Employees in an organisation, or citizens in a country, cannot reasonably be expected to be honest ambassadors of their brand if their leaders do not demonstrate ethical leadership from the front.
This was the overall sentiment that emerged at the launch of the 2019 Business Ethics Survey at the University of Stellenbosch Business School on Monday, hosted by the Ethics Institute. Participants agreed that corporate SA, a microcosm of broader society, must invest more in driving ethical leadership.
This discussion followed another that had taken place at the 2019 Brand Summit South Africa in Johannesburg last week, which touched on similar issues.
Leading from the front means being clear about the values that underpin the journey the brand - whether it's a corporate, NGO or country - must undertake in order to realise a set vision. Leadership is not a popularity contest. It is often, even necessarily, a lonely path to walk, requiring a good leader to make difficult, unpopular but necessary decisions for the greater good.
The leader must, of course, have the intelligence to bring those they lead along with them. In the words of Vincent Lombardi, "The leader can never close the gap between himself and the group. If he does, he is no longer what he must be. He must walk the tightrope between the contest he must win and the control he must exert."
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Former president Nelson Mandela knew how to be such a leader. He was always clear about what was good for South Africa and what was bad. He demonstrated this when he paid a visit to Betsie Verwoerd, widow of apartheid architect, Hendrick Verwoerd, in Orania. He also did this when he refused to be dictated upon by others on whom to invite to South Africa. The US wasn't happy with him inviting Cuban President Fidel Castro, PLO Leader Yasser Arafat, and Libyan leader Colonel Muamar Gadhafi; and China was most displeased when he invited and publicly hosted the Tibetan Spiritual Leader, the Dalai Lama, in South Africa.
In another example, and against what seemed to be a popular - if not populist - demand at the time, Mandela wouldn't hear of the removal of the Springbok emblem from our rugby team's jersey. He reminded a crowd baying for blood that the Springboks belonged to all of us, South Africans, and not to a small portion of the population. That was leadership.
Had Mandela been alive today and over the past ten years, there is no doubt in my mind that he would have taken clear, public stances against behaviour that is bad for South Africa, even if such behaver might be strangely good for the party he led or for a nascent coalition of racist left-wing extremists in our politics. He wasn't shy, either, to lash out at right-wing extremists or others, including some in government, when he deemed their conduct to be bad for the South Africa we agreed to build.
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We also know that his outspokenness against government's policies on HIV/Aids, even after he left the presidency, did not make him a popular man in some quarters. He spoke out for South Africa even if it cost him friends in the party he led.
He had the balance, empathy, emotional intelligence and maturity to lead a liberation movement in a time of change - one that was understandably hungry for change and as much political power as it could get - but he also led a diverse country during a very fragile period in its journey. He never forgot that he led a country that had just set itself a new vision and set of values, all of which remain enshrined in our Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The 2019 Business Ethics Survey tells us that "ethical culture risk exists when ethical values, assumptions, or beliefs are lacking or underdeveloped; and ethical culture is the most powerful driver of likely organisational behaviour and is thus one of the most important variables for determining the state of ethics in an organisation (or, I add, 'country')."
It further says that the "tone-at-the-top is often viewed as the most important driver of an ethical culture but, especially in large corporations (or in the case of countries), given that they're the direct interface with employees, middle-managers (or senior civil servants) are indispensable to the development and maintenance of an organisation (or country)'s ethical culture.
"They are the critical link between the tone-at-the-top (or in the cabinet) and non-managerial employees (or ordinary citizens)."
In all cases, the ethical tone must be set by leaders and made to resonate downwards through the ranks. Employees, just like citizens, will not see the need to conduct themselves in an ethical manner - guided by the organisation's set values and inspired by the conduct of those at the top - if those at the apex have lost the moral higher ground.
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A CEO or President cannot expect to be taken seriously if s/he is morally compromised, as s/he could not realistically look the wrongdoers in the eye and deliver judgement. And a CEO or president who remains silent in the face of wrongdoing, even in his ranks, can never successfully lead a great brand on the journey to realise its set vision.
Silence at the top of any brand, or lack of a clear direction that is underpinned by ethical and law-abiding conduct at all times, is a sure way for any brand, including country brands, to falter and lose direction in an 'every man for himself and no one for anyone' environment.
The elections are gone; South Africans and the world of investors are waiting for clarity on political and economic policy and to see a government finally speaking in one voice for the sake of the country. If none of this happens soon, the next five years will be long and treacherous indeed.