How to cultivate ethical and responsible leadership

by Alison Reid: Head: Personal and Applied Learning at the University of Pretoria's Gordon Institute of Business Science.
On 17 September 2021 The Ethics Institute held a symposium on ethical leadership. It was free to anyone interested in rebuilding ethical integrity in key institutions in the wake of state capture, and it featured the National Director of Public Prosecutions, Adv Shamila Batohi, and Edward Kieswetter, Commissioner: South African Revenue Service.

During a discussion that attracted viewers from around the world, much was said about the state of ethical and responsible leadership in South Africa – not just in state-owned institutions but across the spectrum of society, business and government.

The key questions hanging over the discussion were “how do we stop the rot?” and “how do we future proof institutions to avoid sliding back into corruption?”

The answer is surprisingly simple: Prioritise the development and accountability of ethical and responsible leaders.

To be fair, this is a big ask. After all, the very reason state capture was able to thrive in South Africa over the past decade was because pressure to be dishonest can be high, accountability low, and the thin grey line between right and wrong can be blurry when we are called to make ethical decisions behind closed doors. However, as ecological ethicist Aldo Leopold wrote in The Sand County Almanac: “Ethical behaviour is doing the right thing when no one else is watching – even when doing the wrong thing is legal.”

Since laws and regulations alone are not always a guarantee of ethical behaviour, it is clear that ethical leadership cannot be instilled simply through teaching ethical principles, by creating policies and rules to maintain and sustain ethical behaviour within institutions, or by punishing those who act in a manner contrary to an institution’s value system. Individuals - particularly those in positions of power and duty – need to be guided to appreciate the personal ethical responsibility they shoulder and supported to apply collective ethical thinking to complex, pressured and dynamic contexts. Ideally, this should include building capabilities to create sustainable ethical cultural systems which can stand up to the toughest of counter-active pressures.

It is in this intersect between knowing and doing (as well as becoming) that professional coaching has an important role to play.

Let’s talk about coaching for ethical leadership

From the ethical shortcomings at Volkswagen, which ultimately resulted in the automaker admitting to cheating on emissions tests around the world in 2015, to the leadership failures of firms like KPMG, McKinsey, SAP and Bell Pottinger in the wake of the Gupta Leaks here in South Africa, countless examples exist which highlight the muddy waters of ethics and how being faced with dubious and unclear decision making is both emotionally taxing and stressful for the individuals involved. This is partly because textbook theory only exposes leaders and future leaders to the guiding principles of best practice, all of which come from the past. Yes, we learn about the importance of creating policies, structures, processes and governance to manage accountability, but all too often, leaders, workers and managers find themselves in situations which aren’t cut and dried and which they battle to distinguish as corrupt or corruptible in the moment.

If, however, the individual in question was currently, or had previously been partnered through scenarios and dilemmas as part of a coaching intervention, then they would be better prepared to deal with a nuanced dilemma in the moment.

In recent years, the Gordon Institute of Business Science has made use of leadership coaching in its executive education and academic programmes to help students identify, understand and question how best to solve for leadership challenges, including the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. This process uses reflection and action to solve business challenges, or find ways to take advantage of opportunities, all the while challenging existing thinking. It is a welcome addition to the business school arsenal.

After years of hearing business schools the world over criticised for producing graduates whose ethically dubious choices have led to scandals such as Enron, Steinhoff, sub-prime and, in South Africa, the scourge of state capture, it is important that business school graduates both engage with and learn from (historical) ethical case studies as well as increasingly deepen their own personal capacity to think deeply. This approach challenges habitual and hard-wired thinking, enabling people to bypass their personal blind spots and biases in order to make sense of ambiguous and complex situations.

We are all subject to a relatively narrow attentional awareness and the hard-wired biases that we use to retrospectively rationalise our decisions. But working with a thinking partner who is specifically skilled in processes of self-awareness and in actively supporting authentic learning and change for another human being can add significant value. Not only does this support growing awareness and change in the moment, but it can help to expand a general capacity for awareness and growth over time. There is tremendous value for companies in developing future leaders capable of making better sustainable and ethically sound decisions around the environment, human wellbeing and inclusivity and building cultures of social ethics.

Coaching helps to develop these sorts of competencies by helping coaches to explore and confront their values, mental models and shortcomings, as well as how they practice internal management and resilience in the face of pressure. It can be used to create scenarios in which worldviews and behaviours can be tested and made sense of, giving the individual critical practice in putting ethical decision making to work in the real world and in a variety of unexpected and dynamic situations.

Importantly a coach is there to support the individual’s best thinking, rather than fast impulsive and automatic (habitual) decision making. The job of a coach is to hold individuals to account for their own integrity, be it personal values or in terms of how they lead institutions. Ultimately, coaching is a personal endeavour, but one which aims to build a stronger collective intelligence and capabilities across organisations and society as a whole. Ultimately, the ability of all individuals to become coaches to others and offer peer-to-peer support is the endgame; but it always starts with the individual.

What does ethical leadership look like?

Much is being written and debated currently about how to build new models of ethical leadership, better ways to lead by example, and whether it is possible to teach ethical leadership. As Columbia University’s Dr Ross Tartell stresses, “certainly a moral compass - a desire to behave ethically - is fundamental” to this question. But, in practice, ethical leadership boils down to applying accepted standards and principles and putting them into practice effectively.

