Ethics, trust and transparency

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“Say not I have found the truth, but rather, I have found a truth.” — Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

IT is a grim-faced Malaysia that I came home to, from a holiday in Istanbul, early last week. Normally boisterous friends were subdued during the open houses that I attended in Kuala Lumpur. Many spoke in whispers, and the common subject of interest were the recent political and legal developments in the country. Grim subjects, indeed.

I sensed a sense of quiet opposition to the recent goings-on in the corridors of power. People were talking softly but indignantly about ethics, truths and transparency and complaining about the lack of them — as they should, being leaders and public-minded members of the community.

Ethics, truth and transparency — these are the cornerstones of good leadership. A lean cadre of political elites possessing these traits can lead their people to the pinnacle of success. A team of savvy business leaders with these qualities would lead Malaysian companies successfully in the global arena. However, the absence of these elements would cultivate recklessness, greed and a misinformed air of invincibility.

But ethics is a difficult subject to pin down. Knowing that I write occasionally, a business professor I met recently asked me to write about the practice of business ethics in my next column. The perceived lack of ethics in the Malaysian public domain has made it fashionable for us to discuss the subject openly.

“There is no such thing,” I answered. “There’s no such thing as business ethics — there’s only ethics. People try to use one set of ethics for their professional life, another for their political life, and still another at home with their family. That gets them into trouble. Ethics is ethics. If you desire to be ethical, you live it by one standard across the board,” I said.

I think he got the picture. Ethics is ethics — you can’t be ethical in one area and hope that it will wash and disinfect the less-ethical thing you do in another. That is not the way the dice rolls.

This rings more true when you speak about a leader.

It seems a day hasn’t gone by without a major headline concerning a scandal involving a business or political leader — a sad sign of the times indeed when you consider that at some point in their careers, these people had been considered highly qualified.

After all, they had to be in order to get the job in the first place! They had a lot of traits found in other leaders, like intelligence, charisma, creativity and vision. So, if they had all that going for them, why did they fail?

The answer isn’t so simple. A lot of fallen leaders who made headlines were just plain white-collar thieves who deserved to do time.

But there were others who were basically good people who made compromises when they shouldn’t have. They stretched the truth because they thought they had to, and they made some business and political decisions that were short on integrity.

They had risen to leadership positions, but they failed because they did not understand how to be open with their constituents and they were unable to build a culture based on trust. They were, in short, not truthful — which leads us to the question of integrity.

The word “integrity” comes from the Latin word “integritas”, a word commonly used in ancient Roman military tradition during the time of Julius Caesar.

In the mornings, the Roman army would conduct inspections, during which a centurion would walk past each legionnaire to check his armour. Every soldier would take his right fist and strike his armour on the breastplate, which covered his heart, because the armour has to be strongest over the heart in order to protect him from deadly sword thrusts and arrow strikes.

As the soldier struck his armour, he would shout: “Integritas!” By that word, he meant “completeness” and “wholeness” and “entirety”, and the inspecting centurion would listen to the distinct sound that well-kept armour made. Once he was satisfied that the armour was sound and the soldier beneath it was protected, he would move on to the next man.

But by the time the fourth century rolled around, Roman society and its army had been affected by a great deal of social decline. Discipline in the army had become lax and parade ground drills had been abandoned.

Soldiers stopped wearing armour because it was heavy, and by the time the barbarian invasions occurred, breastplates and helmets were optional. The Roman army fought without protection against axes and arrows, and ultimately lost the fight. In other words, they lost their integrity. Sound familiar?

Of course it does! Throughout history, many leaders have gone on to build great empires that ruled most of the known world and then watch them crumble due to a lack of integrity. The imperial systems of old evolved into democratic, socialistic and even communistic systems. Each have had their day in the sun and while some have become obsolete, the more rigorous ones have led the field.

Regardless of the system of government, it is the leaders that make them successful. But it is impossible to be a great leader, or even a good one, if you are not transparent. You may achieve a lot of goals and you might even appear on the cover of an international business magazine but if you are not transparent, your successes won’t last very long.

Transparency simply means being honest and open in everything you do. It means making value-based decisions and fessing up when you make a mistake. It is not complex rocket science!

Transparency is the only true way to run an organisation or a country but unfortunately, there are a lot of leaders who still don’t get it — they don’t understand the imponderable repercussions. Because in the corporate or political world, for a lot of leaders, doing the right thing is not quite as easy as it once was — mainly because society and what it deemed acceptable has become far more relaxed.

There no longer seems to be a firm consensus on what constitutes what is right and what is wrong, and as a result, we all tend to forgive or forget with equal ease. When we are no longer focusing on the fundamental issue of doing business or governing transparently, the building blocks of the business and government breaks down — things like honesty, integrity and truth.

A lot of things in the political and corporate world have changed as a result of leaders who acted without transparency, and without much in the way of a commitment to professional and personal ethics. Transparency, the art of being completely open and honest in business, is a competitive tool in the global world.

If you are a leader and you are not contributing to a values-based business and political culture that encourages your entire organisation to operate with integrity, your company or political party is as vulnerable as a baby chick in a pit of rattlesnakes.

Zakie Shariff is CEO of a state-owned GLIC and co-founder of hCap Associates, a talent search company


This article first appeared in digitaledge Weekly, on August 10 - 16, 2015.