[OPINION] Should the private lives of leaders concern us?

The right to privacy of every individual, including leaders, in this country is enshrined in our Constitution. But when people enter public life what they may view as private might become part of the public debate. Becoming a leader means putting the public's interest ahead of your own.

Worldwide there are many examples of public leaders who had ethical failures. In South Africa Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is but the latest in a string of public figures whose sexual morality has made news headlines for the wrong reasons.

Zwelinzima Vavi had a sexual relationship with a Cosatu employee; Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe found himself apologising after being exposed for begging a 29-year-old staffer to send him pictures of her private parts; Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba’s wife and lover publicly fought on social media; and former DA deputy speaker Archibald Figlan was found guilty of forcing a staff member to touch him inappropriately during the State of the Nation Address at the opening of Parliament in 2015. And so the list continues.

The question is whether these private issues should concern us, the public? What bearing does it have on the person’s public profile?

The issue is that when a person enters public life, he or she must understand that the line between their public and private lives becomes blurred. Some issues that might be considered private for a private individual can become matters of reasonable public interest, comment and judgement.

Leaders are role models to others whether they choose to be or not. They exert far greater influence on others by virtue of their authoritative role, power and visibility. They therefore take on a teaching role of what behaviour is acceptable and what is not. Leadership in the public service is especially relevant in terms of its reach, because, unlike leaders in the private sector, they not only exert influence on employees under their supervision, but also on the wider public. Whether their behaviour is good or bad, it has the potential to influence huge numbers of people.

But people are fallible and make mistakes.

Thuli Madonsela once said that ethics and governance do not necessarily fail because people make mistakes. “It is what you do next that counts. Do you keep on lying? Or do you privately admit that what was done was wrong, but publically say it was fine. These would be ethical failures.”

We have seen many leaders who have, after their sexual or other immorality was exposed, initially denied it, only to admit and apologise later. Hiding behind flimsy excuses, blaming others for their mistakes and accusing people of taking advantage of them, do more harm than good. It does not inspire trust; it does not confirm the the individual’s moral compass and it does not enhance the individual’s reputation. Rather, followers might question the leader’s integrity and trustworthiness even further - wondering how many other lies have been told.

How can leaders implicated in unethical behaviour regain their legitimacy and the trust of their stakeholders?

Regaining trust requires of leaders to demonstrate three main qualities: openness, competence, and integrity.

Firstly, the leader must acknowledge the wrongdoing. Lying, blaming others and sweeping the wrongdoing under the carpet will not do the trick. Taking responsibility, being accountable, open and honest about their ethical failures probably poses the biggest challenge on the road to restoring trust. It also requires moral courage - courage to do the right thing even at the risk of inconvenience, ridicule, punishment, loss of job or social status, etc.

Secondly, leaders must demonstrate their competence. Being honest and ethical are not enough to restore trust. Ethics has to be complemented with competence. In a recent article Professor Deon Rossouw, CEO of The Ethics Institute, reminds us that the very first principle of King IV on Corporate Governance states that leaders and governing bodies should be both ethical and effective; ethics without effectiveness, he said, is not sufficient. To regain trust, leaders should visibly demonstrate that they are competent to deliver on their mandates.

Thirdly, leaders must display integrity. Integrity means following one’s moral or ethical convictions and doing the right thing in all circumstances, even if no one is watching. People trust people who are predictable in their behaviour, who do what they say and say what they do. People who ‘walk the talk’. Unethical conduct alienates people who are affected by such conduct, and it fuels suspicion and mistrust. To gain the trust of others after an ethical failure leaders have to demonstrate that they are sincere, honest and respectful of the fact that they are viewed as ethical role models. Followers mimic their behaviour.

Leaders need to take responsibility for their behaviour, good and bad, acknowledge that misdemeanours in their private lives can indeed have a bearing on their public position, on their trustworthiness and reputation. An honourable leader subordinates self-interest for the sake of the general good and has the moral courage to acknowledge mistakes because, as Zwelenzima Vavi said “I am only human and fallible”.

Liezl Groenewald is manager: organisational ethics development at The Ethics Institute and president of the Business Ethics Network of Africa.