To quote Adv Batohi: “It’s about leaders not just saying the right things - because I think we are getting the right messages - but it is about acting in accordance with those messages that gives the confidence that these are not just words; that the actions demonstrate that they are important.”

There are many actions which point to ethical leadership, including a deep understanding of personal values, but I believe the following should be actively developed among South African leaders: 

An ability to recognise ethical dilemmas: Just because an individual knows in theory that a certain behaviour is considered morally wrong, does not mean if the opportunity arises that they won’t be unconscious to the signals or follow a personal inclination/ existing mental map, and overlook a situation, if indeed an ethical response is even triggered. This has to do with the wiring of our brains and how many of our ethical decisions are made below the level of consciousness, by previous and hard-wired mental maps. By bringing biases and emotions to the fore during quality coaching sessions, by being presented with challenges that contradict ones ‘taken for granted’ way of thinking, it is possible to shift responses towards ethical decision making. This is not the same as doing what the coach deems ethical, it’s about building a muscle of reflective, complex and ethical thinking for oneself. 

The tools to deal with ethical issues: The same way elite troops undertake simulations to help them respond efficiently under pressure, so too can leaders be primed to think through and make sense of ethical dilemmas. Visualising theoretical scenarios enables people to work through feelings and determine which way they will lean in reality. This includes surfacing the motivations and resilience for doing the hard work to behave ethically against a powerful figure. In a crisis, you may only have seconds to reach a decision, so rehearsing (particularly personally challenging situations) with an experienced coach or mentor can be a great learning tool. If the behaviour is connected consciously to an emotional value and choices are illuminated that didn’t seem to exist, over time one’s intuitive thinking muscle is strengthened. This approach also opens the door to reflection after the fact, and allows for responses to be evaluated and analysed. Like anything else, time and space needs to be created for the thinking and the skills need to be practiced to be mastered. And while one cannot run headlong into ethical dilemmas just to practice, it is possible to prepare the personal thinking that is critical in the face of an ethical dilemma. 

Resilience and the courage of your convictions. Working through a variety of case studies (or imaginary scenarios) and weighing up the implications from all sides and from values within, gives leaders a sense of presence and confidence in the face of real-life challenges. This enables a calmer and more logical response to challenges. More generally, coaching supports the development of resilience and broader capacity to identify and then resist pressure, speak truth to power, and operate within hierarchies of persuasive power, rank and status. Ideally, coaching should always aim to develop self-coaching (in the sense that the reflective thinking process can be internalised) and to in turn become a challenging partner to others in their thinking about ethical leadership. The ultimate intention is to build cultures where these capabilities are collectively and mutually reinforced. It requires courage and also vulnerability. 

While leadership coaching has the wherewithal to enhance ethical sensemaking in individuals and surface the difference between ethical and unethical behaviours, the ultimate decision to blur the line is always a personal one. No business coach (and certainly no library of knowledge) can transform someone who is resistant to change. What coaches can do is create significant conditions for change by bringing unconscious mental models to the surface, challenging different perspectives, facilitating robust debates between colleagues about how to act in dubious situations, and holding people accountable. Ideally this should be a fundamental management and leadership skill. Not only should managers enable deep thinking in those they lead but should model the vulnerability that comes with questioning your own decision-making processes as a leader and exploring ways in which to improve.

The advantage of coaching is that it deals with highly personal drivers, such as experience, motivation, fear, habits of thinking, biases and future goals, by connecting book knowledge to the individual and helping them to navigate their way between the two. This approach can be further strengthened by the constant and steady reinforcement of a robust corporate culture and value system.

Creating ethical institutions

During The Ethics Institute discussion, Kieswetter made the following comment about the need to support personal moral choices by building robust institutions. “People don’t put up their hands and say: ‘Here I am, I’m corrupt’,” he said. “So, you have to build the institutional antenna to detect very quickly and respond very decisively when you do come across an instance of corruption.”

While it is always positive to establish whistleblower call-in lines or to roll out ethics surveys, the reality is that people ultimately look to their top leaders for a clear indication of what is acceptable or not. Unless executive teams are prepared to have difficult conversations about unethical behaviour, to call out cases when they arise and cultivate a culture that welcomes learning and dissent, it is impossible to expect high levels of ethical behaviour throughout the organisation.

Senior leaders must, therefore, model ethical behaviour and live the values outlined in the company’s code of conduct.

This is not a one-off exercise, but a living and breathing commitment to ethics which is exemplified by the approach of a United States-based software maker called Convercent. Founded in 2012, the firm’s rapid growth led its CEO, Patrick Quinlan, to unite the growing number of employees around a commitment to values like honesty, curiosity and positivity. They built a chatbot which workers could access to discuss specific ethical issues, and the management team and its CEO were quick to call out inappropriate behaviour – such as the use of derogatory language.

“When you find a coachable moment, you have to take it,” Quinlan was quoted as saying in a Society for Human Resource Management article. “It’s in these everyday actions that you are reinforcing the values.”

While we all make conscious, daily decisions to behave ethically, the repercussions of unethical actions by those in positions of power have profound implications for societies, economies and individuals. Fortunately, by using skilled thinking partners during customised coaching interventions, it is possible to cultivate the sort of ethical leadership our country and our world so desperately needs.

Useful resources:
Gordon Institute of Business Science
Making an impact to significantly improve the competitive performance of individuals and organisation through business education to build our national competitiveness. GIBS is a leading business school in the heart of Sandton’s business hub, offering a wide range of executive and academic programmes.
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