Leading with integrity: Embracing ethical leadership for a better future

With the 2024 national election now in the past, one cannot help but wonder what the future holds for South Africa. Many promises were made during the election, but it remains to be seen if these promises will be honoured.

Transposing the values underpinning these promises to the Government of National Unity (GNU) leads us to believe that South Africa’s constitutional values will be upheld. These values include human dignity, the achievement of equality, the advancement of human rights and freedom, non-racialism and non-sexism, respect for life and the environment, and supremacy of the Constitution.

For the GNU to uphold these democratic values, ethical leadership is required. This is essential for fostering trust, integrity, and accountability within the public sector. Government leaders who demonstrate ethical behaviour and uphold moral principles set an example for public servants and the society at large. They prioritise the public interest over personal gain and make decisions based on fairness, transparency, and justice. Moreover, ethical leadership in government promotes good governance, citizen participation, and social cohesion.

One of the key characteristics of ethical leadership in government is integrity. Leaders with integrity adhere to a strong ethical code, ensuring that their actions align with the constitutional values and principles. They are honest, transparent, and accountable for their decisions, fostering trust among citizens and creating a sense of stability. Another crucial aspect of ethical leadership in government is the prioritisation of public interest. Ethical leaders recognise their responsibility towards their constituents and work towards the betterment of society. They make decisions that are fair, just, and equitable, considering the long-term consequences and impacts on citizens.

For members of the GNU to lead ethically, they should promote citizen participation and engagement, valuing the opinions and perspectives of constituents. They should actively seek input from citizens, encourage dialogue, and involve stakeholders in decision-making processes, ensuring that policies and actions reflect the needs and aspirations of the people. Ethical leaders also promote transparency and accountability in governance, leading to effective and efficient public service delivery – areas that have been glaringly neglected in the previous dispensation. Only when these values and principles are embraced by political leaders, can an inclusive democratic environment be created, underpinned by a sense of unity and inclusivity.

Although ethical leadership has been largely absent in the immediate previous dispensation, we can and should be hopeful that the leaders of the GNU will actively pursue it. If not, citizens will continue to feel powerless and possibly resort to unethical conduct, such as bribing public servants for service delivery and engaging in corruption to assist with their economic growth.

Ethical leadership is not just essential on a political level but is equally important in organisational settings. It influences the organisational culture, values, and behaviour of employees who are all part of the larger South African society. Ethical leaders within organisations prioritise integrity, fairness, and responsibility, creating a positive work environment and driving organisational success. One of the key characteristics of ethical leadership in organisations is leading by example. Ethical leaders act as role models, inspiring employees to uphold the organisational values and principles, and they prioritise fairness and justice.

These leaders demonstrate integrity in their actions and decision-making processes, setting the standard for ethical conduct within the organisation. They treat employees with respect, ensure equal opportunities, and make decisions based on merit rather than personal biases. This fosters a culture of fairness and inclusivity, where employees feel valued and motivated to contribute their best.

Responsibility is another crucial aspect of ethical leadership in organisations. Ethical leaders take responsibility for their actions and the consequences of their decisions. They hold themselves accountable and encourage their employees to do the same. This promotes a culture of accountability, where individuals take ownership of their work and strive for excellence. Additionally, ethical leaders on organisational level prioritise ethical decision-making, which reduces the likelihood of ethical failures, legal issues, and reputational damage.

The benefits of ethical leadership in organisations are manifold. It not only fosters employee engagement and commitment, as employees are more likely to be motivated and loyal under such leadership, but it also enhances organisational reputation and attracts talented individuals who value ethical practices.

Promoting ethical leadership in the GNU and in organisations requires a multi-faceted approach. It starts with selecting and preparing leaders who embrace ethical values and behaviours. As emphasised by Adv. Kholeka Gcaleka in February 2024, “The time had come for society to focus on nurturing ethically grounded future leaders from a very young age. This would go a long way in ensuring that the future leaders of our society are those anchored on a high level of ethics, and this would assist greatly in the achievement of social justice.”

Implementing training programmes and workshops to enhance ethical awareness and decision-making skills is essential. Additionally, creating a supportive organisational culture that rewards ethical behaviour and provides channels for reporting ethical concerns is crucial. Leaders must consistently exemplify ethical practices to reinforce the importance of ethical leadership.

For South Africa, ethical leadership is pivotal at both the GNU and organisational levels to drive positive change in a country plagued by corruption, fraud, crime, and other forms of wrongdoing for too long. On a leadership level, we need integrity, transparency, accountability, and responsibility. By prioritising ethical leadership, the GNU and organisations can create ethical climates that inspire the South African citizenry to act ethically, leading to a more just and prosperous society.

About the author: Dr Liezl Groenewald is the CEO of The Ethics Institute & co-founder of The Whistleblower House