/ 9 March 2022

Building the moral authority to lead

Rear View Of Themis Statue
Getty Images

Suitcases filled with cash, state collusion and tender corruption, billions stolen and wasted at state-owned enterprises. These are just some of the shocking details that we’ve been exposed to as the Zondo commission on state capture has unfolded.

The problem is that each day citizens seem to slide into greater cynicism and hopelessness. We vilify corruption and yet treat it like a cousin who is in prison. We know he is there, but we don’t visit him.

This raises the issue of a country in which morality has sunk to unimaginable depths. The way many of our elected leaders in government act with impunity, highlights an absence of accountability and a disregard for what is right and wrong. The line between good and bad has become so blurred that several of our corrupt officials believe that “they have done nothing wrong”.

We live in a lawless country. I’m not only talking about large-scale corruption and violent crimes, but small, daily rule-breaking. We complain about how taxi drivers are always breaking the law, but we are quick to offer a traffic cop a bribe to avoid going to prison for drunk driving. We may be powerless to stop certain politicians and families from using South Africa as their personal piggy bank, but we can most certainly control how we behave.

If we want to build a country that has a strong moral fibre, we must start by taking a good hard look in the mirror.

I have recently concluded that, “if it’s to be, it’s up to me”. If we are ever going to positively influence change, we must first demonstrate our own ability to change and to live a life that distinguishes between right and wrong and good and bad.

Each one of us has a moral duty and obligation to uplift our country and to help create equal access to opportunity. Our deeply unjust history has laid the platform for what we see today. 

So, what can we do?

Each one of us should delve into a journey of self-discovery to unpack our own moral fibre and to create a set of values that we can live by every day. For example, if one of our values is integrity, then we should always do the right thing, even when no one is watching.

When you have demonstrated your ability to live by your own set of values, you will inspire others to do the same and we can start transforming mindsets, even if it’s one person at a time. It makes no difference if you are in a position of leadership or not, as an individual you can set an example of moral fibre and positively influence those people around you.

Whining and complaining about the state of our nation will yield zero results. For those of us who have elected to stay in this beautiful country, let’s not resist the inevitable changes that are so necessary to get us firmly on the road to equality. Let’s rather embrace these changes and contribute meaningfully to our quest for a moral society in which everyone can participate.

As a white South African, I realised a long time ago that holding onto privilege and resisting change is not an option. While I abhor what is happening in our country and I’m disturbed by the unfolding stories of state capture, I hang steadfastly onto the belief that we have the makings of a truly great country and I’ve accepted that it is going to look very different to what I have known before.

Building the moral authority to lead

For leaders, in government or in business, there is only one solution — we must all put in the work to not only transform ourselves and our mindsets, but to earn the moral authority to lead.

You are only granted this moral authority to lead when you have earned that right from your people, and they do not grant it lightly. The best leaders are those that show moral fibre and can inspire people to follow them to places they would never have gone by themselves. 

Here are the seven questions that will help you determine if you have earned the moral authority to lead. Ask yourself, “Have you:

  • Earned the trust and respect of your people?
  • Built a sense of belonging and a common purpose?
  • Shown a genuine concern for the wellbeing and health of your people?
  • Demonstrated a true commitment to their ongoing growth and development?
  • Created a place of safety in which people feel free to speak without fear?
  • Served the people who are serving the people?
  • Lived your values on a daily basis?

Then you should ask the same questions of the people who report to you to see if their honest perceptions are aligned with yours. If you feel their responses are not honest, then clearly you haven’t yet built a place of safety for people to speak freely. The perception gap is often wider than you might think. Some leaders are surprised to discover the extent of the perception gap and pronounce “but my door is always open”. It’s not your door that people are concerned about, it’s your mind.

Once you realise how much work you still have to do to earn the moral authority to lead, and how best to serve your people, you should embark on a morality-based journey and inspire others to do the same. Businesses should create pockets of transformation that could ultimately create a larger movement of change in a country where true equality for all our citizens is critical to our survival.

Invest in two areas: personal development and earning the moral authority to lead. The good news is that this is something every single one of us can achieve.