Ideas & Debate

How ethical leadership dearth can be addressed

What’s lacking is an equally vibrant discourse on how we can help those of our leaders who are unethical to change their ways. file photo | nmg
What’s lacking is an equally vibrant discourse on how we can help those of our leaders who are unethical to change their ways. file photo | nmg 

It’s good that as we approach our elections people have been talking about ethical leadership.

We’ve been hearing lots about ethical role models who should do the right thing in the right way; put the concerns of others above their own; and make the hard, unpopular decisions when needed. Such people won’t tear their communities apart; won’t allow the ends to justify the means; and won’t preach water and drink wine. We hear even more about how dreadfully unethical so many of our leaders are.

But what’s lacking is an equally vibrant discourse on how we can help those of our leaders who are unethical to change their ways, and reinforce those who despite all the temptations and the impunity do behave ethically. Many ethical leaders exist in Kenya — I interact with such worthy folk all the time. But, not least in the public sector and in activities that interact with that world, because the ethical ones hold back from taking the short cuts the less uninhibited find only too easy to go for, they tend not to be among the most senior or influential in their organisations.

This was the challenge I addressed as I ran a session for the Kenya School of Government’s Strategic Leadership Development Programme (SLDP) on the subject of ethical leadership. I genuinely assumed that those in the room were indeed ethical, but speculated that they found it challenging to hold on to their values — as a result of the actions of colleagues in their workplaces whose priority was other than delivering services to the public. Indeed too often it is the ethical ones who end up being frustrated, who suffer as they try to go about their work in a proper way.   

As I proceeded through the session many hands went up seeking to contribute. Predictably, some restricted themselves to defining the challenges in our country — in the workplace, in the education system and elsewhere — while others focused only on what the ideal world of ethical behaviour would look like.

But how can we make progress from the realities of today towards that more ethical society, I asked, and what could they personally do beyond acting as impotent and demotivated observers of the scene? Were they tempted to cave in and do in Rome as the Romans do? And if not, what held them back from doing so?

“Guilt,” answered one impressive civil servant. “My values,” offered another — values that were different from those of the ambitiously materialistic, the greedy and the selfish. One participant spoke about how she works with her children to develop healthy values in them, adopting the same approach in her workplace. Most impressively, she described how the appraisal system in her organisation was used as a tool to encourage ethical behaviour, rewarding those who practised healthy values and helping those who did not.

I quoted from the values that underpin Vision 2030, and in particular those that relate to the public service, which the document specifies should be “citizen-focused and results-oriented”. The system, it states, will be “ethical, valuing transparency and accountability”; it will “reward on merit and performance”; and “engage in continuous improvement”.

In closing I challenged the SLDP participants to keep reflecting purposefully on how they would increase their circle of positive influence upon returning to their workplaces. What would they stop doing and start doing? What would they do more of and less of? How would they link up with others to form a bolder and more significant coalition of the ethical?

It was good to see such active and thoughtful participation around this vital topic from these good public servants. Later in the day I came across this helpful quote to inspire us all, from Arthur Conan Doyle — author of the Sherlock Holmes detective novels:

“I should dearly love that the world should be ever so little better for my presence. Even on this small stage we have our two sides, and something might be done by throwing all one’s weight on the scale of breadth, tolerance, charity, temperance, peace, and kindliness to man and beast. We can’t all strike very big blows, and even the little ones count for something.”