Leading us to moral leaders

The global recession, the struggle to deliver services, the millions of deaths from the HIV/Aids pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa, and vast numbers of people living in dire poverty without adequate food, sanitation or potable water are daunting challenges facing South Africa and the region.

In this unfolding scenario, leaders who could broaden horizons, uplift the spirit , mobilise the necessary resources and empower others to act in the best interests of their own organisations and larger society are sorely needed. And yet a crisis of leadership pervades every level of society. How then can we develop a new cadre of leaders with the skills and competencies, and in particular with ethics and integrity, to tackle these formidable challenges?

Features of leadership
Four of the many attributes associated with leadership are essential: vision, trustworthiness, empowering others and values or principles. And moral capital is an indispensable core of leadership — excellence of character, virtues appropriate for a human being within a particular socio-cultural context, integrity and what makes a person good as a human being (as Alejo Sison puts it in his 2003 book, The Moral Capital of Leaders).

In the Republic, Plato contends that leaders should have a broader moral horizon. Truly moral leadership must benefit those who are led for the good of the whole. Moral character should play a central role in the education of leaders. Poor leaders are by-products of a culture that celebrates physical pleasures, material consumption and the acquisition of status as the constituent parts of a successful life.

Writing in the Mail & Guardian (March 5), Martin Prozesky, the founding director of the Unilever Centre of Ethics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, suggests that a respected leader, such as a university vice-chancellor, should convene a small group to take the next step towards moral change. Complimentary indeed, but if vice-chancellors are to be role models and if universities are to be the training ground for the development of a new cadre of leadership, in particular with a heightened sense of ethics and morality, then its leadership must set the tone.

In November 2004 the M&G revealed that excessive salaries for vice-chancellors of South African universities are widespread, and that there are huge discrepancies in what they earn. While this has been happening, the salaries of the rank and file academic staff have been falling behind and the gap between the lowest earners and highest earners in the institutions have been widening.

In response to these concerns, Higher Education South Africa appointed former University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Mamphela Ramphele in 2006 to provide a framework that would form the basis for determining vice-chancellors’ remuneration. The resulting study did provide such a framework, with salary ranges and guidelines, but nothing has yet been implemented.

The M&G reported in November 2008 that the exorbitant remuneration of vice-chancellors has continued unabated at some universities. The range reported varied from R950 000 to R3.68-million , a variation of 258%. The current global financial crisis has multiple dimensions and causes but there is consensus that corporate greed, in the form of excessive salaries, bonuses and share options, has been a major contributing factor.

As Lehman Bros plunged into bankruptcy, Richard Fauld, its chief executive, earned a cool $46-million in 2007, or $17 000 an hour. ‘Three decades ago, CEOs typically earned 30 to 40 times the income of ordinary workers,” the Herald Tribune reported in September 2008. ‘Last year, CEOs of large companies averaged 344 times the average pay of workers.”

A recent audit shows that only 91 of 256 government bodies in South Africa got a clean audit (The Times, January 10 2010). Poor top-level leadership has been cited as a major factor in these failures. In his insightful book, Architects of Poverty (2009), Moeletsi Mbeki argues that our manufacturing industries lack competitiveness because ‘South Africa has encouraged the development of bloated middle and senior levels of management that are vastly overpaid”.

The minister of higher education last year gazetted a set of guidelines for senior-level university remuneration. Based on a ‘Complexity Index”, the guidelines classify institutions in four categories and require councils of universities to establish dedicated committees to determine remuneration. Under current levels of remuneration, the salaries would vary between R1.2-million and R1.8-million. A large number of institutions pay salaries well in excess of this. Universities have yet to respond collectively to these guidelines.

The president of the country earns R2.1-million and ministers about R1.6-million. This should be the benchmark for salaries for vice-chancellors and CEOs in the public and parastatal sectors. Given the developmental state of the country, with one of the highest Gini-coefficients in the world, there can be no moral or financial justification for earnings above these ranges. The practice of ultra-obscene bonuses should be done away with. If bonuses can be aff orded, they should be directed into a corporate responsibility fund to be used for deserving social causes in the upliftment of the community.

