To do the right thing
What does protecting an institution mean? Is it, as seems to be a commonly held position, doing or saying anything to portray that all is well, even when it is not? Wasn’t that the widespread practice that provoked the Enron scandal more than a decade ago? Wasn’t it at the heart of the global economic crisis five years ago whose impact is still woefully evident throughout this Caribbean region?
Lost in hubris, these leaders abandoned all fidelity to best practices and indulged in cunning games aimed at exploiting public trust and fattening their pockets and reputations. When cracks began to appear, the instinct was denials and cover-ups. Did they think they were protecting their institutions; or were they hellbent on protecting themselves?
Leaders of institutions, large or small, are constantly faced with challenges regarding the types of decisions made within. Strong institutions develop and give primacy to following their missions, goals and core values—nurturing internal cultures that live by their codes. Weak ones treat them as documents to be cited in press releases; meaningless in practice, but useful as public relations exercises.
Nonetheless, within every organisation, it is people who make choices and decisions; and there will always be aberrants, transgressors and mavericks. Sometimes it can have good results, enabling necessary change; sometimes it can erode the value system that makes an institution strong and trustworthy. And no amount of prevarication can alter the simple fact that an institution’s strength lies in the public’s trust.
So, what does a good leader do to protect an institution when something as fundamental as public trust has been patently breached? What happens when rogue elements hijack and bypass its policies and regulations and parade them as normal practices? Should a leader lurk in the shadows and allow loudmouths and bullies within and without the institution to dictate the course of action or inaction?
It comes down to moral courage and personal integrity. When faced with dilemmas in terms of determining what is the proper thing to do; those two characteristics are the most influential. Leadership lacking those qualities will inevitably choose the cover-up route, because it will never believe in the healing power of admitting that infractions have happened and the task is to fix it. It will never accept truth and reconciliation as a feasible way forward because its primary concern is the protection of person, not institution. Hubris, then, determines the interpretation of what protecting the institution means.
When apartheid was dismantled in South Africa and the 1994 elections made the late ANC leader Nelson Mandela president, an interim constitution was enacted. Among the new laws was the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 1995, which established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate human rights violations on both sides. Mandela appointed Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu as its chair. While the process had its flaws, the concept behind it is one of the many things which have made Nelson Mandela one of the greatest figures to have lived in our time.
Everywhere in the world, people are fighting over themselves to recount their stories of when they breathed the same air as Mandela did. Why? It is because he earned universal respect for the struggles he endured in order to stand for his principles. It is because he made choices that bred incredible personal hardship and he did so knowing the price. It is because despite his painful journey, he emerged unbroken and determined that the way forward would not be one mired in breathless anger. His concern was truly in making the world a better place.
For all the leaders who consider themselves privileged to have met him, for all of those who have gathered in South Africa to join tributes to this marvellous life, for all who have raised their voices in benediction; the hope is that they will reflect deeply on the qualities that radiated from this true leader and try to emulate them.
Good leadership will not stand by and watch a nation, an institution, crumble under dirty and corrupt hands. Good leadership will not passively allow the voices of decency within its institution to be drowned out by the hectoring tones of self-serving mini-dictators whose promise is victimisation. Good leadership will have the wisdom to discern that even if the short-term outcome of a principled decision might seem unpleasant, the ultimate goal is the preservation of integrity and thus, public trust. Good leadership will know that there comes a time when a parting of ways might be the best solution if the ethos of its institution cannot find reconciliation with certain parties within its midst.
One of the unfortunate aspects of allowing corrupt hands to grope away at an institution is its insidious effect. People are asked to look away, to excuse, and to accept as normal, behaviour that is downright unacceptable, until they become browbeaten or conditioned to these reflexes. That is what weakens an institution.
And if as a leader, you find yourself wondering what the right thing is; it wouldn’t hurt to ask what Mandela would do.