"It is an understatement to say that this matter has been devastating to me and my family. A lifetime of clear conscience and a distinguished record of business leadership appear to have been in vain." This was the dejected comment by Mark Lamberti, in his letter of resignation from the board of Eskom.

Only, this was no junior executive speaking. Lamberti’s impressive career as CEO of Massmart was followed by a record of entrepreneurial excellence as the founder of Transaction Capital. Though a surprise appointment as CEO of Imperial, he set about it with the energy of a much younger man to push the lumbering out-of-touch company onto the track of transformation.

It remains to be seen whether his distinguished record will indeed prove "to have been in vain", but he has certainly paid a heavy price for his ill-judged and insensitive reference to an Imperial executive, Alida Chowan, as being a "female employment equity" employee.

In an environment where transformation has been far too slow, that sort of terminology cannot be used to sloppily label someone.

Here, the judge did not find that Lamberti or Imperial had discriminated against Chowan. But he did rule that Chowan "had grounds to believe she was being discriminated against" and was within her rights to lodge a grievance.

Chowan (42), a chartered accountant, had been head-hunted to be a financial manager at Imperial in 2012. She said: "In Mark Lamberti’s eyes, I was being narrowed down because of my colour and being female." The judge found this to have been a reasonable belief on her part.

On the surface, this case would appear to be about racism of a subtle kind, but at a deeper level, it also speaks of a corporate culture of arrogance, insensitivity and broken promises.

Consider that when Chowan first raised the issue, she was told to let it go, because "it would be a career-limiting move" to tackle Lamberti.

Chowan said: "All I wanted was an apology." Instead, Imperial suspended her.

Now, Lamberti himself has never been a man to suffer fools easily. Nor, in fact, is he a man to suffer critics, who aren’t fools, easily. He has been known to be acerbic and demanding — traits which some say derive from arrogance. But the judgment shows that the way he used his power at Imperial and the alarming way his executives deferred to him contravened fair processes.

Of course, it would be a waste if Lamberti’s skills were to be lost entirely. After all, he has taken seriously a role in society beyond his own business, and served with distinction at Business Leadership SA. And there can be no doubt that Eskom could have done with his expertise.

Still, the partial fall of Lamberti raises a broader question about senior SA executives. Most are excellent at their jobs. They run complex companies in a tough and risk-laden environment, and are paid well for it. But it seems that some of them, preened by power and cosseted by the perks of office, allow justifiable pride to mutate into arrogance. They lose touch with their society.

One thinks of Steinhoff’s board, which made an astounding decision to make gratuity payments to a few directors, before sanity prevailed and the clause was withdrawn. But what detachment allows that resolution to be proposed in the first place?

Our leading companies pride themselves on their resilience and toughness, but it may be time for some of the macho executives to ask whether they really are treating their employees with respect.

Of course, it is vital that transformation deals with apartheid’s legacy — but Imperial shows the problem may be far more profound.