/ 19 November 2022

We need ethical leaders in the marathon that is life

2013 Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon
Organisers of Cape Town’s Two Oceans marathon have decided to pull the plug on the event. (Peter Heeger/Gallo Images/Getty Images)


I am fortunate that I occasionally run marathons, as gruelling as they often are. The atmosphere, the support and the relief at the completion of 42km are among the things that make runners torture themselves. Completing is the ultimate prize. It is the triumph of the human spirit, a test of endurance and the proof of resilience. It is evidence of tenacity.

Runners are also ethical, at least during the marathons. Of course, like in all endeavours in life, there will be those who let us down. In marathons, we see leadership, ethics and compassion at play. Leadership, ethics and compassion must go together at all times, especially for those in positions of power and influence. 

Leadership involves influencing others to achieve a particular goal. It is also about supporting others, about caring and listening attentively. We see this in many sports codes, but perhaps more so in running, particularly in long-distance races. There are “buses”; the “driver” leads a group of runners who aim to complete the race, usually within a particular time. 

Anyone can be a leader. But leaders should be guided by principles and values. Integrity is probably one of the most important values. 

Leaders have power, influence and authority, which should be used carefully. How leaders are remembered when they leave is important. In marathons, we average road runners never forget the “bus drivers”. In the 2022 Soweto marathon, where I needed a “bus” because I had not sufficiently prepared for it, I really appreciated the “bus driver”. 

Our “bus driver” used power to the benefit of the runners. Power usually has a negative connotation, and many people want power for the wrong reasons. During marathons, we see positive use of power. As Deborah Gruenfeld puts it, “Power — at least that lasts — comes from doing what is best for the group, in terms of advancing shared goals and interests.”

Ethical leadership is the process of influencing others through principles, values and beliefs. To be a proper leader, there is no need to be abrasive or to bully anyone. 

These are lessons we learn from great leaders. All such leaders earned respect, even when they were viewed as too nice, because they beat others on results. These are leaders who lead by example. They delegate. They support. They have empathy and compassion. They lead by example.

Ethical leadership respects the rights and dignity of others. Ethics are principles, values and beliefs that define what is right and wrong. Ethical leaders demonstrate integrity and are trustworthy. I link ethical leadership with thought leadership and critical consciousness. 

Thought leadership is about a better understanding of issues and the ability to come up with possible solutions. Critical consciousness involves being aware of the circumstances and surroundings and being willing to speak truth to power, to call out injustices and demand change.

Leaders should be honest, trustworthy, truthful and have integrity. American philosopher Aldo Leopold defined integrity or ethical behaviour as doing the right thing even when no one else is watching. 

And that includes running marathons.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.