Is your judgement impaired?

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Recently the Chief Justice of South Africa made a statement that had many up in arms. Some even calling for his head to roll. In a webinar he quoted Ps 122:6 and Gen 12: 1-3 from the bible and stated that Christians are obliged by the scriptures to love Israel. He stated that Christians, and as a nation, we cannot do anything but to love and pray for Israel as hatred for Israel will attract unprecedented curses on our nation.

Although he would probably not remember me, I had met him once in his chambers, had been impressed and walked away with a sense that I had been in contact with a deep thinker. Having listened to him speak on a few different occasions I had found him to be lucid and a great champion for ethics. Therefore, listening to him make that statement was more than a tad disappointing. How could this deep thinker have lived through the hell of apartheid, speak with deep conviction about ethics, and at the same time miss the ethical implications in the stance he takes on Israel – especially now? Although he is entirely entitled to his opinion, I shudder to think how many would take what he said as gospel because of the position he holds. To be clear, my concern is not so much about a policy position he takes, but I do have a concern around the implication of being held at “divine ransom”. Any country should be judged based on its policies and actions. I don’t think that is useful to bring the threat of a curse into the conversation. To the contrary, we then run the risk of not applying our minds properly and blame it on “God’s instructions”.

It did however remind me of the fact that human beings are far more complex than our tendency to generalise suggests.

His utterances took me down memory lane to a time in my past where I observed a then much revered South African spiritual leader speaking eloquently, and with conviction, about transformation in his sermons, but in a private meeting stated that the Employment Equity Act does not apply to his organisation. I still vividly remember that moment when he told me that I was talking nonsense when I spoke about the applicability of the new legislation, which had the objective of bringing about transformation in South Africa. Both scenarios were a true reflection of his state of mind. On the one hand he truly believed that transformation in the country was needed, but on the other hand he also truly believed that the new rules designed to bring about the transformation were not applicable to his organisation (which I may add, was clearly in need of transformation at the time). How can one hold two contradictory views, or see with clarity why it is necessary in general, but be unable to see that it must also apply to you specifically in order for it to work?

It has become evident to me over the years that being able to see clearly, without blinkers, in one area does not mean that one is able to see with clarity in another. Thus, a leader can have great vision in one area and be completely off base in another. What causes clarity of thought in one chamber of the mind and absolute misguidedness in another? How can someone be capable of expressing love for his family, in word and deed, and be devoid of love when dealing with a human being purely because that person is of a different race?

One often sees this clarity vs blindness in leaders who are expected to apply good governance principles. Not many leaders are able to see their own decisions and actions objectively. Why is it that we see governance faux pas by the very same people who openly profess to be observers of good governance principles – even in organisations that are supposedly experts in governance?

I have once watched someone lie in a committee which was in the process of discussing governance matters. I couldn’t call him out because I would not have been able to prove it, as there was nothing in writing, and it would turn out to be an ugly he-said-she-said situation. But, the irony of the context in which the lie was told wasn’t lost on me. It was also not lost on me that the lie was entirely unnecessary. Until today I cannot figure out why he thought the truth would not have been a better option as I could not see any backlash resulting from telling the truth.  People think of that individual as a governance expert, as that is the picture has he projected over the years. He did however not blink while the fib effortlessly slipped through his lips, and was able to look me in the eye – the one person who knew that he was lying. And he knew that I knew.

Part of the problem is that we see ourselves as good people with good intentions and thus become blind to the fact that we can be on the wrong side of governance principles. Conflict of interest is one of the most common areas where the principles fly out of the window very quickly. Here I am not referring to the obvious issues, such as having to recuse yourself when you have a financial interest in a matter being discussed. Conflicts of interest are not always as obvious when you don’t apply your mind. And, they are a lot easier to spot in situations involving others as opposed to when we are the ones who are conflicted.

Essentially conflicts of interest are problematic as they tend to impair judgment. For example, when a CEO and his/her Chairman are too cosy, the Chairman’s judgment becomes impaired. S/he may therefore not see when they are working in the CEO’s interest instead of the interest of the organisation. Tell-tale signs are a CEO and Chairman holidaying together or becoming house/family friends. Think Markus Jooste and Christo Wiese. How do you retain your professional scepticism and hold someone accountable when they are your trusted friend? The very same Chairman who would stand in front of shareholders and profess that the organisation adheres to sound governance principles may therefore be completely blind to the fact that they have flouted those principles.

The other part of the problem is our underlying belief system that sits in our subconscious mind. We are often oblivious to how our biases and prejudices drive our behaviour and thought processes. Therefore, you could have a brilliant CEO who provides a great vision and has the ability to create significant value, who is completely blind to the fact that his/her decisions are contributing to the widening inequality gap or the degree to which he is creating psychological casualties in the organisation. An underlying belief of superiority, sitting in the subconscious mind, may lead to a CEO surrounding themselves with those they believe to be superior, based on race/gender, and channelling rewards to those “worthy”, instead of giving others an opportunity to step up.

Human beings have the incredible ability to live with blind spots and contradictions within themselves. You can only defeat that tendency within yourself if you are willing to be brutally honest with yourself and constantly confront your own belief system and behaviour. A great antidote to false beliefs or blindness to self, is one’s ability to surround yourself with voices that contain opinions other than yours and to listen with an open mind, with the objective to self-correct where you may be off base. That is not an easy thing to do, as our natural tendency as human beings is to protect ourselves – even from ourselves. We don’t particularly like being told that our beliefs are wrong, so we find justifications for why we should continue believing what we have always believed. And it is far worse when changing your belief system means giving up a position that gave you a sense of entitlement or a sense of comfort. Leaders must however remain vigilant and test themselves, simply because their words, decisions and actions may have far reaching consequences as a result of the positions they occupy. 

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Encouraging empathy in your organisation

The Covid-19 pandemic and related lockdowns around the globe has put a spotlight on the need for empathy. Many have been able to display great empathy, while others have been struggling. I suspect that those organisations that have typically been bottom line driven, would have found it a lot more difficult to deal with the levels of empathy required in dealing with employees who suddenly had to go into a mini diaspora, while dealing with the inevitable bereavement that accompanied the virus as it wreaked havoc.

2 Responses

  1. Reading this rang true to me on biases and blind spots I have observed in me… I have had to unlearn my own biases that I did not know existed a year ago. It’s crazy how open-minded we think we are until met with situations that prove us otherwise. That is why it’s essential for leaders to consciously correct their own biases. They are leaders because we hold them to high standards. High standards including being highly unbiased with few blind spots. I think that is what all current and future leaders should lead towards.

    1. Couldn’t agree with you more. We all tend to think that we’re so open-minded, until challenged. We must start from the premise that it is highly unlikely that we don’t have any biases. With that humility it becomes easier to accept your flaws and correct them.

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