The recognition of outstanding performance should be a certificate of commendation which the vice-chancellor or CEO could proudly display in the office. It would be a challenge for parastatals like the Eskom board to recruit a competent, skilled and progressive professional who, in the interests of the company and country, would be prepared to accept a level of remuneration equivalent to a ministerial salary. But this is an interpretation of transformation requiring that our policies are equitable and they are implemented in ways that are just and would uphold the ideals of our Constitution.

Leadership development
Leadership development is a continuous, systematic process. Structured learning activities could include a mix of topics: self-reflection and personal awareness, knowledge of political systems, confidence building, skills in facilitation and communication, team building, conflict resolution, planning and analysis. In addition to setting the precedent for moral leadership, universities could take a number of initiatives to develop a new cadre of leadership:

  • Encouraging teaching staff to become role models for leadership through commitment to quality teaching, research, community engagement
    and care for their students;
  • Inviting authentic leaders, many of them unsung heroes in the community, to share their values, skills and commitment with students;
  • Providing courses, seminars, workshops and debates on leadership for good citizenship, the inculcation of democratic values, tolerance and
    respect for the other, and the resolution of conflict by non-violent means;
  • Undertaking research to better understand the nuances and complexities of leadership; and
  • Offering masters and doctoral degrees in leadership as the core discipline (a number of leading universities around the world offer such

The Academy of Chief Executives, in North East Teeside, England, comprises a small group of leaders. In their book, Developing Leaders or Developing Leadership, Paul Iles and David Preece describe how, meeting once a month, the academy hosts a speaker session in the morning, an issues session in the afternoon and one-to-one coaching sessions.

Once a year the group holds a retreat for two days for more extended discussions. Regular national seminars are held for groups across the country. Chief executives value this continuous learning and are thus good role models. It facilitates leadership development through the development of social capital and intra-organisational relationships based on mutual trust and reciprocity.

This is an excellent model for vice-chancellors or groups of leaders from a cross-section of organisations — business, education, government and civil society — to meet periodically in a given location to continually review and develop their leadership values and competencies Nelson Mandela exemplified moral capital with his skilled, dignified and powerful leadership in the service of his party, the ANC, and the people of South Africa. In a comparative study of moral capital in 2001, the British political scientist, John Kane, argued that innate qualities of goodness are sufficient for leaders to exercise moral influence.

Leaders who command moral authority, he suggests, achieve their position through action and behaviour. Such is the leadership legacy of Mandela that we are obliged to respect and emulate. Measured against this legacy, the current leaders of the country are deeply worrying. Much was expected of the leadership of President Jacob Zuma post-Polokwane.

Notwithstanding the professionalism, commitment and integrity of a number of ministers and public servants, the emerging phenomenon of tenderpreneurship, widespread problems in the parastatals and pervasive corruption all point to a vacuum in the current leadership. Given these failures and the acute development challenges that face South Africa, the time is opportune for a concerted drive to educate and train a new generation of leaders in a variety of innovative ways.

Against a failing political leadership, it is the broad civil society –including universities, religious bodies, NGOs and trade unions — that must be in the vanguard of developing a new cadre of leadership solidly embedded in a collective morality and democratic institutions and having as its defining features the values of respect for human life and human rights — especially for women and children — fairness and justice, responsibility and compassion.

Dr Jairam Reddy is chairperson of the Durban University of Technology and a former vice-chancellor of the then University of Durban-Westville. He chaired the mid-1990s National Commission on Higher Education, and was also director of the United Nations University International Leadership Institute in Amman, Jordan. He writes in his personal capacity

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Jairam Reddy
Jairam Reddy is the former vice-chancellor of the University of Durban-Westville; chair of the National Commission on Higher Education; and former director of the United Nations International Leadership Institute, Amman, Jordan.

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