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Let business lead the ethics war

Jul 03, 2005 Management, Sunday Nation

Suppose, for a moment, that you are a leader of a certain organisation. This organisation has been in the grips of economic stagnation for decades. It is unable to pay its bills, and relies on foreign largesse to bail it out time and again. Six out of ten members of this organisation are hopelessly poor. It is apparently unable to provide even the basics of life to all its members – primary health, sanitation, meaningful education, access to opportunity.

Now, as a leader of this organisation, which of the following actions would you take?
a) Increase your own remuneration to world-beating standards;
b) Award yourself perks and allowances that would shame a king;
c) Enact a medical scheme to cover your entire multi-spouse, diverse-offspring extended family;
d) Stay away from the office and while your time away at coastal junkets;
e) Approve a plan to provide yourself with state-of-the-art luxury offices and facilities at enormous cost.

If this organisation is called “Kenya” and the leaders “MPs”, then these leaders have, turn by turn, done (a), (b), (c), (d) and (e). Without the slightest trace of shame or doubt ever crossing their faces. By what definition, what grotesque stretch of language, can these people be called “leaders”? Are they even pretending to lead any more, or merely gobbling down all they can before their turn at the feeding trough expires?

Their own “father”, the Speaker of the House, has just passed judgement on them. He has said they are ignorant, dishonest, unprincipled and insincere. Being their father, he should know. True to form, a group of his most unruly offspring quickly gathered in a corner to hatch a plan to throw stones at their parent and eject him from the house. Others made strange muttering sounds in the playground. Fortunately, some of the older siblings managed to step in and put an end to this mutiny. Note the names, voters, note the names. One MP was heard on TV suggesting that if you have given birth to a stupid child, you don’t announce it to the world: you quietly put the infant in a special school. There you have it, then. We are apparently led by the retarded. In 2007, you will have the opportunity to place them in the very special school called political oblivion.

The behaviour of MPs is just a gross manifestation of a problem that’s bubbling beneath the surface of our society: the failure of ethics. No leader basing his or her conduct on even the weakest moral principles would consider spending a billion-odd shillings on “office renovations” when the workforce is starving. Yet the justifications for this act of vulgarity have never stopped rolling in – even from the self-righteous father of the house! We have not only lost our ethics, we have lost our ability to tell that we have lost them.

What we are seeing is a bunch of leaders so disconnected from the needs of their people that no act of personal greed is too outrageous. Even where a little spark of conscience emerges, it is quickly drowned by the thought of dosh, allowances, swanky offices and big cars with large tyres. And we can point fingers all we like; what we are seeing in parliament is merely the reflection of an entire society that has lost its moral bearings. Here’s a challenge: toss out the entire bunch of current MPs and replace them with a new set randomly selected from the Kenyan population. Would anything change? No, because we are all lost souls, elevating personal aggrandisement above all else.

Yet a war to recover our lost ethics requires leadership. Leaders led us down into the putrid valley of excess; we need leaders who will take us back up to the pure air of the higher moral ground. But if one type of leader is corrupted beyond redemption, then another set needs to emerge. Ethics are always rooted in leadership – in having enough of the role models around to demonstrate what doing the right thing is, and doing it repeatedly until it seeps into the collective consciousness.

Who will do this? One group, somewhat paradoxically, that could take the lead in the ethics war is business leaders. Now big business, let it be said, has been responsible for some pretty nasty excesses itself over the years. It has polluted the air and the waterways, run low-pay sweatshops and poisoned its workers. But it has also been a very positive force in society. It has nurtured technical innovations, brought out useful new products, striven to make things affordable, and generally been an agent for progressive change in the world. It has also systematically learnt from its mistakes. What was common business practice 30 years ago is unthinkable today. A new consensus has emerged around the concept of business ethics: that addressing societal forces must become an integral part of a business’s strategy; and that the best businesses must take the lead and set the agenda in the shaping of society’s values.

Business in Kenya may still have some way to go before it can be perceived as the flag bearer of ethics and good values. But there can be no doubt that many forward-thinking corporations have ethics high on their agenda and are already cross-fertilising the ground around them. We must have more of this. Let more and more CEOs stand up to speak out against the ills in society – and visibly set an example. Let business leaders voluntarily form ‘good behaviour’ associations where the requirement for membership is a commitment to good business practice: no bribes, no duty evasion, no pollution, no exploitation, no harm. And let those who do engage in these backward, economy-sapping acts be publicly vilified and subjected to disgrace by their peers.

Business should do this for its own sake as much as anyone else’s: studies show that corporations operating within a strong ethics framework gain many benefits: they mitigate risks; they are rewarded by consumers and investors; they even gain a productivity boost as employees generally prefer to work in an environment that rewards virtue. So there is every reason for the leading lights of business to step forward and take the lead in the ethics war. They, more than anyone, can put the politicians to shame.

Let us stop perpetually wringing our hands and seeing shades of grey everywhere. Sometimes, it’s just black and white. It’s not that complicated. Even children in a playground instinctively know right from wrong. It is part of our make-up, part of the reason we are human. That’s why Jon Huntsman, founder of a US$ 12-billion corporation and a leading philanthropist and proponent of ethical values, says: “Morality isn’t rocket science; it’s child’s play”. Everyone is given a moral compass at birth, but many stop using it. The children of the House of Parliament have trampled over their own consciences and are busy accumulating toys for themselves at the expense of all the other children of the land. Let us take the mantle of leadership off their inadequate shoulders.

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