Monday, November 14, 2011

SAWomEng Leadership Series: Ethical Leadership in Engineering

SAWomEng is an organisation that supports and provides mentorship for women who are planning to study, are currently studying or have recently graduated engineering degrees - a cause that I have huge respect for. One of their initiatives is a leadership seminar series, with the current topic being Ethical Leadership in Engineering. Ethics, leadership and engineering are three concepts that I have grappled with - with mixed success - over my career to date, and it is heartening to see them addressed in a forum with the transformative potential of SAWomEng.

Sustainable design often gets lumped together with ethical engineering, and, while I see the connection to some degree, my expertise in design does not automatically translate into expertise in ethics. This lack of experience in the philosophy of ethics notwithstanding, I was invited to sit on the panel for the Durban and Cape Town legs of the seminar series. What an opportunity to challenge and be challenged on some of the most difficult decisions that face professionals in their careers!

Let me be clear here. I am not an expert on business ethics (or any other kind for that matter). I'm not really even an expert in engineering. And despite my career aspirations, it would be somewhat misleading to call me a "leader" either. But for all this, I'm still going to share my experience of the Durban workshop in the hope that it will raise awareness of some of the ethical challenges that face the current and future leaders of our profession.

So... Ethics. Leadership. Engineering.

I must start by stating that ethics is not a fuzzy, soft, do-goodie subject. It is a philosophical field of enquiry in its own right and there is an established academic and professional community who specialise in it. My first piece of advice for any leader in business is to invest in formal training in business ethics from people who really do understand the topic.

That being said, I'll add my own thoughts on some of the ethical challenges facing modern engineers, which might apply beyond the field too. There are so many areas in modern workplaces where one’s values are challenged. The purpose of this post is not to explore scenarios (which range from corporate governance to HR to whistle-blowing and more), but rather to show how the institutional structures which engineers depend on are not sufficient to navigate the areas where a sound understanding of ethics are needed.

At present, ethics in engineering is governed by professional codes of practice and references to national or international standards and norms. These codes of practice govern appropriate behaviour between professionals, and provide a sound basis for normal day-to-day work. One example of the type of guidance they give is appropriate circumstances under which a professional engineer can review and comment on the work of another professional engineer. While this is essential in governing work between peers, it doesn’t provide much in the way of guidance for difficult ethical decisions. When a colleague has been treated unfairly by management, the Engineering Council of South Africa’s (ECSA) code of conduct has little guidance on how to react.

Corporate governance guidelines are another set of rules by which people in business judge ethical behaviour. The growth of public companies required business leaders to be bound to certain levels of disclosure and behaviour as they were responsible for the investments of others. In South Africa, the King Reports are the benchmark for corporate governance and their focus is on integrated reporting and disclosure. These are important for investors and analysts, but again do not provide clear guidance on personal decision-making along ethical lines. It is possible to comply entirely with corporate governance requirements, and yet still act in an unethical manner.

A third often-referenced guide for ethical decision-making is the company “vision and values”. My employers have values of ‘sharing and supporting’, ‘pride and passion’, ‘trust’, ‘innovation’ and ‘sustainability’; which are typical of the sort of values espoused in corporate reports and are all good and well in their own right. However, they are also not especially useful as a reference point when faced with difficult decisions. What does “pride and passion” mean when dealing with a case of reporting internal corruption?

There are two specific areas where each of these guidelines falls short in my opinion:

·         The first is at a human level, looking at how disempowered people within an organisation are treated and standing up for them when they are at a disadvantage.

·         The second is looking at the world (as was highlighted by my co-panelist Dr Shamim Bodhanya), looking at how the business responds to social, environmental and gender justice issues.
On each, ethical leadership requires action on the basis of a set of values that go beyond the rules and regulations which govern current business behaviour. Broadly, my feeling on ethical decision-making is closely linked with one’s willingness to ‘speak the truth to power’ – a phrase that has come to define the current term of Thuli Madonsela as South Africa’s Public Protector.

Ethical leadership and decicion-making requires a personal set of boundaries for acceptable behaviour, and the courage to speak up when those boundaries are crossed. Most importantly, it requires those boundaries to be set up before an incident arises, as the pressures to conform when faced with difficult decisions are often large - and the consequences can be career-defining.

When asked about where to look for useful guidelines on ethical leadership, I was rather stumped. There is no universally accepted ‘rule book’ for ethics, and individual decisions are always going to be heavily influenced by the cultural context of the individuals involved.

My only advice is to spend time in quiet reflection on the type of person you want to be; for the faithful to use their faith as a guide; and for everyone to spend time in community – I believe that one's ethics are best understood as being developed in collaboration with/interactions with others. A simple test for ethical decision-making could be: “Would I want my grandmother/mother/spouse/friend to find out about this?” If the answer is no, then there’s your guide.

If you’re in Cape Town on Saturday the 19th of November 2011, please come and join us at UCT for the final workshop – I would certainly value a lively discussion and debate on what ethical leadership in engineering means in South Africa at this time.

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