Chartered Management Institute companion Ram Gidoomal, chairman of the London Sustainability Exchange, says integrity is vital for good leadership.
What would you expect if you brought together a small but unlikely group of people, such as an ambassador, senior partners from top accounting and legal firms and investment banks, chairs and CEOs of some of Britain's largest companies, journalists, management consultants and myself, a former refugee and corner-shop owner and latterly the UK group CEO of a family business employing several thousand people in more than 15 countries?
Whatever you expect, you'll certainly get a wide range of perspectives, experiences and opinions! That is apparently the purpose of the weekends organised by the Trinity Forum, an organisation founded in 1991 with the aim of contributing to the transformation and renewal of society through the transformation and renewal of leaders. The meeting I attended considered 'The character dimension of leadership'.
'Character counts,' say its proponents, 'because character has consequences.' 'Nonsense,' say the critics. 'In the modern world, character - if such a thing exists - is purely private. Competence and charisma matter far more.'
I'm reminded of a multi-million dollar contract for the supply of computers to Libya that I painstakingly negotiated in the 1980s. The US had banned exports to that country, but I'd managed to source Canadian computers. I had almost tied up the deal when my chairman (also my cousin) told me that a British policewoman had been shot outside the Libyan embassy. 'We have to cancel the contract,' he said, 'even if it's perfectly legal.' While part of me was disappointed - all my hard work would amount to nothing - I could not help endorsing his integrity and values.
As Dr Os Guinness, senior fellow of the Trinity Forum, puts it: 'Far from a cliche, a matter of hollow civic piety or a purely private matter - as many claimed in the Lewinsky affair engulfing President Clinton - character in leaders is important for two reasons. Externally, character provides the point of trust that links leaders with followers. Internally, character is the part-gyroscope, part-brake that provides the leader's deepest source of bearings and strongest source of restraint. In many instances, the first prompting to do good and the last barrier against doing wrong are the same - that is character.'
In recent years, the quality of character has been eroded by many forces, not least secularisation, which leaves individuals and society with no clear moral perspectives - only ever more clever talk about ethics. Said one commentator: 'In our low-fat, low-conscience culture, Sin-Lite has found shelf space alongside other low-guilt pleasures.'
Thankfully, there is a renewed interest in ethics today, with more than 11,000 courses in Applied Ethics in the US alone, supported by generous scholarships, scores of journals, hundreds of textbooks and thousands of experts.
A great deal of the new interest, however, is in 'prevention ethics' rather than 'principled ethics.' Not being caught seems to be more important than doing right. For the politically correct, what matters is holding the right views, not practising them. But the central question is not 'what has the person learned?', but 'what has the person become?'
Current courses in ethics often have a shallow view of human nature and an even shallower view of evil in human society. For example, topics such as hypocrisy, self-deception, selfishness and cruelty rarely come up, and the place of envy in politics, greed in the economy, lust in the fashion industry and violence in the entertainment business are rarely probed.
While writing this article I received my appraisal form for one of my non-executive directorships. Studying the paperwork, the question that arose in my mind was: how do we assess the character dimension of leadership from an individual and a corporate perspective? If Nick Leeson's appraisal, and indeed that of his superiors, had probed issues of integrity and of the values with which they operated, might this have prevented Barings' demise?
What about Enron or Arthur Andersen or the other celebrated corporate collapses of the past few years?
Ethics are the practical demonstration of core beliefs. Even for the secularist, our treatment of other people is based on what we believe human beings to be. Traditional faith-based values provide a plumbline of moral knowledge that is crucial in developing character and in probing issues of integrity.
In a blind internet poll, the policies of the Christian Peoples Alliance (the party for which I stood as a London mayoral candidate in the 2000 elections) beat the policies of all the other parties. Why? Because people want values. Our policies are underpinned by solid Christian Democrat values of social justice, compassion, reconciliation, empowerment, respect for life and stewardship of resources. These were closer to the aspirations of the London electorate.
Developing practices and policies that inculcate and reward character in leaders remains one of the most urgent matters for our time, not least because these are essential for restoring confidence in the global economy.