South Africa urgently needs ethical leaders


With the recent Cabinet reshuffle, South Africa appears to be reaching a state of crisis, at the heart of which is the shortage of good leaders — in particular, ethical leaders — who place service to the nation ahead of power and self-enrichment.

Nothing less than ethical leadership is expected from struggle veterans and other leaders to tackle the triple challenges of unemployment, inequality and poverty.

James MacGregor Burns, a pioneer of leadership studies, writes: “A universal craving of our time is a hunger for compelling and creative leadership and yet it is one of the most observed and least understood ­phenomena on Earth.”

Harvard sociologist Rakesh Khurana says leadership as a body of knowledge remains without a theoretical framework or a cumulative empirical understanding.

The consequences of unethical leaders are in the news almost every day: tax evasion, falsifying qualifications, acquiring tenders through illegal means, cadre deployment, bribery, money laundering, financial manipulation and more.

Fundamental changes need to take place and we need a new kind of leadership. How then do we develop leaders with ethics and integrity?

Ethical leadership is the process of influencing people to act on principles, values and beliefs. It generally refers to the five principles that can be traced back to Aristotle: respect, service, justice, honesty and building community. The key criterion is to live these principles, operate beyond the ego, put others first and think about the greater public good.

The fundamental reason for developing ethical leaders is to raise values to a higher level of consciousness. It is also to raise leaders’ awareness of how their behaviour affects their performance and that of the people around them. According to Tony Wall and John Knights in their book Leadership Assessment for Talent Development, organisations and countries tend to ignore these traits when identifying future leaders. Instead, they favour the traditional leadership characteristics of self-confidence, assertiveness, influence, achievement, manipulation and an obsession with total control and ignore the good values that would temper their egos.

It is therefore not surprising that one in 25 chief executives is considered psychopathic or sociopathic — four times higher than the general population — according to one study. Yet neuroscience research shows that positive behaviours can be learned and negative behaviours unlearned.

The most common desired values for leaders, as cited by employees, are integrity, trust, honesty and excellence. To be an ethical leader it is also necessary to develop the “softer” personal conscience values of fairness, forgiveness and altruistic love, as well as the self-determinative values of purpose, courage and resilience. This takes time, practice and commitment — but can be achieved.

In the National School of Government’s recently launched executive leadership induction programme, its principal, Professor Richard Levin (writing in the Mail & Guardian, April 13) identifies among other attributes the developing of an agile state, mastery of the basics of public services and administration, a commitment to the public good, visionary leadership and the like.

Yet there is little or no mention of the ethical basis of leadership. Unless the qualities of respect, service, justice, honesty and building community, together with the “softer” personal conscience values, become an intrinsic part of the programme, the trust needed to build a credible public leadership cannot be achieved.

It is easier to develop skills in finance and human resources management than it is to learn the more elusive but vital values of leadership defined by ethics, integrity and service to the nation.

Recent World Bank data shows that the Gini index, which measures the distribution of income across the 153 countries surveyed, is lowest in Denmark (24.7). South Africa has a score of 63.14, representing the fourth most unequal country in the world; even Swaziland, Lesotho and Rwanda have lower scores.

Despite this, some leaders in senior positions in universities, the private sector and parastatals earn obscene salaries far in excess of even that earned by the president. Given the high measure of inequality in South Africa, what justifies these huge earnings? They certainly do not fall within the expectations of ethical leadership. The president’s salary is about R2.8-million a year, and some vice-chancellors earn more than R4-million. Brian Dames, chief executive of the failing Eskom, pocketed R22.78-million in 2013, and when Brian Molefe left Eskom he reportedly walked away with a R30-million payout after only 18 months’ service and despite being implicated in the public protector’s State of Capture report. These are a few of many examples.

The plunder of state resources at the expense of the poor was certainly not what people in the struggle had in mind when they suffered imprisonment, torture and death for the sake of an equal South Africa. It is time that the national director of public prosecutions probes the legitimacy of such payouts — not only the recipients but also the shameful boards that make these payouts possible.

Research conducted by the United Kingdom’s High Pay Centre in 2014 and 2015 found a weak relationship between pay and company performance. Its report on this concludes that such highly paid management seriously damages the economy. Shareholders receive no benefit from huge hikes in executive pay or the high proportion of total remuneration that comes from options and bonuses.

Sweden’s executives, for instance, are rewarded far less than rivals in the rest of Europe and in the United States, yet appear to perform just as well or better for shareholders. Recent figures show that the average Swedish manager’s pay was 20% lower than their British counterparts. At the same time, Sweden is ranked high up in global competitive surveys.

Given the inequality in South Africa, and the dubious performance of several parastatals’ chief executives, there can be no justification for these obscene salaries. Their salaries, and those at universities, should be pegged at the upper limit of the president’s salary. Any potential appointee who questions such a salary may well lack the ingredients of ethical leadership and integrity required to undertake the task.

The savings from this exercise, together with controlling other excesses such as large luxury cars for public officials, plus unnecessary travel and entertainment expenses, would collectively signify that as a government and society we do care about the poor and are moving towards an egalitarian society. This will signal transformation.

In her thoughtful 2010 analysis of leadership, Nannerl Keohane asks: How can the asymmetrical influence distinctive to leadership be consistent with robust popular decision-making or with sovereignty residing in the people as a whole? When they take the initiative in influencing decision-making, does it make sense to call them “followers”?

There are two ways in which leadership and democracy are in tension. First, democracy provides checks and balances to protect sovereignty, which constrain the work of leaders: they make it difficult for the incumbent to accomplish goals people believe are desirable. An example would be former president Barack Obama’s desire to close the prison in Guantánamo Bay, which was stymied by Congress.

The opposite problem arises when leaders abuse their power, as in President Jacob Zuma firing the competent minister of finance and appointing an unknown incumbent with little financial acumen.

How do we make leadership compatible with democracy? To prevent the perpetuation of the same people in positions of power, we need to emphasise the accountability of leaders to citizens, ensure that citizens have free access to multiple sources of information, increase people’s participation in government and limit the accumulation of privilege. Among the checks and balances are:

• Term limits to prevent perpetuation of power;

• Robust competition between political parties;

• Accountability of leaders through elections, a regular review process and effective monitoring of leaders;

• A vigilant and impartial judicial system;

• A vigorous free press;

• Civic engagement (the Treatment Action Campaign, for example);

• A federal system with devolution of power;

• Institutions such as the chapter 9 institutions mandated by the Constitution; and

• Training new ethical leaders.

Most of these requirements are in place in South Africa, and yet the abuse of power persists. Former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke said recently that there should be additional checks and balances in the powers exercised by the president. This is an urgent task.

One of our most ethical leaders, former public protector Thuli Madonsela, said of the need for leaders at all levels of society: “It needs people who call out leaders who deviate from the path of building a united nation where everyone’s potential is freed and lives improved. The people must call out leaders who do not walk their talk on matters of ethics, anti-corruption and general good governance.”

Jairam Reddy was the vice-chancellor of the University of Durban-Westville and the director of the United Nations University International Leadership Institute in Amman, Jordan

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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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