During a recent visit to a friend in Limpopo, we stopped at a local watering hole for a beer. A farmer there was complaining vehemently about the latest petty thieving incident he had experienced, and maligned the local police for their incompetence.
My friend, who is also a farmer, later told me that this man was well known in the district for employing illegal workers from Mozambique.
On another occasion, I attended a business lunch. At my table, one of the guests started the conversation with: “Have you heard? We now have school headmasters ‘selling’ jobs to teachers!” This opened up a round of corruption-by-the-authorities stories, all discussed with indignation.
A short time later, when the conversation had moved on, the first speaker casually mentioned, without a hint of guilt, that he had dodged a R1 000 speeding fine on the way to the meeting by bribing the policeman who had stopped him.
What in heaven’s name is happening? Is the dubious integrity of our politicians permeating down through society, making us more and more tolerant of behaviour we would never have accepted in the past?
It’s a dangerous situation, and if our business community does not set an example and put a brake on it, who will? Apart from being dishonest and breaking the law, it’s bad for business, as US-based leadership expert and consultant Fred Kiel explains in Return on Character.
In seven years of research involving studies of more than 100 CEOs and 8 000 employees, Kiel found that businesses managed by people with what he calls ‘character’ made returns up to five times better than organisations where leaders indulge in questionable behaviour like that described above.
For Kiel, ‘character’ is made up of four inviolate moral principles. The first and most important of these is integrity. This, he argues, means doing the right thing at all times, whether anyone is watching or not. People of integrity do what they say, even if it means they stand to lose in the process. It’s the foundation of the next three principles: responsibility, forgiveness and compassion.
People of character never pass the buck. They accept that they bear responsibility for the area they manage, irrespective of whether they were personally responsible for any mismanagement. While ‘carrying the can’ for errors made by their subordinates, they hold no grudges and forgive easily. People working for them perform well and are never fearful of trying new approaches at work.
Finally, managers of character have compassion, which in turn flows from that crucial quality: empathy. All managers of organisations will know intuitively that what Kiel found in his research is true. And each of us needs to take a stand, set an example and make our contribution to a South Africa of better ‘character’.