South Africa craves conscious, ethical leadership


*published in Mail & Guardian, 25 February 2023

In a country that has seen historical darkness, life is not fair. Nothing is fair in a broken country with angry, desperate and broken people. Neither leaders, nor politicians, nor power cares about fair.

The continued state of public alarm; private fear and anxiety; the stench of corruption and the overall dismal state of affairs with the grafters and fraudsters who call themselves our politicians; an inept president; the darkness of incessant load-shedding; water shortages; failing infrastructure and our economic woes have impacted the psyche of a nation desperate for some direction and leadership.

A callous lack of consideration by the leadership of this nation has left us teetering on the edge. So, how do we penetrate the indolent stupor, the self-interest and the greed of some of the leaders in our socioeconomic and political space?

A difficult question. What good would a Conscious Leadership and Ethics Summit, to be held in Johannesburg on 11 May, do in a climate of clueless leaders, especially our ineffectual president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who, time and again, dismissed the strategic president’s report, the outcome of the summit?

The annual summit and report provide a profound new framework to the leadership of this country to help — to identify what’s missing, what’s gone wrong and what needs to be done.

However, putting the nation’s people first, beyond himself, should be the priority of the president and his merry men which, sadly, is far removed from their agenda. Thinking about conscious, ethical leadership, which speaks to the heart and soul of humanity, is about transformative behaviour. It offers a sense of meaning, purpose and oneness to which the leadership of this country is oblivious.

The true character of leadership around the globe is being tested and exposed — human understanding of consciousness is miserably minute — so much so that the challenge to embed conscious, ethical leadership in all sectors of society is like blowing in the wind.

Against this backdrop, trust, humanity, honour, ethical behaviour and change are the key drivers that initiated the annual Conscious Leadership and Ethics Summit, especially at a time when our leaders, globally, have failed to act as a cohesive force.

The theme of the summit this year is conscience over compliance — a new paradigm in business — only because compliance becomes the end game and over-regulation becomes a means of enforcement and control. When lives are either expedient or traded for profit, employees are reduced to liabilities and the balance between the well-being of humans and the financial impact of global chaos leaves us with little option but to go to the next big thing.

In this instance, the big trend, the next big thing, is ESG (environment, social and governance). Leaders who are compelled to embrace ESG because it is the trend or compliance, for greenwashing or reputational enhancement, should think again. In this era of technology and social media, working towards operating solely with renewable energy, creating zero waste and, finally, selling environmentally sustainable products as part of the company’s business strategy, is the hallmark of a leader who understands consciousness.

In my opinion, ESG, ethics and purpose are segments that fall under the umbrella of conscious leadership. If we get that, then the compliance of these important segments falls away and, in its place, a conscious leader and their team sets the tone — so much so that ESG and ethics becomes part of the organisation’s DNA and no longer a nice-to-talk-about ideology of compliance or tick-box mechanism.

It is then that compliance becomes conscience and dependence on devices, tools, metrics and repetitive theories — although this has its place in the corporate machinery — gradually becomes just conscious leadership in action and the willingness to do the right thing.

Sadly, this is not the case — and not just here at home. It’s a global malaise that the consciousness of most of our leadership is questionable. We have first-hand knowledge of how rapidly companies and countries can crumble when leaders are ill-informed about ethics and consciousness and unwilling to change their behaviour.

I can cite any number of stories of so-called reputable leaders who sit in swanky boardrooms manipulating the system.

A prime example is Markus Braun, the Austrian tech entrepreneur who built Wirecard into one of Germany’s biggest companies. He was arrested a week after the discovery of a $2.1 billion accountancy scandal. News broke on the missing funds and his arrest followed swiftly.

Back home, Markus Jooste, the former chief executive of Steinhoff, has yet to see the inside of a jail cell, yet he oversaw an accountancy scandal that wiped $9.16 billion off Steinhoff’s market value in a few weeks in December 2017. It is a contrast that has many scratching their heads as to why, on the surface of it, the wheels of justice grind too slowly on the southern tip of Africa.

In these anxious and difficult times, there is an urgent need for leadership to act more responsibly in infusing a caring, compassionate and conscious culture of values, ethics, social co-operation and social integration. This is the aspiration of the summit.

The critical need for visionary, high-calibre leaders, who strive to create a meaningful and conscious environment to lessen suffering and stem the tide of corporate greed and scandal, is a crucial turning point.

The need for more money, fame, status, more power, possessions and pleasure is why leaders renege the way they do. The difference between a leader who gets the ideology of consciousness that we carry in our beings and the unscrupulous, toxic leadership behaviour of those we are exposed to is a matter of greed and self-interest. Operating in consciousness is a choice for leadership and, given the ethical and moral degradation in this country, it is a critical time to choose.

It is my fervent wish that the president of this country chooses to engage with, and understand, conscious, ethical leadership and responsibility. The president’s report, the outcome of the summit, would offer solutions and, if he would only reach out to embrace and implement it, the leadership of this country would look very different.

But, once again, it’s a matter of choice. One has to face the demons, travel through darkness and choose the hero’s journey. The question is, is our president courageous enough, or willing, to go beyond his positional power and status before the next elections to change behaviour and understand that only he can, through his actions, facilitate a less brutal, less corrupt and gentler South Africa?

Conscious leadership is about one life influencing another, about oneness, about humanity, about belonging, about trust and transparency, about care, compassion, kindness and being, where leaders see that the only source of power in their sphere of influence is the human being itself.

This is the ethos of the Conscious Leadership and Ethics Summit which acts as a catalyst for social and transformational change, where conscious leadership matters.

The Mail & Guardian is a partner of the upcoming Conscious Leadership and Ethics Summit 2023.