As the effect of the omicron variant appears to wane in South Africa, the country enters a period of more relaxed guidance around social distancing, reduced travel restrictions and prospects of freedom from the experiences of the past two years. Yet the shadow of Covid-19 remains for those who have lost loved ones and the effect on the economy and of ongoing controversies about vaccines mandates in public and private organisations.
The case of vaccine rules demonstrates the need for responsible leadership across all aspects of society. As Nicola Pless, one of the world’s authorities in responsible leadership, says, it brings together ‘‘the idea of effectiveness with the idea of corporate responsibility by being an active citizen and promoting active citizenship inside and outside the organisation’’. The vaccine challenge places this responsibility front and centre.
Responsible leadership requires leaders to place their decisions in a wider context, to consider the wider purpose of their organisation and accountability to society, to make responsibility and ethical decision-making central to their decisions. But such an approach does not make difficult trade-offs go away.
Although leadership is necessarily an ethical activity, ethical decision-making tools do not necessarily provide a magic answer for a thorny issue such as obligations to be vaccinated. In fact, the question of vaccine rules demonstrates how organisational priorities can run up against individual freedoms, how constitutional rights can run up against organisation responsibilities to their stakeholders, and how trust in official discourse can run up against trust in other societal stakeholders. There are no easy answers.
Ethical decision-making for leaders involves balancing many competing needs — the long-term interest of the organisation, personal virtue, the avoidance of harm to people, respecting the legal environment, prioritising the greater good for society, avoiding actions that harm the most vulnerable in society, and avoiding individual agreed-upon rights. These provide the tools for responsible leaders but not necessarily the answers.
In a recent legal judgment, an organisation argued that a vaccinated workforce was aligned with the long-term interest of the firm to provide a safe environment for clients and other stakeholders. Yet such a decision may appear to run counter to individually agreed-upon rights. At a macro level a greater societal good can result from a higher rate of vaccination — as we see for measles, polio and increasingly Covid-19 — but for an individual the loss of their “right” may appear a high price.
An environment of openness, truthfulness and honesty provides a space for students, employees and other stakeholders to articulate their thoughts and concerns without the fear of reprisal. Responsible leaders need to be able to develop sustainable relationships with stakeholders and this includes both the vaccinated and those who are hesitant.
Research demonstrates the value of providing a safe space for individuals hesitant about vaccines so they can discuss their concerns in a respectful way. Evidence from around the world points to a significant minority of individuals who value their individual freedom of choice more than job security when it comes to vaccine mandates.
Even for leaders who are keen to provide a vaccinated safe working environment, there is little to be gained from shutting down discussions about vaccine hesitancy and related conspiracy theories. But, at the end of the day, responsible leaders will have to make the call and decide between the needs of the organisations and individual rights or the needs of vulnerable individuals and government regulations. Responsible leadership does not provide a keep-everyone-happy solution but does allow the voices to be heard and perhaps reap the benefits of that inclusive approach.
As stewards of their organisations, responsible leaders need to provide a safe inclusive working environment while also engaging with the perspectives of all stakeholders. While this may be a more time-consuming activity than simply announcing decisions, it is likely to bring more stakeholders along with potential positive benefits for the wider society — in this case a higher vaccine rate for all that provides a safe environment for employees, students, customers, tourists and the economy while reducing some of the discord and vitriol.