CHROs tell HR Indaba that ethical leadership demands courage, integrity and transparency

Ethical leadership is difficult in a society plagued by corruption said HR professionals at the 2021 HR Indaba.

“If I had to be stripped of everything I have and had nothing left, the one thing I would be proud of is that I at least have my integrity intact,” MTN South Africa CFO Tsholofelo Molefe said during a session on ethical leadership at this year’s HR Indaba Online.

Tsholofelo played a key role in the transformation strategy during her time at Telkom, which saw her winning a finance transformation award at the 2020 CFO Awards. She’s had an interesting career and has displayed a lot of courage, even testifying at the State Capture Commission of Inquiry to deliver insights about her time at Eskom.

Tsholofelo added that ethical leadership is about not blinking when you must do the right thing, knowing what your values are, and being very clear on what you stand for. “You also need to bold enough to stand your ground and have the courage to say no,” she said.

She emphasised that leaders needed to be cognisant of the decisions that they make, no matter the circumstance, as those decisions would have an impact on the work that they did, and the people they worked with with.

Tsholofelo has had to make some difficult decisions during her career and recalled her time at Eskom as a very tough one, “As the group CFO, I experienced a tremendous amount of pressure to engage in unsavoury behaviour. I was dealing with threats from my superiors to approve unlawful contracts,” she said.

She added that the experience – especially as a woman against two men – put her in a very vulnerable position, and her job was on the line. But she refused to crack under pressure. “You have to be clear about what you stand for as a leader, even if it means sacrificing your job,” she said.

Fellow panellist Abey Kgotle, executive director HR for Mercedes-Benz, spent most of his career in negotiation rooms with labour unions and corporate organisations, and was part of the team that had to resolve strike action at mines, the most significant one being the events which led to 2012 Marikana Massacre.

Looking at the current situation in the country, Abey said he believed that initiatives like the Zondo Commission shone a spotlight onto the challenges we face in terms of ethics and morality. He describes ethical leadership as a combination of the actions one takes, the words one expresses and walking the talk.

Also on the panel was professor Shirley Zinn, a non-executive director on multiple boards who has had to face a number of challenges during her career, including the much-publicised leadership issues and resignations at Cricket SA, an experience she describes as her most daunting yet.

“The resignations at Cricket SA came as a result of such extensive and disheartening leadership failure with such a national asset,” she said. “The moral and ethical inefficiencies were quite clear.

“In order for us to restore hope, integrity and rebuild at the organisation, we had to introduce values-based leadership. We needed to say no when something wasn’t right and take a stand,” she said.

She said the experience led to her asking many questions about what her true purpose was, and how she could take a stand on matters even if she had to stand alone. Zinn also took a bold step during her time at Cricket SA when she decided to resign.

“I remember having a meeting with the board of Cricket SA the night before my resignation, indicating to the them that I had reached the point where could no longer be a part of an organisation that refused to adjust its approach to governance and ethics,” she said.

Zinn encouraged fellow HR professionals to push the spirit of ethical leadership into the frontline of how they behaved, who they were, and what they stood for, doing all of this with humility.

It was clear from the reaction of the audience in the Impact Session chat that they found the insights from these three business leaders to be inspirational.