Sep 28

Tackling South Africa’s Leadership Crisis

An Article by Ian Kilbride.

South Africa is suffering from a leadership crisis that can and must addressed through transformational leadership. Leadership challenges are wide ranging, transcend multiple sectors and are amplified through institutions and society more broadly. This is manifest, for example, in South African’s low level of trust in political leadership. According to the latest Afrobarometer survey, less than two in five trust the State President “somewhat” or “a lot” and more than two thirds trust Parliament “a little” or “not at all”. The decline in the trust in elected officials is a decade-long trend that shows no sign of improvement.

The trust deficit in political leadership has severe consequences for South African democracy and goes some way to explaining low voter registration, the youth’s disengagement from formal politics and the rise in community protests, particularly in townships and informal settlements.

But the crisis of leadership is far wider than that of formal party politics. The removal of the Public Protector from office at huge damage to the reputation and trust in this Chapter Nine Institution and financial cost to the taxpayer constitutes an egregious failure of leadership both of the incumbent and the parliament appointing her in the first place.

State owned enterprises have a special role in our political economy and yet, almost without exception, have failed to deliver on their public mandate, in part, due to poor leadership. Eskom alone has appointed no less than 15 CEOs since 1994, with half serving less than two years at the helm. Transnet has changed CEOs nine times since 1994, with its precipitous decline prompting the mining industry to call for the removal of its current CEO. But the record for the most CEOs of any SOE goes to the bankrupt South African Airways, with 17 CEOs since 1994. The failure of leadership at SOEs is particularly damaging given the costs incurred by the fiscus, taxpayer, the economy and society more generally from their failure to deliver basics goods and services.

The business community has its share of leadership failures too. In recent years, the corporate leadership of Steinhof, Transaction Capital and Tongaat have all failed shareholders and been responsible for losses incurred by pension funds, institutions and individual investors. More recently, the leadership of Naspers and Prosus has also underperformed, resulting in the resignation of the Chief Executive Officer.

Looking further afield, several of our revered tertiary institutions have also experienced acute failures of leadership. Africa’s leading tertiary institution, UCT, has endured a torrid period of failed leadership resulting in the removal of its Vice Chancellor. Poor leadership at UNISA has propelled the Department of Higher Education to consider placing it under administration. The Universities of Fort Hare and KZN are operating under crises of corruption, violence and qualification fraud, all of which attest to leadership failures.

While there is no easy, short-term solution to the chronic failures of leadership holding back the country’s development, there are approaches that can begin to address the challenges. Currently, transactional models of leadership are the norm. Transactional leadership hinges on followers complying with and carrying out expectations and targets set by leadership and being rewarded for their achievement. Party politics incentivises transactional leadership through promises to the electorate of better public services, welfare and economic opportunities in exchange for their vote. In the business world, CEOs are incentivised to engage in transactional leadership through the reward of share options and bonuses in exchange for a growth in sales and higher profits. Such leadership models are highly effective in the right context, but are inadequate to achieve the demanding national challenges of economic development and social upliftment. Rather, the nature of national challenges demands the development, adoption and implementation of transformational leadership.

Transformational leadership embraces several characterising features. The first is conceptualising, developing and implementing new ways of doing things by generating a new vision and strategy for its implementation. Transformational leadership is not only visionary, but also inspirational and motivational. While not all transformational leaders are charismatic, they typically lead by example, have high standards and challenge followers to achieve beyond their own expectations.

Transformational leaders are characterised not only by self-belief and purpose, but also by personal authenticity and ethics, thereby inculcating respect and emulation from followers. Perhaps counterintuitively, transformational leaders also exhibit individualised consideration. In other words, they are cognisant of and attend to the needs of their followers, tend to be good mentors and are attuned to spotting and nurturing talent. The fourth characteristic of transformational leaders is their propensity for creativity, innovation and risk taking. This typically translates into the intellectual stimulation of followers to find better ways of doing things, rather than reliance on history and past experience.

South Africa has produced outstanding transformational leaders in politics, business, academia, media and civil society. For our country to break out of its current leadership malaise, we need to produce many more.