Leadership for the Greater Good: Reflections on Today’s Challenges From Around the Globe

From Hero to Zero: Why Leaders Fail — A South African Police Leadership Case Study

ILA Fellow Erwin Schwella uses the case of General Jacob “Jackie” Selebi, the former National Commissioner of the South African Police Service to explore the personality traits and contexts that contribute to why public leaders fail.
by Erwin Schwella


General Jacob “Jackie” Selebi was appointed the National Commissioner of the South African Police Service (SAPS) in 2000. This was the pinnacle of his career. Previously he held many senior positions in the South African government and the South African governing party, the African National Congress (ANC).

During his incumbency as National Commissioner, he was also elected and served as President of the prestigious international police organization, INTERPOL.

An ubuntu hero indeed.

Sadly, Selebi proved to be an example of public leadership that failed and a failed public leader.

The hero turned into a zero.

General Selebi, during his dual terms of office at the SAPS and INTERPOL, was found guilty in a South African criminal court on charges of bribery and corruption. He accepted bribes and was corrupted by South African and international organized crime syndicates.

He was convicted to serve 15 years imprisonment.

As another travesty of justice, allegedly based on his political privilege, he served only 229 days of his 15-year mandatory sentence. Furthermore, due to his ongoing alleged medical needs, he served his sentence in the Pretoria Central Prison Medical Center rather than in the cells with ordinary prisoners. His early release on medical parole was regarded as yet another controversial case of a powerful, politically connected South African public leader escaping the consequences of scandalous leadership through political influence and connections.

The release of prisoner Selebi, amplified the South Africa pattern, at the time emerging and now confirmed, of public leaders protected from and even rewarded for dismally corrupt and failed leadership — the sustained rot in the South African state and government now referred to as State Capture.

State Capture is a systematic and systemic dynamic of sustained abuse of state influence and resources by corrupt South African elites. It “describes the way private individuals and companies have commandeered organs of state to redirect public resources into their own hands and have gutted those institutions responsible for protecting the country against such corruption. These include the police, the prosecution authority, the tax collection service and even parliament itself” (Gevisser, 2019). The continued disastrous impact of State Capture is currently admitted to by the ANC President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa (see, for example, Haffajee, 2021).

The Selebi case of disastrously deficient public leadership can be analyzed using the growing literature and empirical research on failed public leadership.

Public Leadership Failure – Personality and Context

There are indications of a higher probability of public leadership failure manifesting with precipitating contextual and predisposing personality factors present.

Leadership failure relates to ineffective and unethical bad leadership.

Ineffective leadership fails to produce the desired results and change, falling short of its intention. Leaders are generally judged as ineffective if the means used, or not used, fail. The ends pursued are not reached. The necessary competencies to reach goals are absent.

Unethical leadership fails to distinguish between right and wrong.

In contrast to ethical leaders, unethical leaders:

  • put their own needs above the needs of those they are supposed to serve and of their followers;
  • pursue narcissistic and selfish self-serving personal interests;
  • fail to exemplify virtues such as courage, temperance, and integrity; and
  • feed their selfish and ambitious needs rather than the public good.

In the case of Selebi, he initially seemed to be an effective “strong leader” who used his arrogant and abusive style to autocratically command results. Finally, however, Selebi was a failed, unethical, and ineffective bad leader.

Why do leaders, like Selebi, fail?

Related questions linked to the precipitating contextual as well as predisposing personality and competency factors are:

  • How do the salient dimensions of leaders, followers, and organizations interact within organizations to enable and sustain unethical and destructive leadership?
  • How and why do these leaders venture down the paths of failed leadership?
  • Why do these leaders persist in these behaviors, known to be unethical and destructive?
  • Why are these behaviors tolerated and even rewarded by organizations and/or followers?

Provisional Reflections on Public Leadership Failure

Provisional reflections provide possible explanations.

It is contended that leaders degenerate down the path of destructive leadership due to deficiencies in leadership selection, appointment, and promotion processes.

