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Leadership through ethics

The call for ethics and transparency seems to have become a fairly standard issue, with just about every person in a leadership position — regardless of their background, affiliation, stance, independence or even qualification — making some kind of demand for ethics and greater transparency. It is so common, that it has become expected, almost required.

These often loud demands are great, of course, but they sometimes ring hollow, lacking any real depth or substance. They sometimes come across sounding, at best, rather superficial — and, at worst, ironic or even hypocritical. The worst-case offenders will even go as far as playing the “do as I say, not as I do” parenting card.

The fact is that leadership by example is the only model that can deliver real, meaningful and sustainable results — as demonstrated many times over through history and across regions, religions and ideologies.

You can call for greater transparency, but if you are not yourself transparent, the call will not succeed. You can demand ethics, but if you are not yourself ethical, the demand will not succeed. You can initiate reform, but if you are not prepared yourself to reform, all other forms of reform will not succeed. There is a clear and obvious pattern here: You simply cannot succeed in trying to enforce two sets of moral standards. Not in this age.

To have any chance at all of success, we must practice what we preach. This is as true for those put in political leadership positions as it is for those put in all other types of leadership positions, including the business, theological and intellectual elite. We must also recognize that moral responsibility cannot be “passed on” simply because we are following instructions. We need, instead, to be prepared to take full moral responsibility for our actions, regardless of circumstances. This, of course, requires unflinching integrity and great strength of character, but doing so can really change our outlook, giving us a fresh new perspective on the everyday, real-life, real-world realities of ethics.

Years ago, for example, an acquaintance of mine was promoted into an independent position of leadership. At the time, a common friend of both of us noted that an ethical person, with exceptionally high moral standards, was now in that key position. Unfortunately, over time, and despite having never put his hand in the till, he gradually eroded his lofty standing by proving time, and time again, to be a nodding “Yes Man” — to the extent of allowing embezzlement through extortion. He was an ethical person and, supposedly, a true intellectual but he turned himself into nothing more than a stooge. It was tragic to watch. Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common occurrence in our part of the world.

Ethics, like moral responsibilities, cannot be passed on. We cannot consider ourselves ethical when we do another’s unethical bidding, when we turn a blind eye to unethical behavior or when we simply do as we are told. To be truly ethical, we need to be able to stand by our values and stand up to what is wrong. We also need to be prepared to deal with the consequences. Otherwise, we can only be known, at best, as petty rulers and not as leaders.

Earlier this year, I attended a side session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting in Davos where a friend was discussing “success through ethics.” It was, like most WEF discussions, interesting and thought-provoking — and it got me thinking, as these discussions often do, about our own region. In particular, I was forced to confront the fact that, in the Middle East, despite perhaps the best of intentions, we tend to adopt very loose definitions of ethics. This interpretive approach to ethics opens up dangerously large gaps in our collective moral fiber, and allows massive mistakes to literally slip through the cracks. This, in turn, badly hurts our credibility before the global community.

Specifically, when we allow for a selective interpretation of ethics or, worse, a selective implementation of rules and regulations, we lose any claim to fairness. We simply cannot claim to be fair “most of the time.” It is, by definition, a binary concept: We are either fair, or not. By the same token, we are either ethical, or not. The minute we allow for exceptions, or even varying degrees of interpretation, we lose all claim to ethics and fairness, effectively writing-off whatever other great achievements we might have made in developing a comforting, reassuring sense of law and order.

You can call for greater transparency, but if you are not yourself transparent, the call will not succeed. You can demand ethics, but if you are not yourself ethical, the demand will not succeed.

Khalid Abdulla-Janahi

To counter this, we need to better integrate ethics into our everyday lives, and truly make it part of our social fabric. We need to move past the pretty words and sometimes hollow demands, and instead examine real-life, on-the-ground practical considerations. We need, for example, to integrate ethics into our education systems, right from primary schools through to universities, as well as into our reward systems, in terms of pay, bonuses and growth opportunities. We need to start considering ethics as an important key performance indicator (KPI), alongside whatever other KPIs we monitor. We need to make ethics an integral part of our daily lives.

We need to celebrate, encourage and reward ethical behavior. In fact, this should be the only type of behavior we reward: An achievement made possible through anything other than completely ethical behavior should be punished, not rewarded.

The fact is that, without the key, all-important assurance of a fair, ethical, equitable legal system, we will have little chance of success in attracting, let alone retaining, any significant foreign direct investments to our region. This challenge is made all the more pressing as we attempt to reform our economies and engage new stakeholders to help us realize our ambitious plans. Fortunately, there seems to be a new sense of urgency and purpose in the region.

To realize the aspirations spelled out in Saudi Vision 2030, for example, we will need to introduce levels of transparency that are entirely unprecedented in the region and, to do so, we will need to first adopt a much more rigid definition of ethics. One that cannot allow, or even appear to allow, for exceptions or to turn the proverbial “blind eye” — no matter who, what or why.

This is a tall order by any standard, and it is pleasing to see a new breed of Saudi elite discussing Vision 2030 and taking brave steps toward becoming part of the real world. It seems to have finally dawned upon us that reform is no longer a choice, and that our continued survival is largely dependent on our ability to adapt to changing realities.

Our first, and perhaps most important, test is right around the corner with the highly anticipated Saudi Aramco initial public offering. Groundwork for this truly historic undertaking is now underway, and it is already clear that all-new levels of transparency will be inevitable. At this stage, we have no real choice: Leadership through ethics is perhaps our only path to sustainable success.

Perhaps we can draw inspiration, even guidance, from legendary American boxer and activist Muhammad Ali who reportedly said: “True success is reaching our potential without compromising our values.” The late Ali, a true moral luminary in my opinion, also reportedly said: “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” It almost sounds like he was talking specifically to those put in positions of leadership in our region.

• Khalid Abdulla-Janahi is the group chief executive of Dar Al-Mal Al-Islami Trust (DMI Trust), with over 30 years of experience in banking and financial services.