Values Define a Leader

Published on 24th June 2008

In addressing fundamental questions of human, progress, values, help to clarify the relations between individualism and collectivism, self–interest and altruism, liberty and equality, inclusivity and exclusivity, as well as the attendant moral and ethical considerations – issues at the heart of Africa’s leadership challenge.


I firmly believe that the forces which truly define you as an individual are your values.  Values give meaning and substance to your life.Values will predispose you to behave in certain ways. Values lie at the heart of compunction, the pricking of the conscience – that sickening feeling when you KNOW you are ashamed of what you have said or done.  Shakespeare nailed it down in Richard the Third: "My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, and every tongue brings in several tales, and every tale condemns me for a villain".


With the proper set of values in business and politics, people will behave in a manner which builds, inspires, motivates and has the courage to face unpleasant realities and address them constructively. This is the stuff that leaders are made of.  And don't think of leaders just as the prominent figures in public and civil life that clutter newspapers and magazines.  Wherever you find yourself in life, there you can lead.


Let us consider for a moment what constitutes leadership. No one can analyse leadership without associating it intrinsically with a value system.  Leaders inspire – they do not coerce.  As Ronald Heifetz points out in his book, "Leadership without Easy Answers," leaders mobilise people to tackle tough problems.  They interact and are influenced by people as they in turn influence them.  Such leadership creates value.  It is socially enriching.  It leaves a lasting legacy.


Our own Nelson Mandela is an example of a true leader.  He was motivated by a profound value system, believing intensely in the worth of every human being and in principles such as integrity, compassion, probity, responsibility and respect, all grounded on solid moral and ethical foundations.  True leadership must be infused with a value system that reflects the culture in which it has been born.  Cyril Levicki in "The Leadership Gene" defines it as "a profound sense of decency with moral fibre." Without that, people can "lead" as it were, but be as great a danger as they seem leaders.


Leadership must embrace a moral, even compassionate, dimension, not just a practical, material one.  Different situations may demand different personalities and call for different behaviour but leaders should never, ever, compromise their moral and ethical stance.  There is no excuse for unjust behaviour.  There is no excuse for a lack of compassion which is vital in considering the individual and the community.  There is no excuse for irresponsible behaviour, which aims only at self–gratification and self–enrichment without recognising the consequences – not only on individuals, but entire societies and nations.


Both Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jnr embody these concepts: among the basic tenets of their worldview were respect for the individual, the betterment of others and the upliftment of society.  Their immense popularity cannot be denied.  Yet they never stooped to populism – sweeping up emotions instead of appealing to considered thought.  Populism seeks the expedient and advances only the short–term interests of a limited few.  It has been one of the scourges of Africa.  Both Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jnr nourished profound compassion, seeking to accommodate other points of view.  They did not seek to impose their beliefs, but rather reason with others.  They did not strive to coerce, but rather to persuade and inspire.  Ghandi became the creator of "passive resistance" since he refused to resort to violence to attain his ends.  The final outcome of his campaigns was eventually, the independence of India from the British Empire, and laying a sound and solid foundation for India as we know it today.


Martin Luther King Jnr's "Civil Disobedience" was outspokenly non–violent to achieve the end of racial discrimination and segregation. Think of our own internationally revered icon, Nelson Mandela and the quiet words of deep conviction he uttered at the Rivonia Trial: "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.  It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.  But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." Populist leaders will live and strive for their own gain.  They will not embrace ideals which will uplift their nations.


Societies which are led by purely materialistic leaders according to purely materialistic goals lack heart and soul.They strip people of the very essence of humanity and unconditional worth.  Sterile leaders such as these undermine the long–term sustainability of a society. What is important to them are short–term objectives, like status, pseudo–importance, appearance, opinion and material rewards.A society based on such transient principles produces nothing of worth and has, as Hobbes expressed it, an existence that is "poor, nasty, brutish and short." It becomes fertile ground for the baser elements of human nature, which lead to violence, tyranny, oppression and might rather than right.


Corporate governance is increasingly recognised as essential if economies, indeed even small isolated communities, are to grow in the interests of all and not just an elite few. It limits the possibilities of oppression and exploitation and springs from a profound acknowledgement of the critical role that values must play in developing our people and our countries.


It makes me proud as an African to recognise that many of these leadership values: compassion, respect, responsibility and integrity – are those which are inherent to Ubuntu.  Ubuntu values humanity, it seeks consensus through consultation and accommodation.  It appreciates that those who differ from us are not necessarily against us.  This recognition of shared intrinsic human values is critical to the makeup of true leadership.


As an emerging economy, we cannot afford to be blasé about the leadership which emerges to guide our nations and our continent.  We are at a sensitive stage of  African development where we need to attract foreign investors, be respected globally, be exemplary in corporate governance and be free of corruption.


We need to be prescriptive – even proscriptive – about the kind of leaders we want to lead us.  We cannot leave it to fate or circumstance.  We must groom our leaders and not allow them simply to emerge, as it were, by accident. Leadership in our 21st Century should be neither incidental nor accidental.  It must be planned.  It must be purposeful.  It must be driven by ideals which we define and demand.  And if any presumed leader does not stack up against those requirements, we should put our foot down and say bluntly: this does not meet the requirements of our people.  This person will not enable us to deal with the complexities and challenges of the 21st century.


We know what is required of visionary and inspirational leadership. Africa's own tragic history has thrown up countless examples of what we do not want or need.We need an adaptive approach to leadership, evaluating "leadership in process" rather than waiting for what we know will be the inevitable result.  This also means testing that leadership in terms of its social usefulness and applicability to prevailing socio economic needs and cultural necessities.


So how does that relate to you?


You are carrying the future of South Africa on your shoulders.  It is vital for you to understand the critical role which values play in our individual and national lives and appreciate the consequences when those are missing.  Let a value system based on moral and ethical foundations influence your opinions, your attitudes and your behaviour – wherever you are.  That will make you a leader in your peer group, your company and your business relationships.


A valedictory advice: “Vitally important for a young man or woman is, first to realize the value of education, and then to cultivate earnestly, aggressively, ceaselessly, the habit of self–education.  Without fresh supplies of knowledge, the brain will not develop healthily and vigorously any more than the body can be sustained without fresh supplies of food”. She or he who graduates today and stops learning tomorrow is uneducated the day after.


May I conclude by citing one of the leading thinkers of the twentieth century, Andrew Carnegie: “Think of yourself as on the threshold of unparalleled success.  A whole clear glorious life lies before you.  Achieve!  Achieve!”


Keep at least two things in mind: First, the rung of a ladder was never designed to rest upon, but only to hold your foot long enough to enable you to put the other higher. Second, the truly worthwhile achievements of humanity are those which are socially useful.  Do not allow atrophy to render you ineffectual in facing the great challenges that characterise contemporary Africa.  Lead the charge in ensuring that we are globally competitive and worthy of unconditional respect.


Exerpted from Dr. Reuel J. Khoza's address to a graduating class.



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