It is contended that leaders degenerate down the path of destructive leadership due to deficiencies in leadership selection, appointment, and promotion processes.

Narcissistic leaders lacking moral development and a responsibility disposition slip through deficient leadership selection and promotion nets. This is compounded where organizational environments exhibit weak ethical commitment as well as minimal ethical rationality and reasoning.

Leaders who persist with destructive leadership are influenced by self-deception. Self-deception leads leaders to deny or conceal the truth and avoid personal commitment. They evade realities through deliberate ignorance, emotional detachment, self-pretense, and rationalization.

Selective perception pushes moral implications of decisions into the background, especially when the organizational context and the pressure for results are challenging and urgent. This is often the context of police institutions.

Leaders persist in unethical and destructive leadership actions as a result of organizational dimensions related to an ambiguous ethical climate and norms, environmental uncertainty, and reactions to real or perceived threats.

The ethical climate is influenced by organizational history, culture, the values and actions of leaders, ethical policies, legal oversight, and accountability. Failing leaders ignore formal codes of ethics or other mechanisms even when these are in place. Example leads to increasing perceptions that the codes and policies are merely symbolic rather than really normative. Further corrosion of integrity and ethical standards results.

When contextual conditions are stable and predictable, ethical standards are generally more prevalent and followed than when there is general instability and specifically uncertainty about ethical standards.

Finally, expectations and the demonstrated reality of being called to account improve ethical leadership.

The Selebi Case

In an analysis of the demise of the Selebi failure from hero to zero, evidence suggests that:

  • He showed signs of narcissistic, abusive, and autocratic behavior from early in his career. These tendencies grew and worsened as he gained more power.
  • Recruitment and selection processes failed to provide proper mechanisms to prevent him climbing the leadership ladder. His appointments and promotions were not subject to proper screening processes but made on the basis of political loyalty and political expediency instead of professional competency.
  • Ample evidence indicated a degenerating downward spiral towards increasingly bad public leadership from which disastrous outcomes could be predicted. These indications were not only ignored, but tolerated and rewarded by the SAPS, oversight institutions, and even by the then South African president, and friend of Selebi, Thabo Mbeki.

The disastrous descent of Jackie Selebi on the downward spiral of failed public leadership can be explained using public leadership theory and evidence. Analysis and evidence provisionally confirm that this demise could be predicted and probably avoided if appropriate actions were taken in accordance with an understanding of theory on leadership failure.

Adding insult to injury, the South African National Development Plan has recommended a process where the recruitment, selection, and appointment of government senior functionaries and especially the National Commissioner of the SAPS, must be subject to rigorous proper screening and selection processes. These processes have, even after the dismal Selebi failure, to date not been implemented. Predictably, this resulted in at least five more failed leadership episodes with SAPS National Commissioners.

Corrupt culture trumps common sense and wise strategy. Every time.

And the rot has now, predictably, spread to threaten the whole fabric of the SAPS and the South African State.

The road to hell is still paved with good intentions!

Gevisser, M. (2019, July 11). ‘State Capture’: The Corruption Investigation That Has Shaken South Africa. The Guardian.


Haffajee, F. (2021, April 28). State capture took place under our watch, President Ramaphosa admits to State Capture Inquiry. Daily Maverick. https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-04-28-state-capture-took-place-under-our-watch-president-cyril-ramaphosa-admits-to-state-capture-inquiry/

Erwin Schwella

Erwin Schwella grew up in South Africa during apartheid. He obtained a PhD in Public Governance from Stellenbosch University and became an academic there in 1981. Realizing the real consequences of apartheid, he became an academic and activist critic.

During democratization in South Africa, he served to shape the future of democratic new South African governance institutions. He is an emeritus professor of Public Leadership at Stellenbosch University in South Africa and in the Law School of Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

Since taking emeritus status from Stellenbosch, he learns about leadership as Dean: School of Social innovation and the Founding Servant Leader of the Centre for Good Governance in Africa at Hugenote Kollege in South Africa.

Erwin Schwella served as the Chair of the ILA Public Leadership Member Interest Group.

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