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Understanding the ethics of leadership

Date Released: Sun, 29 April 2012 09:39 +0200

Recently Reuel Khoza of Nedbank remarked on the “emergence of a strange breed of leaders” whose “moral quotient is degenerating”.

He voiced concern about whether we have an “accountable democracy”, and said that “we have a duty to call to book leaders who cannot lead”.

Too many in positions of power 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 to be committed to human dignity, social equity and justice.

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.

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 the tremendous increase in assault investigations and murder cases involving the police is “symptomatic of a police force sans leadership, devoid of a moral compass and that 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 climate change. Perhaps we have been numbed into silence.

Perhaps we think 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. Nor is cynicism and despair. Our challenge 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 perfect leadership model.

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. 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.We can draw inspiration from the many wonderful people who provided selfless leadership and paved the path to our democracy.

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.

Ethical leaders have an unwavering commitment to non-racialism, 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.

They remind us of our ingenuity and courage in fashioning our Constitution and winning our democracy, and they call on us to draw on these milestones to confront our challenges. But at the heart of leadership is integrity and honesty.

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

They see potential all around them, seek to build 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.

Leaders need strong institutions, a strong civil society and committed but critical supporters who also act as agents of change. 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 big-men brand of leadership.

»Dr. Badat is Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University. This is an edited version of his speech at a Rhodes graduation ceremony. He writes in his personal capacity