Lack of ethical leadership: A clear and present danger to sustainable development

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Due to a lack of ethical leadership in almost all sectors of life, we are destroying our natural ecosystems that sustain us, undermining our economic future, dismantling the trust in self-government that protects and empowers us, undoing the sense of shared interests that allows us to see and speak and work with each other, and unravelling the threads of community that nurture us.

Globally and even in South Africa, the concern for ethical consciousness comes at the time when the concept of leadership legitimacy is questioned and when the public’s trust in governance is extremely low. Leaders ought to be a crucial source of ethical guidance for their underlings and should at the same time be responsible for moral development in organisations.

Unethical behaviour threatens the environment in order to support the massive production of material goods, its problems are being used by charismatic extremists to win over the populations of developing nations, and the tenets of consumerism are distorting values towards possession of material goods over quality relationships and meaningful pursuits. 

It would seem that we are at war with our current value system.  This system tells us: “that we are what we wear, what we drive, where we live and that what we own reflects what we are worth.  These values have been reflected in all facets of life where leaders of organisations have chased the drive for pecuniary interests and profits to an excess that breaks with ethical norms. 

This is particularly important as global organisations get larger and larger they have more reach to influence employees, citizen populations, and the environment then they once did. 

As a result, the consequences of the lack of ethical leadership are in the news headlines virtually every day, whether it is politicians, business executives, tenderpreneurs, religious leaders  or organisations accused of tax evasion, negligence, misrepresentations, bribery, money laundering, financial manipulation and auditing failures. The state is in paralysis and policy makers and legislators seem to be at a loss of what to do other than to come up with new rules and regulations that lawyers and accountants then find ways around. Civil society is angry, resulting in populist and idealistic politicians coming to the fore and gaining political ground.

It all seems quite a mess and quite frightening. However, the fact that all these misdeeds and acts of malfeasance are coming to light demonstrates a positive underlying development that is the result of the information and internet age we are living in. In the 20th century and earlier, organisations were much more easily able to hide their law breaking and unethical behaviour.

There is a realisation that fundamental changes need to take place. We need a new kind of leadership and within this context ethical behaviour is a core element and sits alongside ‘transformative’, ‘radical’, ‘authentic’, ‘caring’, and ‘performance-enhancing’ governance as its key purpose.

However, ethical leadership is one of those things that most of us know is important but where there are very few methodologies on how it can be achieved or examples of how it has been actually realised in organisations.

Equally, there is little literature on how we actually develop ethical leaders and this is probably because we prefer as a result of our standard education and training methodologies to think logically and analytically about these subjects. Hence the abundance of descriptions of what ethical leadership is and what needs to be done.

In reality, we cannot discuss ethical leadership without looking first at ethics. For example, if we ask 100 people or 100 philosophers, for that matter what they mean by ethics, we might get 100 different answers. The struggle to define ethical behaviour probably goes back to prehistory, and serves as a cornerstone of both ancient Greek philosophy and most major world religions.

Ethical behaviour, in its simplest terms, is knowing and doing what is right. The difficulty is in defining “right.” Different individuals, different cultures, and different religions define it in different ways. The accepted treatment of women and attitudes toward slavery in different cultures and at different times in history provide prime examples of how what’s ‘right’ can vary.

Ethical leadership therefore is a construct that appears to be ambiguous and includes various diverse elements. Instead of perceiving ethical leadership as preventing people from doing the wrong thing, researchers propose that we need to view it as enabling people to do the right thing.

An ethical leader is a person living up to principles of conduct that are crucial for him or her. To be an ethical leader one needs to adhere to a more universal standard of moral behaviour. Leading ethically is believed to be a process of inquiry, asking questions about what is right and what is wrong and a mode of conduct – setting the example for followers and others about the rightness or wrongness of particular actions.

Towards this end transformational leadership and servant leadership are both promising in terms of orienting future leaders towards an ethical leadership compass.  Regardless, the bottom line is to create the leaders that will take us into a just and sustainable future, institutions must start educating them now, and in doing so, must instil future leaders with integrity, trustworthiness, honesty, service, and a commitment to virtue.

Taking responsibility and working to correct mistakes and improve unacceptable performance are part of a transformative leader’s job, as is making sure that the organisation’s dealings with everyone are ethical. Blaming others even though they may have made the mistakes or failed to do their jobs in specific situations does not remove the leader’s overall responsibility for making sure that those things do not happen.

Ethical leadership requires from the leader a coherent ethical framework that will guide their decisions and actions all the time, not only in specific situations. Among the most important of the characteristics that define an ethical leader are openness and honesty; the willingness to make the discussion of ethical issues and decisions a regular part of the organisational or group conversation and culture; the urge to mentor others to lead; the drive to maintain and increase competence; the capacity to accept and seriously consider feedback, both positive and negative; the ability to put aside personal interest and ego in the interest of the cause or organisation.

Finally, and perhaps most important, an ethical leader never stops re-examining his or her own ethical assumptions and what it means to be an ethical leader. Like so many other important tasks, maintaining ethical leadership is ongoing; like only a few others, it can last a lifetime.

Ultimately, leadership is a privilege and a responsibility that demands a good deal from those who practice it, whether formally or informally. High on that list of demands is the need to be ethical, both in personal life and in leadership. Because leaders are role models whether they choose to be or not, they set the tone for the ethical stance of their individual followers, of the organisation or group they lead, and, to some extent, of the larger community.

If we are concerned about our future then we must be guided by Martin Luther King’s famous assertion, “The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.’’


Paresh Soni is Associate Director for Research at the Management College of Southern Africa (MANCOSA) and writes in his personal capacity.