Populist or Leader? An interview with Dr. Gavin Price

South Africa, and indeed Africa is in dire need of good public leadership; authentic, charismatic, sympathetic and most of all, ETHICAL. In this piece, I am taken on a journey by Dr. Price, a PhD and senior lecturer at GIBS. Upon meeting and undergoing normative pleasantries and introduction, he, as though on cue, started the conversation on ethical leadership. Enjoy!!

Dr. Price: So the first thing I’d like to do is ask you what is your understanding of ethical leadership? Many people think they know, and I don’t think they do know, and so they take their followers on journeys they should not be taking them on.

One of the largest problems in leadership is the extent of arrogance and the sense of having to portray this all-knowing all-being, yet, if they demonstrated more humility, people would respond to them better.

Nhlanhla: I am of the opinion ethical leadership is one directed by a moral compass…

Dr. Price: You have a moral compass, I have a moral compass, who is to say which is correct since we have different moral compasses directing us? So just because I think it is right, does it make it right?

Nhlanhla: So it then goes to beg the question, the challenge; how do followers follow if they happen to follow a different compass..?

Dr. Price: That is correct and this would be akin to authentic or spiritual leadership. What distinguishes ethical leadership from other forms of leadership is the actual promotion of ethical behavior on the part of the follower. So the leader is concerned about the ethical performance of their followers, not just their own. And the best way of ensuring this, is to conduct oneself ethically in the first place. R W Emerson said “your actions speak so loudly, I do not hear what you are saying”. Your followers follow what you do more than what you say.

I am going to read you the formal definition of ethical leadership; ‘it is the demonstration of normatively appropriate conduct through personal actions and interpersonal relationships, and the promotion of such conduct through two way communication’. Let us unpack this;

This normatively appropriate conduct, the norm. The African context is different from everywhere else. There are certain sincere norms to be adhered to. But there’s norms which are really ‘get away’ with, and in Africa, we have a lot of get away with which are seen as norms.

The other key thing is the two way communication; the nature of human beings is that of social reality. Therefore it is natural for us to have communication. It is not ethical leadership to simply give instruction, orders and commands, rather, explain and sell a vision through showing why something must be done.

In Africa, the biggest problems is failure to hold leaders accountable properly. This is due to lacking understanding between loyalty and cronyism. To be loyal is to put oneself and life behind a movement/person despite having a quid-pro-quo. The problem is when you are ‘loyal’ due to reciprocation. This is no longer loyalty, rather cronyism, as a result this creates an environment of excusing wrong behavior, and at what price..?

Nhlanhla: Based on what you said on the relationship/two-way communication between a leader and follower, loyalty vs. accountability; how do young leaders develop themselves to be ethical leaders when such leadership is not modeled publicly?

Dr. Price: Within one’s individual sphere of influence, develop courage first. A courage to speak out in small spaces, e.g. speaking out when someone parks a car in a disabled area when they clearly are not disabled. In most instances, it helps to have a role model, and Africa is not short of such models, unfortunately they are not in the lime light. So search them out and model them.

Nhlanhla: Leadership is perceived as a role of power vs. servitude. How do young people create a paradigm shift from self-interest to service?

Dr. Price: Most leaders love power trips and ego. Ironically, if they were perceived as having a greater interest of the populous, the followers would follow them. And many of them are really managers, not leaders, hence power trips. If you drill leadership down, there are two things in your influence, ‘knowing where to take people, and knowing how to take them there’. But leadership is also letting people know that you do not know it all, this is more effective than the BS of pretending you know it all. It takes a tremendous amount of courage and confidence as an ethical leader to be humble and vulnerable.

Nhlanhla: It is interesting because amongst young people, vulnerability is perceived as giving away power and taking away the ‘boss and subordinate’ relationship.     

Dr. Price: It is better to know that you don’t know than to think you know when you don’t know. Leadership is about influence in this day and age and not a command and control mindset which is still so prevalent in Africa to this day instead of a collaborative relationship, which is more effective.

Nhlanhla: Lastly, for young leaders, it seems militancy is the order of the day? Can one be militant as an ethical leader?

Dr. Price: So say as the de-facto leader, I created structures, an environment and culture of mutual respect and communication, would there be a need for militancy? Militancy is a claiming of empowerment, it is an action resulting from frustration from a lack of a legitimate voice against/to the power structures.

When all is said and done, after such an interview, I do not take a position to direct any reader to a kind of thinking about what ethical leadership is or ought to be. After reading the thoughts of Dr. Gavin Price, each individual leader should make up his own mind as to what ethical leadership means to them against what it really is. So I close this piece thus; Africa is not just in dire need of good public leadership, rather, it is in dire need for ethical leadership to be modeled for future generations.


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