Considerations towards Ethical Leadership

Considerations towards Ethical Leadership:

Women-centred approaches to Leadership

We are living in a time of disenchantment. Every day we are faced with news that makes us question how we got to where we are today. We question the quality of leaders we have and their ability to guide us and where they intend to take us. These questions are the reason we should be asking ourselves: Where are the seeds of the new, and how can we find the “re-enchantment?

As a nation we need to ask ourselves ‘What are the conditions which are not of a leader’s making?’. We can make beautiful lists of qualities that an ethical leader should possess, but if we do not apply our miserable intellects to our structural conditions then we are farting in the wind. We need a structural analysis of how hegemonic power works in our time. My pessimistic prognosis is that we ought to analyse the forms of power in the 21st century, beginning with the systemic and structural dimensions of power. This includes the global power hierarchies and the contending power struggles such as that between the USA and China.

Our focus, however, should also be on the masculinist accounts of history and patriarchal leadership. This is not simply about challenging male leadership but, more importantly, the dominant masculinist approach to leadership.

We need to interrogate the systems of patriarchal leadership we have replicated from colonial rule. Such patriarchal leadership is an extension of the systems and values of the white, European male. This kind of power not only oppressed indigenous ways of being in Africa but also broke down systems of African matriarchal leadership. The masculinist accounts of history ignore the womanist power and leadership from African women that we need to draw on to move forward today. This woman-centred approach envisages matriarchal leadership that functions as a mantle rather than a crown.

The accumulation of power is gendered: masculinist leadership emphasises the accumulation of power in peak positions and status such as the presidency or other important formal positions of leadership; womanist/matriarchal leadership is engaged in the dispersion of power throughout society in the pursuit of social justice or simply daily social cohesion. Women thus disperse their energies in ways that often serve society but do not accumulate power to themselves.

Woman-centred leadership needs to redress this imbalance: to generate nodes of counter-power in which matriarchal leadership can prevail over toxic masculinities (and toxic femininities). We need to figure out how we integrate ourselves into patriarchal systems of power in order to insinuate, impose and persuade these matriarchal forms of leadership into our spaces of work – both formal work and community work. This provides our political leaders today with the challenge of finding the intricate balance between these forms of leadership.

If we understand the importance of re-connection with and re-possession of the Earth, after a legacy of dispossession and its continuation through accumulation by dispossession then we want to revisit our attachment to Reason and Secular Rationalism as the only way of being; the only form of logic and the only ontology that we embrace. If we open our minds to the possibility of other levels and ways of knowing, we can bring not only religion but spirituality back into our lives as Africans, indigenous peoples, and citizens who understand that we have indigene potential, a way of being in the world that values and builds on local knowledge.

More importantly, we need new languages of social justice. These different and woman-centred approaches to leadership can help to build an ethical leadership that is equal to the challenges of our current conditions.


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Dr Darlene Miller is a senior lecturer at the Wits School of Governance. This paper was presented at the Cornerstone Institute’s ‘Critical Dialogues towards Reclaiming Agency’.

Considerations towards ethical leadership:

The Charter for Compassion

I have had a nagging question on my mind: Where is South Africa’s spiritual leadership? It is a question that invites more questions as people globally grapple with what leadership should look like in the world today.

Thankfully, we are seeing the emergence of a new leader prototype.  We are recognising leaders who refuse to separate their politics from their spiritual beliefs because to do so would compromise their integrity, authenticity and intention. These three facets of leadership are critical in our response to a call for deepening leadership skills at every level. Young leaders need to be coached in a new style of leadership that allows heart and mind to work together – dictatorial, top-down, old-style leadership is not the way of the future so why are we still teaching it?

What we say and what we do should be informed at the deepest level by intention aligned with the greater good, inclusive of diversity in all its forms. For humans that means gender, race, age, economic and educational status, politics and of course, religion. We need to celebrate our diversity and recognise it as our superpower. In our differences, we are a beautiful, creative garden, different flowers blossoming abundantly under the courageous and unprejudiced sun, sharing the same soil, drinking the same rain.   

Religion cannot be our point of commonality because we all believe differently. However, our religions point us towards our values. Common values are reflected in the Charter for Compassion, making it an excellent starting point of universal appeal The internationally acclaimed Charter for Compassion was created in 2009 by a group of religious scholars led by former nun Karen Armstrong. It identifies compassion as the common value in all religions – the one ingredient that combats separation and fear, and fulfills the universal human desires to be loved, to belong, to be safe, to be free, to be at peace, to be happy.  We have learned that anything that separates is not love and therefore is not in alignment with the greater good. Spiritually, separation is fear based and anti-life.

The Charter identifies common values drawn from every religion, but not defined by any religion. In other words, these values are secular and inclusive. Everybody has to win, otherwise it is not inclusive. Politics, business, minority groups – no one gets left behind.

In our workplaces, respect and compassion are often in short supply. Top-down leadership styles may be dictatorial and hierarchical, seeing kindness as weakness. Yet, studies have shown that people subjected to sarcasm, belittling talk and other kinds of inter-relational stress in the workplace made more mistakes and were unable to function optimally. People treated with respect, spoken to kindly and made to feel valued, were motivated to up their game. Their performance was significantly

better in terms of clear thinking, decision-making and productivity. Compassion pays, even in business!

We see models of compassionate leadership emerging in the political arena in people like Jacinda Ardern (Prime Minister of New Zealand) and His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan. In business, there is a groundswell of leaders of international companies, such as Emmanuel Faber, CEO of Danone, who have closed the gender pay gap, established equal maternity and paternity leave and set benchmark standards taking compassionate inclusivity to a new level.

The City of Cape Town signed the Charter for Compassion in 2014. Now it is time to own our position as a City of Compassion. Every citizen can and should play a role. Every kindness, every act of compassion, matters. We invite our leaders to show the way.


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Rev Berry Behr is the South African Coordinator for the Charter for Compassion as well as the Chairperson of the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative. This paper was presented at the Cornerstone Institute’s ‘Critical Dialogues towards Reclaiming Agency’.

Panel Discussions:

Considerations toward Ethical Leadership

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Critical Dialogue:

Considerations toward Ethical Leadership

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