Leading Ethically

An Address to Public Finance Management for Transformation and Service Conference by Dr Reuel J. Khoza  I  10 May 2018

1 Introduction and Overview

In attuned leadership I contend that leadership must perforce be ethical or it is not leadership at all, but misleadership. The distinction is cardinal. Leadership is the organisational process that persuades, aligns, inspires and influences followers to cooperate in pursuit of wholesome goals. Misleadership is somewhat similar in process except that it at times utilises coercion in place of persuasion, manipulation in place of influence, and is sinister in intent.

Leadership, wholesome leadership, is ethical; it is good. Misleadership is unethical; it is bad. Ethics concerns itself with the human effort, people’s best endeavour to distinguish good from bad, right from wrong.

1.1 Defining Ethics

Ethics as a value theory concerns itself with the evaluation of human conduct, with how human beings ought fundamentally to behave, particularly in relation to one another.

1.2 Ethics and Morality

Morality and ethics are concepts often used synonymously: an ethical issue is essentially a moral issue. More and more, however the term “ethics” is being used to apply to specialised areas of morality, such as medicine, business, the environment, even government and politics. Where professions are concerned, a governing body will typically draw up a code of ethics for its members. In this regard ethical leadership is pretty straightforward given that there are guidelines. However, even in this instance, unethical leaders, that is misleaders, still flout or break the ethical codes and regulations with self-serving motives: lawyers with self-serving motives are struck off the roll. CEOs who subscribe to the King Code or Sarbanes Oxley are fired or even land in jail.

Some philosophers though, from Socrates to Bernhard Williams, use Ethics in a broad sense to refer to reflective answers to the question: “How should I live?” How should one live in a manner that is beneficial and not inimical to mankind? If we accept as we should, this broad sense of ethics, then leading ethically should grapple with the key challenge of: Given that leadership is wholesome stewardship to those one purports to lead, how should a leader relate to his or her followers? How does the leader serve the followers’ common interest? How does one steer clear of misleadership? What does leading ethically entail?

Before we attempt to answer these imperative questions, it is important to reflect briefly on the issue of ethical relativism.


2 Ethical Relativism

This is the belief that moral assessments are essentially dependent upon the standards that define a particular moral code, the practices and norms accepted by a given social group at a specific place and time. Taking as granted that there is in fact a multiplicity of social groups, with differing mores, relativists argue that there is no particular point of view from which these codes can themselves be assessed, no “absolute” criteria by which they can be criticised.

Relativists also draw on notions such as “alternative conceptual schemes” and language games, e.g. calling lies “alternative facts”. Donald Trump and his cohorts are classical contemporary examples of this; epitomising leading unethically.

Even as we accept the prima-facie divergences of moral orientation, we can nevertheless argue that relativists tend to exaggerate their implications. Some common basic human values can be discerned over a wide range of cultures communities, social groups, nations: e.g. moral condemnation of leaders who use their power to exploit and oppress their people; or institutionalised thieving otherwise known as corruption or kleptocracy. There is also agreement, among radically different groups / nations about the need for impartial determination and resolution of disputes by an authorised individual like a retired judge or a body like the Constitutional Court.


3 Ineffective versus Unethical Leadership

Bad, unwholesome leadership typically falls into two categories: ineffective or unethical. If you look around you will observe that all bad leadership is bad in one, or sometimes both of these ways.

3.1 Ineffective Leadership

Ineffective leadership is so because it fails to produce the desirable change. It is not desirably transformative. The reasons include missing characteristics, weak skills or lack or expertise, badly conceived strategies, and tactics badly implemented. Ineffective leadership typically falls short of its intention.

One way to conceptualise an ineffective leader is to reverse the ideal: If the ideal leader possesses the traits such as intelligence, perseverance, adaptability and equanimity, the leaders who lack many of these will in all probability run into trouble. The same holds for leadership skills. If the ideal leader can communicate, mobilise, cooperate and has good judgement and can make good decisions, leaders who refuse or are unable to apply such skills are unlikely to perform well than their better-disposed and more able counterparts.

The same applies to followers: Ineffective followers lack or simply do not demonstrate, the traits necessary for good followership. The best followers are confident, independent partners with leaders. They think for themselves and hold up their end of the bargain. They strive to make themselves integral to the enterprise, sharpening their skills and enhancing their contributions and cooperating with colleagues. By contrast, ineffective followers are weak and dependent, tend to be cronies and are reluctant in any significant way to commit or contribute to the team. They tend to float.

3.2 Unethical Leadership

Unethical leadership is that which fails to distinguish between right and wrong; between good and bad. The failure could be a function of genuine ignorance in sinister and manipulative to serve selfish ends.

To put unethical leadership in sharper focus it may be helpful to contrast it with ethical leadership:

  • Ethical leaders strive to put their followers’ needs and aspirations before their own; they derive satisfaction and edification from being of service. Unethical leaders / misleaders do not; they tend to be self-serving and self-indulgent.
  • Ethical leaders exemplify such wholesome virtues as integrity, empathy, courage and temperance. Unethical leaders do not.
  • Ethical leaders lead in the interest of the common or greater good; in politics they serve the national interest, and in business, the overall organisational interest. Unethical leaders simply do not.


