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Ethical leadership comes from love, says chief justice

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MIRAH LANGER

“There shouldn’t be grudge compliance, it needs to come from the heart … then you don’t need any law or labour department, you will know the right thing to do,” urged Mogoeng at a keynote address to launch the ethics barometer at GIBS (the Gordon Institute of Business Science) business school in Illovo, Johannesburg, this week.

“Let us not pay lip service to what needs to be done, but develop credible strategies, share them with the public, and tell them what concrete steps we are going to take to turn the tide around,” he said.

“When a nation is as challenged as South Africa is, you need government, civil society, and business working together, sorting out their differences internally for the greater good.”

GIBS’ ethics-barometer project is led by Rabbi Gideon Pogrund. It aims to offer concrete measures of the ethical “fitness” of businesses in South Africa. Based on a Harvard model, it has been adapted for the South African context. The first study of this ongoing initiative looked at 15 major local companies from across a wide variety of sectors, encompassing the experiences of more than 8 000 employees.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, Pogrund said the barometer offered opportunities and lessons for all those keen to uplift South Africa, including the Jewish community:

“South Africa’s future is dependent on ethical leadership. It’s because of ethical failure that we have got ourselves into this difficult situation. If we are here, a commitment to improving ethical behaviour is crucial.”

He said the barometer’s concrete measures of ethical performance turned the topic of ethics from a “soft conversation, to one likely to have more impact”.

“Being ethical in business is basic to being Jewish. Ethics can’t be compartmentalised. The Torah is for life, including business.”

Mogoeng told the GIBS audience that too often, ethics remained theoretical, and when it came to putting it into practice, leaders shirked their duty.

“However inconvenient it may be for you to pursue ethical leadership, however foolish, or even weak some may regard you as being for your absolute commitment to ethical leadership, as long as the critical mass of your people in a nation like South Africa stands to benefit rather than be harmed by what you do, then let the embarrassment come,” Mogoeng urged. “Let the criticism come. Let the ridicule come. [Choose ethical behaviour] so that those who are suffering from hunger, homelessness, sickness, and disease can find the help that you as an important change agent can bring.”

Mogoeng said in South Africa, ethics were deeply tied up with the issue of racism alongside other forms of discrimination. “We had a terrible system. We come from a background where racism caused black and white people to be at each other’s throats.”

The responsibility lies with ethical leaders to deal with this reality.

“We need to work aggressively towards crushing this polarising nonsense called race. We need to use our creativity, our leadership, and our influence to unite our people.”

Mogoeng said that in the business sector, racism and discrimination often occured in the way, through conscious and unconscious bias, we tend to promote those most similar to us. Furthermore, the issue of unequal renumeration remains problematic, whereby people doing the same job are not paid the same amount based on gender or race.

Yet, asserted the chief justice, “It’s not something to condemn one another about; it’s for us to say, as leaders committed to ethics, something is wrong here.”

Then, meaningful, practical, and concrete steps can be taken. The formulation of these steps needs to be guided by a simple, yet profound principle: love, suggested Mogoeng.

“I choose to sow a seed of love, to interact with people without prejudice, not thinking they are this way or the other way,” he asserted, even quipping, “Don’t see apartheid in the eyes of every white person.

Pogrund said that the significance of the ethics study was that it offered formal measures, rooted in empirical evidence, that then lent more credibility and practicality to the issue of business ethics.

The study looks at 68 different behaviours in a business, including its treatment of customers, suppliers, employees, as well as the organisation’s culture and practices, its engagement with broader society, and its avoidance of misconduct.

It has found wide consensus in how companies ought to behave. “Ethical values are widely shared. It’s an important point when you think about the polarisation that plagues our country.”

Pogrund spoke of a trend in which employees are more positive about how companies deal with external groups such as customers than how they handle internal matters with employees. “The general picture points to a perceived lack of respect and fairness, and less-than-ideal levels of trust.”

He said the study might point to the presence of the “altitude effect” [whereby] “the higher you go [in a business hierarchy], the more likely you are to have a rosy view and be out of touch”.

Pogrund said that 45% of respondents had said that they had witnessed at least one example of misconduct over the past 24 months. However, only 30% of those who believed they had witnessed misconduct had gone on to report it, citing fear, intimidation, or lack of trust in the company.

He said that while some might question the value of examining perceptions of employees, in fact, it is deeply relevant. “If you want to understand a particular environment, you have to understand what people think.

“It facilitates self-reflection for corporate leaders,” he suggested, pointing out that humility forms a core component of ethical leadership.

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