We need robust, ethical leadership for these turbulent times


by Sandra Burmeister

Turmoil, uncertainty and risk are the watchwords of the global economy today. Businesses operate in a complex, unstable environment where old models and systems are no longer reliable.

The rules have changed, which demands a new kind of leadership. We are in the midst of one of the greatest changes in modern times:

  • Old centres of power are faltering,
  • Technology is driving innovation, and 
  • Young people are igniting the social conversation.

Increased competitiveness globally – along with economic uncertainty, massive technological advances and stricter governance regulations – present challenges to leaders at all levels in both government and the private sector at all levels.

We need robust ethical leadership to navigate these turbulent times

However, increased competition and the rapid rate of change have led to a trade-off between expediency and good governance.

Globally, corporate greed and corruption is a major cause of the global financial crisis and business has been extremely creative in finding ways to buck the system:

  • Recently, South Africa has been hit by evidence of widespread corporate corruption:

    –    In the construction sector, this includes tender collusion and price fixing,
    –    Fixing of bread prices, excessive bank charges and high cellphone tariffs indicate widespread practices undertaken with a careless sense of freedom.

  • The Ketchum Global Leadership Monitor 2013 shows that, of 6 000 respondents across 12 countries (including South Africa) only 24% rated their leaders as effective. According to the survey: “Leaders continue to underperform on expected behaviours, in particular transparency, leading by example and dealing with difficult issues.” Short-term thinking and passing the buck stood out as major areas of concern.

What do people want from their leaders?

The survey identified the main characteristics that people want from their leaders as:

  • Transparent communication,
  • Leading by example, 
  • Handling issues and crises calmly, 
  • Making tough decisions, and 
  • Admitting mistakes.

Meeting these leadership challenges requires new skills and abilities. Leaders must deliver seamless strategy execution, innovation and process excellence. They must convey what they stand for clearly and powerfully. At the same time, they know that they’ll be judged on their actions, not on their words.

Agility is emerging as a key characteristic of future leaders

Agile leaders are able to reflect, see possibilities and reframe their thinking constantly. They understand the importance of adaptability, grace in failure, curiosity, collaboration and diversity.

Future leaders will also be ambitious, results driven and adaptable. They’ll grasp new opportunities and take leaps of imagination to grow the business. They’ll understand how to operate across multiple geographic, business and functional boundaries.

According to the Ketchum study:

  • 62% of respondents are looking to generation-X leaders (aged 35 to 50) to navigate the world through challenging times,
  • 25% are expecting most from 50 to 64 year-olds, and
  • 10% from 18 to 34 year-olds.

Organisations must explore fresh models for finding, developing and engaging ethical leaders for tomorrow’s leaders with their different expectations, values and work preferences. At the same time, technology, globalisation and workforce demographics are changing business structures and ethics.

The corporate culture must include a renewed commitment to embracing ethical values, not simply to avoid scandals but to regain the public trust. That is the only way to ensure that good governance underpins the fabric of our organisations and institutions, and to ensure long-term sustainability.

This article first appeared on HR Pulse.

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