Willie Thabe | Ethical leadership during a pandemic: Remembering Lot Ndlovu

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Willie Thabe (Supplied)
Willie Thabe (Supplied)
  • Willie Thabe looks back at the legacy of former Black Management Forum president Lot Ndlovu to answer questions around ethical leadership during challenging times. 
  • Covid-19, like economic transformation, calls for systems thinking born of morally sound individuals acting in solidarity, and understanding our interdependence.
  • In a country so perilously close to a kleptocracy, we need our ethics and values so we ask the correct question: "Is it right?" not "Is it legal?"

August is a significant month, which I do not find easy to pass without going through deep reflective moments. Its significance has to do with the fact that, not only is it Women’s Month, but it is also the month in which Lot Maduke Ndlovu, my mentor, brother and friend, was born and died.

If Covid 19’s lockdown is a metaphor for the sustained inability for a majority of South Africans to gain access to an enabling socio-economic frameworks where everyone could be able to be the best version of themselves, then it stands to reason that we reflect on how transformational leaders like Lot would have prioritised ethical leadership amid this pandemic.

Covid-19 catalysed the greatest exposure of the vulnerability of many members of society, such as low-income earners, the youth, the elderly and the undocumented foreign nationals.  

It also brought forth the fact that the myth of an ever-growing middle class is only a measure of conspicuous consumption and not necessarily wealth creation. But it also brought home the reality that crisis always brings out the best and the worst in us, depending on the values that underpin our decision-making processes.

It is in this vein that I would like to look at four underlying characteristics that make Lot’s legacy an endearing and enduring one.

In other words, the fundamental question that transformation asks of those in leadership is similar to the question that ought to be asked of the response required to the Covid-19 pandemic. How can we approach crises like the coronavirus pandemic, not as moments for opportunism, but as opportunities for ethical leadership?

The ensuing investigations of highly placed government officials, or the lack of decisive and meaningful values-based actions from those charged with transformational leadership in black organisations, demonstrates how many may have been blinded to the ethical dimensions of their actions by some biases and tendencies we all share.

There are three, maybe four, things that made Lot stand out in his approach to complex subjects such as transformation, to successfully put his values into action more effectively and prioritise ethics proactively amidst any panic situation.

It would seem to me that Lot’s strong values resulted in his uncanny ability, not only to recognise the complexity of the world in which we live, but also to assimilate the ethical implications of acknowledging complexity. Complexity, not only confined at the level of systems but also at the level of man, mind and morality.

Covid-19, like economic transformation, calls for systems thinking born of morally sound individuals acting in solidarity with an unfettered understanding of our interdependence. Pooling resources and skills for a common goal.

Lot tended to take a long-term view in his analysis of situations. The reality is that if we let the panic caused by crises overwhelm us we are bound to sever our connection with our future selves.

Because Lot was values-driven, he seemed unfazed by difficult situations, no matter how threatening they might be. When those who had privilege and access to resources followed the temptation to turn a quick profit, they lost sight of the long term. This short-term orientation invariably underestimates the risks any action might entail.

He was painfully aware of the fact that, in any crises, there are a myriad of things to consider and therefore one has to reframe one’s decisions in the light of the complexity one faces. Often, when we become anxious and overwhelmed, we develop a tunnel vision and decide to focus on one objective to the exclusion of all others.

It is crucial that we intentionally reframe our decisions as ethical decisions and not merely "business" or "political" decisions. It is easy to see how the people who mishandled the resources to relieve the impact of Covid-19 might have responded differently to the crisis if they had forced themselves to think about it as an ethical issue, rather than a mere financial issue. If you hung around Lot Ndlovu long enough, you would hear him admonish leaders never to believe in an approach where the end justifies the means. This was an indication of how consciously he carried ethical considerations in any decision-making.

If there was one distinguishing feature of Lot’s character it was his staying attuned to the best that humanity is capable of.

He would always be demanding more of self-investing, deep thinking, but holding to the strong possibility of unleashing the best in any one he dealt with. While it is easy to respond cynically to the privileged people’s behaviour in this instance, Lot’s memory dictates that we not let cynicism colour all of our expectations of human behaviour. In this crisis we are bound to see plenty of examples of worst parts of human nature on display.

But we also need to stay inspired by those who are displaying courage, compassion and a concern for common good. Strong values enable us to prioritise ethical leadership amid crises environments.

Crises bring forth the worst in us – and the best. Positive stories abound, whether it is the Gift of the Givers charitable organisation or the relentless work of different denominations rendering assistance to the indigent and marginal communities all over South Africa.

These kind of activities are an antidote to the negative stories that dominate our news and they give us that "elevation" - a positive emotion which infuses positivity that shapes our actions and decisions more profoundly than we are prepared to acknowledge.

Every crisis, whether short-term or long-term, is uncharted territory. The issues confronting leadership, such as the short-term profiteering that may be perceived as a grey area, can only be navigated through strong ethics and values.

In a country so perilously close to a kleptocracy we need our ethics and values so we ask the correct question – 'Is it right?' not 'Is it legal?'

Like a compass, Lot’s ethics and values would have helped him navigate the unfamiliar and shifting terrain while staying true to who he really was – as well as who he aspired to be when the crisis was over.

I look back with gratitude for Lot’s consistency, but I find a great dearth of that values-based transformational leadership in this uncertain environment.

Views expressed are the author's own. 

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