroline Southey writes that "a depressing realisation is setting in that we are in danger not only from those in civilian clothes - there is an increasing trend for our criminals to sport police uniforms". She contends that the tremendous increase in assault investigations and murder cases involving the police is "symptomatic of a police force that is sans leadership, devoid of a moral compass and feels accountable to no one".

Our fragile environment, too, continues to suffer because of timid leadership. We pursue relentlessly, without effective regulation, "progress" and "development", irrespective of the massive degradation of the environment and the hazards of global climate change.

The shenanigans of various businesspeople, politicians and bureaucrats make for riveting, if depressing, reading. We are regularly shocked and awed by the brazen sense of entitlement, the glib emphasis on the legal instead of the ethical, and by the impunity with which so-called leaders redeploy resources for private gain.

Perhaps we have been numbed us into silence. Perhaps we think that our citizen duty is limited to voting every five years. Or perhaps, shocked and awed, or thoroughly discouraged, we cannot conceive how we can become agents of change.

Silence is not an option. It leaves the door wide open for irresponsible and unaccountable leadership, and a culture of impunity, greed and crass materialism in which self-interest, material wealth, profits, and performance bonuses become the new gods.

We have to also avoid cynicism and despair Madiba writes that "there were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death." Instead, we must remain optimistic, keep our "head pointed towards the sun, (our) feet moving forward".

The task of the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics is to understand what constitutes ethical and responsible leadership, to promote such leadership in diverse contexts, and to educate towards such leadership. There is no off-the-shelf or customised, shrink-wrapped, perfect leadership model.

Leadership cannot also be simply taught, and theory alone or building skills are not enough. Leadership is pioneering in thought and action, being willing to take action to address the challenges we see around us, and using wisdom to change society for the better wherever we find ourselves.

To build leadership we must take history, culture and context seriously. We need a situated leadership appropriate to our conditions; and we need to forge leadership that is distributed institutionally, rather than centred on the big man - and, usually, it is the big man.

Given our various challenges, our task is to cultivate, grow and institutionalise ethical, responsible and accountable leadership across our society. We can draw inspiration from wonderful people who provided selfless leadership and paved the path to our democracy - Luthuli, Mandela, Tutu, Hani, Lillian Ngoyi, Amina Cachalia, Helen Joseph, Beyers Naude and many others.

Down-to-earth, fallible people with good values and isthunzi; mindful of people's aspirations and anguish; with the courage to challenge the status quo and the passion to pursue change; committed to service and perseverance to overcome obstacles; knowing that leading means doing what is right rather than what may be popular among followers.

We can also take inspiration from the youth of our country - not the pompous, verbose, self-aggrandising lot who regularly bemuse us, but those who use their imagination and time to advance social justice for all, deepen our democracy and protect our planet.

Paul Maylam's new book, Enlightened Rule: Portraits of Six Exceptional Twentieth Century Leaders, says that respected leaders cherish "some key fundamental values". They believe in the "innate worth and dignity of all human beings" and that leaders "bear the responsibility to create conditions in which all humans can realise their potential".

They have "an unwavering commitment to democracy and human rights", including "popular participation" and "proper access of all to education, health care, personal security" and "social and economic justice". They also have a "generosity of spirit, an egalitarian spirit and a sense of obligation to further the common good".

Ethical leaders also possess certain key qualities.

They take learning, education and knowledge seriously. They know that these are vital for understanding our world, for insight into our problems and challenges, and for finding solutions.

They have an unwavering commitment to non-racism, non-sexism and great respect for difference and diversity whether related to race, gender, nationality sexual orientation, language or culture. They refuse to be paralysed by our history, legacy and contemporary problems.

Instead, they remind us of our ingenuity and courage in fashioning a fabulous constitution and winning our democracy; they call on us to draw on these to confront our challenges. At the heart of leadership are integrity and honesty.

Ethical leaders tell no lies. They expose lies whenever they are told; they mask no difficulties, mistakes or failures and claim no easy victories.

Without integrity there can be no principled conduct, no prospect of winning trust and inspiring and uniting people around a vision; there can be no effective communication, no ethical and responsible leadership.

But leaders look beyond themselves. They see potential all around them; they seek to hind new generations of leaders who will be better than them, create opportunities for developing people, provide experiences and space to learn lessons, and teach by living the core values associated with leadership.

The leader is best when people are hardly aware of his existence. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled the people say, "We did it ourselves. So writes the Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu.

Of course, leaders need committed but critical supporters, who also act as agents of change, strong institutions and a strong civil society. Leadership, then, becomes everyone's task and responsibility. This is the real meaning of the slogan' "power to the people". If not this, we will continue to suffocate under the yoke of the bigmen brand of leadership, with all its problems.

Dr. Saleem Badat is vice-chancellor of Rhodes University. This is an edited version of a speech at recent Rhodes graduation ceremonies. He writes in his personal capacity