Leaders in the public and private sector, as well as in many other institutions, have influence by virtue of their greater authority and power. They have access to resources by virtue of their office.
This elevated position means leaders are role models for others in society.
In this capacity, they teach others what is acceptable and desirable through their actions.
Last week’s auditor general’s 2018-2019 audit report was another shocker in an already eventful year. About R62-billion was wasted through irregular expenditure. This cannot be justified, given our country’s socioeconomic conditions, including the struggling state-owned enterprises such as Eskom and SAA. This is against a backdrop of commissions of inquiry that seek to unravel the complex layers of corruption and theft of public resources.
The nation has reached its tipping point as far as ethical leadership is concerned. The country is in desperate need of principled leaders who will put the country back on a path of responsible leadership aimed at improving the quality of governance at all levels.
Many of the governance failures are linked to corruption and noncompliance with the legislative requirements, such as the Public Finance Management Act and the Municipal Finance Management Act, designed to keep the running of government free from corruption. The sheer neglect to adhere to the requirements provided by these Acts is disrespectful of our Constitution and the public who expect quality provision of public goods and services consistently and sustainably.
Governance failure points to low levels of ethical leadership. Good leadership is often interpreted as effective leadership while bad leadership is interpreted as ineffective and inefficient.
What is ethical leadership?
In broad terms, ethical leadership is guided by a set of morals, principles and beliefs that determine the actions of leaders. Core values such as honesty, integrity, accountability, fairness, respect and responsibility define the set of principles that inform ethical leadership. This type of leadership is not bound to any sector, it is only bound by a set of morals, made up of core values and guided by a code of ethics, for the dignity and rights of others. Any individual in a leadership position ought to be guided by such principles when executing their responsibilities.
Moreover, these principles demarcate ethical boundaries that must never be violated if that leadership seeks to deliver on its mandate. This implies inherently that ethical leadership is first and foremost guided by principles of integrity and morality, with a deep sense of mission to serve other people and not narrow individual interests. This is what makes leadership in general a high stakes societal business.
Why is ethical leadership important?
Ethical leadership is principles-based, guided by a set of moral codes that govern the execution of leadership responsibilities. It is therefore about knowing one’s core values and having the courage to live them in service of the common good of society. Against this understanding, some of the reason ethical leadership is important for good governance include:
Why has ethical leadership become elusive?
First, bad leadership is tolerated. Unethical leadership is often rationalised as human frailty and culprits use this justify their actions. This self-pardoning permits repeated actions of unethical behaviour.
Second, sometimes the painful past of our country is used to justify poor leadership and gives a false sense of entitlement to a culprit to continue in their negative trajectory.
Third, when faced with an ethical dilemma leaders sometimes make poor choices. There are times when leaders are faced with tough decisions but only their value system can guide them in making right decisions.
It is not that leaders do not understand right from wrong, ethical and unethical behaviour and the consequences of misconduct. Rather it is the choices they make that decide whether an action is ethical or unethical.
To increase ethical leadership in society, political parties must be courageous to call out unethical leadership even if it is one of their own. Similarly, the business sector must be bold to expose unethical behaviour wherever it is found. Equally, civil society must be bold to advocate for clear and good governance by using legislated mechanisms to hold leadership accountable.
South Africa has an excellent Constitution, providing comprehensive legislation to guide all of us to be ethical and steer us away from all forms of misconduct.
Dr Paul Kariuki is the executive director of the Democracy Development Programme. He writes in his personal capacity