The importance of dignity in ethical leadership

Henley Business School Africa hosted a well-attended breakfast panel and discussion on ‘The importance of dignity in ethical leadership’ on campus on Wednesday 16 July 2019. Business leaders, current students and alumni were able to hear Rabbi David Lapin, the renowned South African born US b

HENLEY Business School Africa hosted a well-attended breakfast panel and discussion on ‘The importance of dignity in ethical leadership’ on campus on Wednesday 16 July 2019. Business leaders, current students and alumni were able to hear Rabbi David Lapin, the renowned South African born US based business ethicist; Columba CEO Tracy Hackland; RMB CEO James Formby, former RMB COO Peter Gent and SARS Commissioner Edward Kieswetter.

The purpose of the breakfast panel, said dean and director Jon Foster-Pedley, was not to moralise about ethics, but to fundamentally understand that corruption does not take from the rich but robs the poorest of the poor of a better life.

“Where corruption exists, it is impossible to create a viable economy,” he said.

Henley’s mission of building the leaders that build businesses that build Africa meant taking a position on exactly this; to realise that the Milton Friedman model of capitalism had irretrievably failed with the only solution being to move from fixating on profits and returns to shareholders to focus instead on Colin Mayer’s model of creating prosperity rather than profit.

“When we build leaders, we speak of becoming the leader you wished you had, today here are those
people, people of substance.”

Hackland, the CEO of Columba which works specifically with young people and particularly in underprivileged schools, said ethical leadership was about character and values, connecting what they stand for and substituting purpose for self-interest.

“With young people, the belief that leadership is power over others falls away the moment they realise that leadership is actually responsibility. Ethical leaders do the right thing even when it is difficult; they do the right thing for the collective not for themselves, they do the right thing even when they have the power not to.

“You can’t preach it, you can’t teach it, you can only help them connect with values.”

The key to leadership was learning how to serve, she said.

“Purpose elevates a person’s sense of significance, they take themselves more seriously, they become inoculated against peer pressure.”

For Lapin, a trained rabbi turned business leadership strategist who helped draft the first King Commission’s Code of Ethics for business, the first injunction of business is “Don’t harm anyone else”.

Who could be harmed in business? he asked, identifying four possible stakeholders: the shareholders, employees, customers and communities. The relationship between the four was very different, he said.

“We serve customers, only them; we reward the shareholders, not serve them; we support our employees to serve the customers; and we improve our environment. When we do that then our business is ethical.

“It’s simple until you get to the trade-offs,” he said citing the famous 1982 Johnson & Johnson case where the manufacturer pulled 31 million bottles of Tylenol painkiller off the market because of a poison scare that killed 50 people. The decision costs the company $100-million.

“The decision was made, not to manage the PR fall out, but on the very real expectation that Johnson & Johnson would go out of business because their purpose was to save lives and if they were killing people then they had no right to continue.

“Their purpose was paramount,” he said.

The second injunction for business is dignity, something which runs through every major religion in the world through the tenet: “Love your neighbour as yourself”.

“In all these texts, there’s the ‘as yourself’ coda, an understanding that a human being can’t love anyone more than themselves, so the process starts by loving yourself, valuing yourself or you can’t value others.”

Dignity, he said, was when another person felt you see them not as they are but as they could and should be. “If you’re a person of faith, you see them as a child of God, or just an amazing human being with the capacity to change the world.”

Kieswetter agreed: “In isiZulu and Xhosa, the greeting is ‘I see you’ not ‘hello’. In Mayan temples, the greeting is ‘you are my other self’.”

South Africans had to reach a point where there was less of the “I” in conversations and more of the us, because “I” amplifies differences and furthers the disconnect between people whether on the basis of gender, class, orientation or race.

“Leadership is a privilege and not a sense of entitlement. You’re not there because you deserve it, you’re there for a season and that which is bequeathed to you must be greater when you leave than that which you received when you arrived.”

Doing the right thing, always, is the core of ethical leadership said Formby, the problem was that the right thing wasn’t always visible which is why collective decision making and debate was so critical to actually discerning it. You needed humility to be able to listen to others and the courage to act on what was revealed.

For Gent, everyone knows what the right thing is, it’s about doing the right thing, but most importantly paying the price of doing just that.

“Leadership is all about service, if you don’t serve others, you might be a manager, but you are certainly not a leader.”

So, what then, does all this mean in an era of the Zondo Commission into State Capture? asked Foster-Pedley.

The biggest lesson for Formby is that companies can’t control what happens outside, but they can control who they do business with – even if that decision costs them financially in the short term.

“We need to build a culture of ethics in organisations. We have seen how state capture has destroyed institutions over a period of time, the culture to rebuild these will take time. This culture can be guided and shaped but it cannot be dictated to, it requires ethical leadership from the top. People judge an organisation on what will be tolerated and what won’t be.”

Kieswetter recounted how he had written a letter to all SARS staff when he took over, in it he told them how he felt to come back, how he believed state capture was real, that Sars had been caught up in it and how the damage was incalculable. He told them that he fully accepted the Nugent

Report into Sars, then he explained how he would hold them accountable and how they could hold him accountable.

Finally, he told them what they could achieve for Sars and for the country if they worked together.

“People don’t expect us to be perfect, but they do expect us to be authentic,” he said, “and to die fulfilling our promises – or not make them at all.”

Lapin said the main lesson of the Zondo Commission was that while there was a general reign of lawlessness in South Africa, most visible on the roads and the behaviour of motorists who delighted in breaking the law and getting away with it, it was pointless to speak of ethics.

“We need to be intolerant of lawlessness.”

Gent agreed; “don’t look for excuses not to do the right thing like paying for e-tolls, or your TV licence or your tax.”

This point was immediately picked up by Kieswetter.

“There’s so much corruption you would be justified in withholding your taxes, but a tax revolt feeds the evolution of a lawless society. Be the change you want to see, you cannot expect others to do right, if you continue to do wrong.

“In the book of Acts 20:35, it’s more blessed to give than to receive, it doesn’t say it’s better to give than receive, it means it is a special privilege to be able to give. Martin Luther king said an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Unethical behaviour feeds off guilt, fear and greed, moving us away from the ‘us’ and the more we amplify this, the more we feed unethical behaviour.”

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