The Straits Times says

Holding leaders to a higher standard

The abrupt departure of the former chief executive officer of the National Kidney Foundation got tongues wagging because of the "personal indiscretion" cited as its reason, the swiftness of the dismissal and the echo of another NKF leader who had also left under a cloud years ago. The deliberate haste of the medical charity's board was obviously influenced by the earlier case, involving financial impropriety taking place over several years, which led to the resignation of its then chief T. T. Durai and the entire board in 2005. In the present instance, it took just a week for the board to act on an employee's complaint and to terminate the services of Mr Edmund Kwok, described as "a very good CEO" by NKF chairman Koh Poh Tiong.

However personal the nature of the incident involving an NKF employee and the top man, it was proper for the board to expect leaders to demonstrate high standards of integrity and ethical behaviour. Even if consensual conduct is evident, there is no denying that undue influence over a subordinate can be exerted by someone in a position of authority. Such a relationship can impact the work environment and make a chief vulnerable to manipulation, especially when disclosure might exact a high personal and social cost.

These are risks that no leader should take, especially when heading a charity that owes a grave duty of care to donors and those the organisation serves. In the event of a momentary lapse of judgment, it behoves the chief to step down voluntarily so that the reputation of a charity is not compromised. In this case, there were ample reasons to have done so because of the difficult path NKF had taken over a decade to restore its standing.

Much has been done by NKF's team to make it one of the biggest charities here, supported by the donations of even ordinary workers. It offers life-saving services to 4,000 kidney disease patients and now also provides night dialysis for those working during the day. Plans are also afoot for a $12 million complex in Jurong to serve 2,000 patients a week. These laudable efforts deserve continuing public support.

Reassuringly, the Health Ministry has said it will help to ensure all patients are adequately served, especially during the period that the NKF chairman and two board members hold the fort temporarily. A past CEO is being recalled to serve while the charity looks for a permanent replacement. When critical services are offered by any organisation, it is good practice to ensure leadership succession is not neglected so a deputy can step in quickly should contingencies arise. The board should bear this in mind as it embarks on steps to strengthen NKF's corporate governance.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2016, with the headline 'Holding leaders to a higher standard'. Subscribe