The Social Value of Ethical Leadership - Willem Punt

When we think of reasons why organisations should cultivate a good ethical culture, we often hear the pragmatic imperative "good ethics is good business" but in this short piece I would like to explore the social imperative "why building an ethical culture in your organisation is a vital contribution towards securing a safe political future for us all". Willem Punt

Submitted October 2004


When we think of reasons why organisations should cultivate a good ethical culture, we often hear the pragmatic imperative "good ethics is good business" but in this short piece I would like to explore the social imperative "why building an ethical culture in your organisation is a vital contribution towards securing a safe political future for us all".

When we look at our continent, we can see so much beauty;so regularly blighted by fear. We often hear tales of great happiness drowned out by thunderous disasters. Such is our continent of contrasts that the summer rain smells better than in any other place on the planet, yet millions are often subject to droughts starving their bodies and souls.

Yes, many of us have fought and sacrificed to taste freedom from oppression only to be confronted with the bitter spectre that, in Africa, you can very easily become what you despise.

Among the many injustices suffered in the past, us Africans are confronted by one simple but frightfully apparent truth: A large number of African heads of state have, for the most part, consistently failed to treat their citizens as anything but vassals to do their selfish bidding.

Africans face many challenges but possibly the greatest challenge stems from the fact that in Africa authority is seen as an ultimate entitlement, not an ultimate responsibility.

It is this sense of entitlement that causes rulers to consider themselves, at most, only accountable to their political peers. In contrast, leaders take up their civil duty by being accountable to the citizens who gave them the mandate to govern in the first place.

Many African politicians willingly cast themselves in a ruler mould, preferring to think that they are beyond reproach, usually regarding those who possess the strength of conviction to oppose them as traitors, provocateurs and rebels.

It is because of this unfortunate ethic that Africa has produced very few leaders but a plethora of rulers who either stay on for decades until senility claims what good sense they had, or are replaced by new rulers in rapid cycles.

Yet, in 1994 a miracle happened. Mr. Mandela became President and a leader, in the true sense of the word, of a divided but willing nation. Since then, we have had good reason to hope that South Africa will be blessed with a different fate than some of its northern brothers.

We have done much to make this hope a reality. Without a doubt the cornerstone of our democracy is a unique Code of Ethics, our Constitution, that espouses the highest ideals of human rights, freedom and dignity.

However, I will argue that what makes a democracy succeed is not the letters residing in a constitution but its spirit residing in our hearts.

Among certain authority figures in this country there is a disturbing disconnect between the principles of the Constitution and a true commitment to make these principles part of the governance culture of this country.

In order to keep the principles of our struggle alive, we need to demand leadership from those seeking to rule. We need to be intolerant of their intolerance, for ultimately the ethical tone at the top will shape the future of us below.

You cannot even begin to talk about moral clarity without first securing moral authority. This authority must be provided by leaders whose integrity is beyond any doubt and whose moral commitment is total.

The creation of a moral culture begins at the top. It is true in politics and it is true in business. There might be moral champions that persevere in countries and organisations that serve under the yoke of unethical rulers, yet these islands of integrity eventually all succumb to the pressing waves of unjustice and greed that surround them.

Employees often spend 60 percent of their adult lives at their places of employment. Employers have a unique opportunity to exert enormous positive influence on those in their charge. It would be criminal if that opportunity were squandered.

I am not suggesting that organisations should be political, far from it. Rather, they should, through the building of an ethical culture, establish a benchmark against which employees can judge their employers and politicians.

Building an ethical culture in the public and private spheres is therefore not just a moral responsibility but a pressing social responsibility as well, for it ultimately constitutes the standard against which we can judge our leaders.

Employers in South Africa, in both the public and private domains, should actively pursue the creation of an ethical culture that will allow the spirit of our constitution to prosper.

If we lose this struggle there are strong historical indications that we will eventually follow so many of our fellow Africans; well-trodden path to chaos, poverty and general mismanagement.

Willem Punt
Business Ethics Manager
Ethics Institute of South Africa
PO Box 2427
Brooklyn Square, 0075
South Africa

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