4 Practical Manifestations of Unethical Leadership as Bad Leadership

One effective and practical way to practice ethical leadership is knowing what to avoid. This should be complemented by What To Do in leading ethically. The following are examples of What To Avoid.

4.1 Deployment in Leadership Appointment

The admonition here is: employ, do not employ. Why? Because:

  1. Deployment is informed by shared ideology. As we know, ideology is typically an emotionally charged belief and not always rational.
  2. In deployment party political considerations trump competence, skills and appropriate expertise.
  3. Deployment tends to elevate mediocrity to the status of virtue – the mediocre are preferred over the able because the former tend to be welcome conformists.

Employment, by contrast is criteria based. Such criteria typically include competence, relevant qualification, skill, expertise and appropriateness of personality.

Deployment is fertile ground for unethical behaviour.

4.2 Incompetence

In this instance the leader lacks the will or skill (or both) to sustain effective action. Typically such leaders lack practical, academic or emotional intelligence and tend to be careless, dense, distracted and sloppy. Incompetence shields behind manipulative and intimidating behaviour to subordinates. Both of these defence mechanisms are bad and unethical.

4.3 Rigidity

Upon succeeding Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa in 1999, Thabo Mbeki took issue with the West and its approach to AIDS. He maintained that HIV did not cause AIDS, that leading AIDS drugs were not that useful and could even be toxic; that poverty was the root cause of RSA’s rapidly growing problem with this lethal disease. It is now accepted history that his rigid withholding of anti-retroviral drugs from HIV-positive pregnant women led to untold transmission of the disease to their babies, with dire consequences.

Rigid leaders tend to be stiff and unyielding. Although they may be competent they are unable or unwilling to adapt to new ideas, new information, or changing times.

Rigid leaders can come across as ethical and successful up to a point but their refusal to be deflected even by scientific professional facts, may result in bad / unethical leadership.

4.4 Callousness

Callous leaders / misleaders are those who are uncaring or unkind. Once in power or in position of authority by fair or foul means, they ignore or discount the needs, wants and aspirations of their followers or members of their organisation, particularly subordinates.

This is clearly unethical.

4.5 Corruption

Corrupt leaders / misleaders are generally driven by power or greed for typically scarce resources. To make more money, for example, corrupt leaders take bribes, dispense largess for favours, evade taxes, exaggerate corporate earnings, engage in insider trading, cook books, defraud governments and business, cut corners, bend rules and break laws.

Contemporary classical examples of such misleadership or unethical leaders in South Africa would include collaborators with the Gupta Family, those partners in KPMG, the Board and Executives of Steinhoff.

In extreme form, corruption is institutionalised as kleptocracy. This is the nadir of unethical behaviour. The putative leaders lie, cheat and steal as a matter of course. They put self-interest ahead of the public or national interest to an excessive degree.

4.6 Reflective Overview

Unethical leadership is more devastating than any other factor in destroying corporations and nations.

Corporate examples include:

  • The total collapse of Enron, at one stage the global envy of many major corporations, particularly those in the Energy Sector.
  • The virtual collapse of Steinhoff with more than eighty percent of its market capital wiped off stock exchanges overnight, ten days sequent to CEO Markus Jooste quitting and the company admitting to unspecified “accounting irregularities”. Unspecified accounting irregularities is euphemism for unethical leadership.
  • Contrast the Eskom of 2001 and 2002, voted The Global Power Company of the Year, rated above the Sovereign by Moody’s and declaring a R1.6b dividend to its shareholder – the RSA Government, against the virtually bankrupt Eskom of today. Ethics is the key differential.

National / Country examples include:

  • Zimbabwe: From bread basket to basket case under Robert Mugabe.
  • DRC: Endowed with a super-abundance of natural resources lying unexploited.
  • Nigeria: Potential continental economic leader virtually paralysed by pervasive lack of ethical leadership.


Leading Ethically

How then does one lead ethically?

  • First by avoiding the examples of bad or unethical leadership discussed above. Stay clear of deploying people and insist on employing people based on merits / objective criterian in selecting and developing leaders. Guard against Callousness because it is downright corrosive and unethical. Be adaptive and not rigid particularly in the light of incontrovertible scientific facts. So-called alternative facts are in fact lies. Avoid corruption like the plague because it is in fact cancerous to ethical leadership.
  • Develop and cultivate a wholesome value system that encompasses integrity, duty of care, probity, humility, passion and compassion, a sense of efficacy, honour and magnanimity. Properly nourished, such a value system will serve as an Ethical Compass.
  • Be sensitive, responsive and responsible to followers. Ethical leadership demonstrates this. In the book Attuned Leadership I argue that (ethical) leadership is about sense and sensing, about thought and feeling, about insight into and harmony with the followership.



May I conclude by quoting the great humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Alfred Schweizer: “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy, are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

May I accentuate: Serve Ethically.