The importance of ethical leadership is well illustrated by its absence

SA Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng presided over the swearing-in ceremony. Photo: Supplied by GCIS.

In case you are not convinced of the importance of ethical leadership or think it is not such a big deal, consider the alternative. Instead of corporate leaders focusing on the well-being of the organisation, its people and its stakeholders, or public sector leaders being guided by what is in the best interests of the country and its citizens, unethical leaders focus on what’s in it for them: on benefiting themselves and their favoured supporters, often at the expense of others.

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng has spoken out regularly about the importance of ethical leadership, most recently in an excellent interview by Aldrin Sampear on Power FM 98.7 on 15 May 2019.

The May 2019 open letter written by 28 civil society organisations to the newly elected Members of Parliament and the National Council of Provinces quotes the Chief Justice: “The challenge to all of us is to stop kowtowing to corrupt leadership wherever it is to be found. We would never have been where we are right now had everybody been doing what they often take an oath to do.” The letter reminds MPs that, having been elected in accordance with the rules of our Constitution, “it is to the Constitution – to which you will take an oath to obey, respect and uphold – that you owe your greatest loyalty”, and that “good governance is not an end in itself; it is a prerequisite for effective service delivery and social justice”.

Leadership is widely accepted as having the most powerful impact on organisational culture. The increased power and authority that comes with a position of leadership allows leaders to have a greater influence on others, whether by means of decisions, policies or strategy. Added to that, the higher visibility that generally accompanies a leadership role enables them as role models to have a further impact on an even wider audience than their direct followers, to employees across the organisation or citizens in the country.

So, what is necessary to give effect to ethical leadership? The following questions highlight some of the key issues that need to be in place and taken into account.

– Are leaders up-to-speed as regards current and emerging ethical trends and challenges? This is crucial to equip them to deal more effectively with unexpected ethical breaches and to enable them to build and maintain an ethical brand and reputation.

– Do leaders advocate a comprehensive or a limited approach to ethics? Specifically, do they view ethics primarily as legal and regulatory compliance with a focus on risk? If so, they are missing the critical impetus that is gained from a focus on strengthening values and improving ethical conduct.

– Do leaders position ethics as being of significant value to the organisation and its people, for example, in terms of the new ROI – the return on integrity – and ethical capital? If the value of ethics is not high enough it can erode the organisation’s ability to stand firm relative to the pressures against being ethical

– Has the leadership (including the board) insisted upon the implementation of a sound, integrated ethics management system, not least because such a system can minimise risk and reputational damage? Or is ethics only managed via limited indicators such as whistleblowing reports or on an ad hoc and reactive basis?

– Does ethics inform leaders’ decisions? Are decisions made that are consistently fair to all affected parties?

The consequences of the abuse of leadership power can be far-reaching, especially as bad leaders (and those they benefit) have a vested interest in retaining power, so their demise is often not as quick as would be desirable. And, until unethical leaders are removed from office, the negative consequences of the abuse of power will continue to impact others: employees, followers, stakeholders and citizens.

Cynthia Schoeman is managing director of Ethics Monitoring & Management Services and a founding non-executive director of the Ethics Practitioners’ Association (EPA).