Integrity is at the heart of good leadership
Western People 19.4.22
No one can be in any doubt but that the Tony Holohan secondment (or appointment) to Trinity College was badly handled. The only wonder is that institutions with highly skilled and highly paid communications personnel could have got it so badly wrong. That is, of course, if they were asked for their advice or, if they gave it, that it was followed.
In any similar situation, where a huge gap is opened up between politicians and civil servants, it was inevitable that the media would exploit it.
The ‘hunt for blood’, once the debacle around the appointment became known, was inevitable. Opposition parties too descended like wolves, not least understandably the Social Democrats who placed a focus on the perceived limitations of the Minister for Health, their former colleague, Stephen Donnelly, who (before the last general election) had cleared the low wall into Fianna Fáil and landed on his feet in a senior ministry.
The only person emerging from the wreckage with his reputation intact was Dr Holohan. It is a measure of the man, his much-valued contribution to the Irish people during the pandemic, his steady nerve in trying circumstances, his straight talking and the sense of authority he wears so lightly.
What screams out of the debacle over the appointment is that in the heat of such episodes we can lose sight of another matter, which is just as important – that there are people in our society who are natural leaders, are of the highest integrity and we are better for having them in charge – better indeed than we might otherwise be.
It’s not hard to recognise people of integrity. Instinctively, we sense that amalgam of character, probity, rectitude, honour and honesty that provides them with ‘real’ authority as distinct from power. Once we get the ‘smell’ of integrity from them we tend to follow their lead.
For those in positions of power but who have little authority – no matter how great the power – we find ourselves reluctant to follow their lead because a grumbling question-mark can arise as we ponder the gap between what they say and what they do. Those with integrity go before us into battle, rather than cheering us on from the side-lines. Above all they tell us the truth, even when they know it’s not what we want to hear. As Holohan did.
And as President Zelensky of Ukraine does. A man who met the moment. Close to the people, comfortable in military fatigues, plotting a path in situations of enormous pressure, moved to tears as he contemplates the unspeakable suffering of his people, telling it as it is, not putting himself at the centre of things and never losing sight of what matters. It’s integrity, the true mark of leadership.
In contrast are the few members of the Dáil who held grimly on to their ideological baggage and couldn’t find space in their political armoury to applaud Zelensky when he addressed the houses of the Oireachtas, a public failure not just of moral insight bur of graciousness and good manners.
Or Sinn Féin, anticipating their shoo-in as the senior partner in the next government, still persisting in the delusion that they have nothing to apologise for to the Irish people after their much-documented outrages of the Troubles. And in the process effectively advertising for all to see their embarrassing lack of a compass in the fundamentals of moral discourse.
Pope Francis has that integrity too that defines good leadership. Happy in his own skin (as we say), he points a way forward that he is happy to lead. No pomp, no sitting on his dignity, treating everyone with commendable equality, visiting prisoners, lambasting the noxious weed of clericalism in our Church.
Francis tells cardinals, bishops and priests that we should have ‘the smell of the sheep’ – be close to the people. Thus, he turned on the Roman curial clerics who laughed at the head-gear of the indigenous people at the Amazon synod and reminded them that it was no different from the birettas they were wearing themselves. A straight talker who has walked the walk. A man with ‘the smell of the sheep’.
Micheál Martin is another. While most Irish people have their own political allegiances, Martin is a man whose leadership in his stint as Taoiseach was based on a sure moral compass, and whose clear sense of right and wrong guided his response to the huge crises he negotiated on behalf of the Irish people. His instinctive response – ‘it’s the right thing to do’ – to the Ukrainian crisis was a measure of the man. His integrity stands in marked contrast to the posturing and game-playing of his lesser rivals.
I think too of teachers like the late Pat Dowling, who spent all his teaching years in Carne NS, Moygownagh and whose commitment to generations of children and their welfare were based on the highest standards of honesty, equity and principle.
I think of the recently retired Garda Superintendent, Joe Doherty, who spent most of his 39 years of service in or around the Ballina area and who gained over the years a due reputation for his even and sure-footed leadership skills in embracing both his law-enforcement responsibilities and his sure-footed sense of fairness. His sense of and contribution to the community anchored a leadership that was respected by both those under his authority and the vulnerable and deprived who temporarily lost their way. In good leadership fairness marks integrity, values are more important than rank.
Experts may lecture on various styles of leadership but the truth is that the detection of integrity and authenticity in our leaders is usually unerring and instinctive.
We know good leadership when we meet it.