What kind of leader South Africa needs right now?
11 April 2016
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Hello and welcome to another edition of Old Mutual Live Business, my name is Chris Gibbons. In this edition, Part I of a two-part series, we take a close look at leadership and in particular, the kind of leaders needed by South Africa at the moment. We’re talking about leadership, about the kinds of leaders that South Africa needs at the moment.
I’m joined by Dr Charlene Lew, Senior Lecturer at GIBS, who teaches in the area of organisational behaviour and with that, of course, comes leadership and strategic decision making. Charlene, thank you for being with us.
Charlene Lew: Thank you Chris.
CG: Let’s start with that basic question, what kind of leader does South Africa need right now?
What kind of leader does South Africa need?
CL: Chris, I think the answer lies in your question because it is about context and it is about now. We’re in a very specific time in South Africa where we need somebody that can show us vision. That can show us a dream. That can help us deal with all sensitivities that we’re facing at the moment in the country.
CG: All right, let’s place it in context, there’s a contextual need, what’s happening at the moment?
CL: Well, I think there’s, it’s quite obvious that there’s a lot of racial debate, questions around the universities where students are challenging the status quo. That obviously raises a lot of questions for us about the ideologies that are present in our country. Raises questions about where we’re going as a country, can we get back to the place where we see a dream for South Africa, the type of dream that Nelson Mandela showed us.
CG: Realistically, haven’t students always been revolting?
CL: Students have always been revolting, but it almost seems that at the moment there is some orchestrated passion towards changing things and doing it very quickly. Students will bring revolution and students will bring change.
What is breeding our problems?
CG: A word that I’ve been hearing a lot recently is ‘hatred,’ what role does that play?
CL: It’s a terrible, terrible word and it comes from deep stemmed fears and deep stemmed disappointments in people. Yes, I do believe there’s an emotional side to the problems in South Africa and a deep sense of searching for identity again. We need to deal with the South African situation from a psychological perspective as well, certainly.
CG: The rainbow nation, the celebrated rainbow nation with a shadow, a camera?
CL: I don’t think it was a shadow, I think it was a vision and a passion. I think people have started capitalising on people’s fears because they have not seen the necessary change that they would have liked to see.
CG: Context also determines the kind of leader that emerges.
CL: That’s right and I think South Africa needs a type of leader that can work across diverse situations, can integrate various viewpoints. A type of person that can see the South African unique context, but can also think in a global way.
CG: The type of person then that someone wants to follow, what would that look like in the South African context?
What qualities do we need in a leader?
CL: South Africa needs a leader that has got a passion and a vision that other people can follow. We had Nelson Mandela that was absolutely heroic. We need somebody that can combine a bit of the passion that Nelson Mandela brought us with some of the execution that we’ve lacked in recent years as well. It’s somebody that can bring those two together, but above all, it’s somebody that can bring about a dream in people’s hearts again.
CG: A dream in everyone’s hearts or just a certain sector of the populous?
CL: I think in everybody’s hearts. There is so much that South Africa can celebrate together and I personally dream for a South Africa where people can find what we have in common. That everybody can feel that we’re part of the same group in some way. We’ve become very fragmented and I think if we can find a way of finding a united view of the future for South Africa again, we will go a long way.
CG: That then brings us to the quality of the leader we need?
CL: Well, yes, as I said, it’s the type of leader that has got some sort of charisma and with that I’m not talking about a loud mouthed person necessarily. It could be a quiet leader, but somebody that truly believes and is passionate about a positive future for our country. That is the starting point and everything else will hinge around that.
If a person is really dedicated to South Africa rather than their own needs, I think with that comes a set of values that people can follow. I think with that, the type of value that we want to see is an authentic leader, a leader that looks beyond himself or herself. A leader that believes in the people that follows them and that can bring out the best in the people who follows him or her. That’s the type of leader I believe we need.
Leadership is about more than one person
CG: Doesn’t the kind of follower that you have determine the kind of leader that you A, need and B, get?
CL: Absolutely. As much as the leader determines the followers, the followers determine the leader as well. South Africa has got possibly two things that we need to deal with. On the negative side we’ve got a sense of desperation that I’ve started seeing amongst people. I think that could have quite a negative impact on the type of leadership that emerges.
On the other hand, we’ve got, in Africa, a special ‘Africaness’ and a collective way of thinking. If a leader can tap onto that in their followers, that ability to stand together as a collective and drive change. I think that South Africa could practice something that we call ‘distributed leadership’. Where groups and pockets of people in South Africa start driving change and the leader just orchestrates all of that.
CG: That then brings us to the question of the psyche of South Africans.
CL: I don’t know if I’m the expert to talk about the psyche of South Africans. I think a part of that is a growing desperation, as I mentioned, and a growing sense of disillusionment in lack of the things that people had hoped for.
I think with a clear plan and a clear vision that people can believe in again, that can easily be overcome. I think we do know that South Africans are quite inventive, quite resilient. If we can tap onto that, we can see great change in our country.
CG: Where do things like ‘Africaness’ and ‘Ubuntu’ fit into this?
CL: Ubuntu is one of the most wonderful qualities that is, in a way, uniquely South African, it’s not an Africa-wide phenomenon. Ubuntu is about caring for us, rather than me. I am because we are. If people can ascribe to that type of sentiment, you can just imagine the type of power you can unleash in people standing together to drive change.
It’s about us, it’s not about grabbing for self, it’s about enabling one another. A true leader is not somebody who only enables themselves. A true leader is somebody that enables others and that concept of Ubuntu speaks to leadership within our people. If South Africans really can bring that as a drive amongst people and we really start following a sense of Ubuntu, we will see great things happen in this country.
CG: The power of developing a dream, something that can be bigger and better.
CG: This is socio-political. Does what you’ve been talking about now apply in business?
CL: It does apply in business, but it also presents all kinds of challenges in the sense that many business leaders in South Africa are part of larger global conglomerates. When people are used to hierarchical, authoritarian way of leadership, maybe from a global company and one wants to introduce more of a collectivist Ubuntu type of style in a South African company, obviously there will be some value clashes in the way people try to operationalise things.
I think South Africa and Africa has got a lot to teach the rest of the world around that, but would also need to adjust to global standards and mind sets. It’s always that way, as in marriage, if you want to be together, you have to learn to adapt to each other’s ways.
CG: Dr Charlene Lew, Senior Lecturer at GIBS, thank you for being with me.
CL: Thank you Chris.