Lack of ethical leadership in most sectors of life is destroying natural ecosystems that sustain us, undermining our economic future, dismantling trust in self-government, undoing the sense of shared interest that allows us to co-exist and unravelling the threads of community that nurture us.
Concern for ethical consciousness comes at a time when the concept of legitimacy in leadership is questioned and public trust in governance is low. Leaders should be a source of ethical guidance for underlings and responsible for moral development in organisations.
Unethical behaviour threatens the environment by supporting mass production of material goods, often to the detriment of the populations of developing nations. Extreme consumerism is distorting values towards the possession of material goods over quality relationships and meaningful pursuits.
Our current value system tells us “we are what we wear, what we drive and where we live”, and that “what we own reflects what we are worth”. As global organisations grow, so does their ability to influence employees, populations and the environment.
Examples of unethical leadership confront us almost every day, whether it is from
politicians, business executives, tenderpreneurs, religious leaders or organisations accused of tax evasion, negligence, misrepresentation, bribery, money laundering, financial manipulation or auditing failures.
Civil society is angry, which results in populist politicians coming to the fore and gaining political ground.
It all seems quite frightening. However, that all these misdeeds are coming to light
demonstrates a positive underlying development that is the result of the information and internet age. In the 20th century and before, organisations were more easily able to hide their bad behaviour.
There is a realisation that fundamental change needs to take place. We need a new kind of leadership. Ethical behaviour is a core element, alongside transformative, radical, authentic, caring and performance-enhancing governance.
However, while we know ethical leadership is important, there are few methodologies to make it succeed in business. Likewise, there is little literature about the way to develop ethical leaders.
In truth, we can’t discuss ethical leadership without first looking at ethics. If we ask 100 people what they mean by ethics, we might get 100 different answers.
Ethical behaviour, in its simplest terms, is knowing and doing what is right. The difficulty is in defining “right”. Different individuals, cultures and religions have their own ideas.
Attitudes towards slavery and the acceptable treatment of women show how big those differences can be.
Instead of perceiving ethical leadership as preventing people from doing the wrong thing, researchers propose that we need to view it as enabling them to do the right thing.
To be an ethical leader, one needs to adhere to a more universal standard of moral behaviour. Leading ethically is a process of inquiry, asking questions about what is right and what is wrong. It’s also a mode of conduct — setting an example for others about what is right or wrong in particular actions.
Towards this end, transformational and servant leadership help orientate future leaders towards an ethical leadership compass. The bottom line is that we must start educating them now, and instil integrity, trustworthiness, honesty, service and a commitment to virtue in them.
Taking responsibility and working to correct mistakes and improve performance are part of a transformative leader’s job, as is making sure that an organisation’s dealings with everyone are ethical. Blaming others, even if they have made mistakes, does not negate the leader’s responsibility.
Ethical leadership implies having a coherent ethical framework that will guide a leader’s decisions and actions all the time, not only in specific situations. Among the most important characteristics are openness and honesty; the willingness to encourage regular discussion of ethical issues and decisions; the urge to mentor others to lead; the drive to maintain and increase competence; the capacity to accept feedback and the ability to put aside personal interest and ego.
Finally, an ethical leader never stops examining his or her ethical assumptions and what it means to be an ethical leader. Like so many other important tasks, maintaining ethical leadership is ongoing.
Leadership is a privilege and a responsibility that demands much from those who practice it. Leaders are role models, whether they want to be or not. They set the tone for the ethical stance of their followers and their company; even, in some cases, for the broader community.
If we are concerned about our future, we must be guided by Martin Luther King’s assertion:
“The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.’’
Paresh Soni is associate director of the Graduate School of Business at the Management College of Southern Africa. Published on the Business Live website on the 29 January 2019.