The good, the bad and the ugly: Leaders have a choice

I spent some time over the holidays delving into the traits of both highly conscious and the most diabolic of leaders through the centuries. The qualities of an exemplary leader is the litmus test for the performance of a country or company. 

Outstanding epochs in the history of an organisation or nation were made legendary by conscious leaders who had understood the powerful propensities of their actions and worked with purpose and resolve as well as prioritising humanity. 

My research took me to the heights and depths of the spectacle of leadership behaviour. From the stoic Marcus Aurelius to Genghis Khan, one of the most brutal military conquerors of all time, from strong-willed, fearless and often cruel but also just Akbar the Great to Alexander the Great, whose narcissistic leadership style served his own passions despite being one of the most successful commanders in history. From Hitler to Jacob Zuma, Mandela to Booker T Washington, and business leaders such as Bernie Madoff, Elon Musk, Tim Cook and John Mackay, there are traits that differentiate the conscious leader from the self-interested rogues. 

No one human being is perfect, but the glaring differences — where the humanity of one is at the polar opposite to the glib villain — is why we have a global leadership crisis. This is an era of malevolence in which the good has little chance to triumph. Millions would rather follow an expressive psychopathic leader, whose contentious clamour ultimately leads to destruction, than an inspired, gentle and humane one. 

In 1934, Time magazine named Hitler “Man of the Year”. In 2016, Americans elected Donald Trump as their president. Hitler held the world stage and slashed at his countryman. So did Idi Amin and Muammar Gaddafi. 

The deeper lessons of history are echoed here in modern day business, when leaders driven by a façade of grandiosity, consider personal profit and material gain as all-important considerations.

Morally mature, conscious, ethical leaders, whose actions manifest greater good for all are not born remarkable or extraordinary, neither are they perfect. They have learnt the skills to manage their own existence, fully cognisant of who they are. It is evident that when men and women capable of great leadership appear on the scene, they come to possess an influence commensurate with their greatness. 

To recognise a great leader, we need look no further than Nelson Mandela. Though not perfect, history is peppered with great leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King and George Washington. A leader who was unparalleled in the 16th century as a man for all seasons was Sir Thomas More, who refused to compromise his morals, ethics and principals for anything, even death. He chose to die rather than compromise who he was.

We live in extraordinary times plagued with uncertainty and pressure. But there is an opportunity to change the course of a nation or business by changing the shape, character and consciousness of its leadership. This leads us to the Conscious leadership and Ethics Summit on 11 May, where the spotlight on business leaders, both ethical and not so ethical, is the context of this crossroad in our corporate evolution.

The cyclical character of business demands that we do things differently, hence the quest for conscious leadership amid the complex maze of corporate activity, compliance, pressure, performance, productivity and the economic necessities of flowcharts, the bottom line and delivery. It is easy in the chaos of this corporate machinery for an organisation to lose sight of its meaning and purpose beyond profiteering.

Consider the social context facing most leaders and employees in the world of work where power struggles, self-interest and fear are the motivating forces behind some of the unconscious actions that scream at us from media headlines. In a society where need, not achievement, is a source of rights and entitlement, it provides fertile ground for moochers, looters and cheaters.

Conscious leaders shine by example whereas insecure and incompetent leaders hide behind sycophantic followers. In business, Apple chief executive Tim Cook is a far cry from Tom Hayward, the former head of BP. I knew a chief executive who, in less than a year, destroyed the shareholder value of the company she was entrusted to lead by an estimated 75%. This did not deter her. Her egocentric leadership style was a toxic challenge for her executives. She continues to sit on several boards.

The culture of excessive materialism, dishonest dealings and blind disregard for corporate governance aside, we still look to leaders to display courage and vision. When corporate culture takes its cue from its leadership, it plays out in its reputation, performance, profit and the perception of its corporate brand. The tone, manner, attitude and character of an ethical leader cannot be separated from the company they represent. Found in the hidden strata of their beings, is a morally untainted view of “doing the right thing” and building the firmest possible foundation upon which the organisation rests.

In expanding one’s consciousness and ethical behaviour, the conscious leader guides the company to prosper while placing a premium on people, community, culture and the environment beyond the bottom line. It is the essential understanding of values and ethics, reason and justice, meaning and purpose and a reason for being that sets the organisation apart.

It is a conscious leader who, refusing to compromise on morals and principles, instils an enduring culture of help and service to others in harmony and cooperation. This gives a breadth and depth to the company’s idea of itself more than anything the bottom line can achieve. It is deeply fulfilling for people to be part of a conscious company with an ethical, value-based leadership. Customers and stakeholders feel valued and served and employees feel safe and have a sense of belonging beyond the pay cheque.

In the absence of this consciousness, the leadership of a company or a country that is socially irresponsible and environmentally destructive, breeds an unpleasant chaos, where insecurity permeates the very soul of a nation or the culture of a company. We have a choice. Operating in consciousness is a choice for leaders and given the ethical and moral agitations of our age and the country, it is a critical time to choose.