The crucial role of moral authority and governance in corporate, political and economic leadership

Real freedom promotes creativity and innovation, and if there is one thing South Africa needs more than anything today it is innovation in the economy, in politics and in society at large. We must change to become globally competitive and play our in the world as a respected partner in progress. Sadly, all signs point the other way.

Freedom and peace go hand-in-hand but if we look at our nation today we see our hard-won freedoms diminishing while violence and lawlessness are on the increase. We are directionless and have entered a moral wilderness. I am going to argue that this is due in large part of a failure of leadership.

Today we need a leadership that is visionary and as passionate as it is compassionate. The leadership I refer to should set us all firmly on the road to regeneration through exemplary character, setting high targets for themselves and everyone who takes up the challenge. This is at your service leadership.

In recent times sections of our corporate leadership have mounted commendable efforts aimed at resolving some of the vexing challenges facing us. However, sections of our business leadership, arguably angling for political largess, continue to march to an unwholesome political drumbeat, thus slowing down socio-economic progress. And a business leadership, presumably angling for political largesse, marching to an unwholesome drumbeat.

An ethic of service is missing. Such an ethic is exemplified by the late, great Nelson Mandela, and it lies at the heart of what I call Attuned Leadership. The term denotes the quality of leaders who are attuned to the hopes, expectations, fears and demands of their followers. They resonate with the followers. Leaders who do not embody this ethic are not attuned to their followers – and the gap shows self-serving behavior that effectively denies the bond between leader and follower.

The resonant leader makes a conscious choice to improve the lives of others through building better organizations and ultimately creating a more just and caring world.

The servant leader practices introspection and self-renewal.

The servant leader demonstrates competence, tenacity and a sense of efficacy on behalf of the followers.

Such a leader does not shy away from difficult or unpopular decisions or measures.

This is leadership that lives by the tenets of consultation, persuasion, accommodation and cooperation, and shuns coercion and domination. It generates trust, goodwill and confidence and is politically and personally as gracious, honorable and magnanimous in defeat as in success. It is a leadership that understands that the success of others does not diminish its own success but adds to the good of the commonwealth.

It stands to reason that the twenty first century servant leader is one who is sufficiently well informed about the complexities of a globalizing political economy to be capable of managing the job. This requires continual learning; a leader takes on institutional clothing and should wear it with devotion and unwavering adherence to the oath of office.

To be an attuned leader is to be competent with the exercise of authority, particularly moral authority.

The practical side of leadership is all of a piece with its moral nature. You cannot have one without the other.

Effective, moral leadership encourages us to grow and seek what Aristotle termed “the good life” – the life that improves us and contributes to the betterment of all.

When the character and virtues of leaders are obviously insufficient to the task it is the responsibility of followers to take action, assert discipline and if necessary remove the leaders. I call this moral courage; but unfortunately we are descending into a state of moral turpitude.

From the elite who run the country down to the very lowest levels of society, there are those who are choosing to abandon morality in the pursuit of power, populism, and wealth; thus setting the stage for endemic bribery, malfeasance and crime. Over time, many more will come to accept that the only crime is to be caught doing wrong.

If we are hoping for someone with messianic stature, it is not going to happen. Common citizens must engage and ensure carpetbaggers don’t mess up our hard earned freedom and democracy. We must make sure the institutions that underpin our democracy are upheld, defended and promoted to ensure the sustainability of our democracy.

Accountable leadership is an unattainable ideal without accountable citizenship. Leaders should not make servants of us; they should be our servants.

As a nation, we have come through so much in our young democracy. What we do now must brand us as soldiers of conscience rather than cowards and quitters; there is courage in defiance. There is courage in taking the steps needed to truly transform our productive lives.

Leaders cannot stand alone but must stand with their followers, interpret them, strive to fulfil their hopes, and be their champion in the struggles of life. A lesson which many need to learn before it is too late, is that leadership is achieved, not given. A leader’s moral authority is given by the community around them, be it a business, neighborhood, or country.

To emphasize the question at hand: how are responsible citizens to exercise their power over leaders who have gone astray?

Firstly, in civil society: there are those we call stakeholders, the individuals, foundations and groups in communities who expect and demand service from the leadership and are not getting it. They are raising their voices in service delivery protests in the streets but they need to make their demands palpable through the democratic process – the power of the vote. We have suffered the cruelty of apartheid and, through struggle, won the vote. It must be used.

Secondly, through the courts and the legal process, through the Public Protector and other independent institutions of the State we must keep up the pressure to hold leadership accountable. We know that some of these institutions are being perverted for narrow political ends but we must continue to insist that the principles of autonomy, embedded in our Constitution, be upheld and wrongdoers brought to book.

Thirdly, in political structures such as formal parties, Parliament, provincial and local government, and at leadership level in the civil service, those who are aware of mismanagement and corruption must speak to be heard. Silence gives consent; it is not good enough to express one’s disapproval through what has been called “moral silence”- that is, keeping still as a form of judgement.

Fourth, in business, the media, labour unions and other private sector bodies that have a voice in public affairs, there has to be both meaningful engagement with government and critical distance allowing for strong and substantive policy differences. Corporates in particular have a responsibility to show integrity and a sense of citizenship, thereby setting a standard for good governance.

Fifth, to those in our universities and research institutes, including the students who waged the #Feesmustfall campaign, in bidding for transformation of the education system let us not forget we are both contributors to, and competitors in, a global community where brainpower creates prosperity. We must not self-destruct our knowledge assets.

In these six ways, I believe, errant leaders can be brought to heel. It is going to take a collective, and co-operative, social effort to achieve this. The alternative is degeneration into a failing state under failing leaders.

The Attuned Leader sets out to serve followers, pioneering the direction they need to take, transforming confusion into clarity, despair into hope, and, most of all, their dreams into realities. May our leadership be attuned to and seek to resonate with its stakeholders.

 Dr Reuel J Khoza, author of Attuned Leadership

Extract from presentation on occasion of receiving Free Market Foundation ninth Luminary Award

The full speech can be read here

This article was first published in Business Day on 29 June 2016
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