Just A Bad Month For Leadership In South Africa – Or An Alarming Norm?

Ellis Mnyandu, Editor of this paper’s comment recently that July was a bad month for leadership in South Africa may be a fair one. SARS Commissioner Oupa Magashula resigned after an investigation into allegations of impropriety against him. Nazir Patel MTN CFO resigned after allegations against him. And of late Zwelinzima Vavi admitted to being disloyal to his wife.

Julius Malema gets upset when Xolani Gwala asks him about the repossession of another house because the interview was supposed to be about the EFF. But he does not realise that someone who may consider donating money to his party could view the manner in which he spends his own money as a barometer of how he would spend party funds.

Kenny Kunene, his right hand man, is slapped with a R750 000 fine for not submitting personal tax returns since 2010. And let us not forget that the sudden leaking of this information may also be a measure of the integrity of their detractors.

And these are some of the leaders that determine to some degree the leadership culture and future of our great nation. Fortunately there are many more examples of great leadership in South Africa, which in general is what our Business Report Leadership Platform column is about. It is just a pity that prominent leaders, who happen to influence the leadership temperature and perception of our country because of their visibility and news worthiness, are letting us down immensely.

What made these revelations so ironic is that it coincided with a month in which so much attention was placed on our nation’s pride of leadership, Mr Nelson Mandela.  The above and more was exposed while we proudly reminded ourselves of his values driven leadership of forgiveness, openness, inclusiveness, giving rather than taking, service (Mandela day), sharing, respecting, performing, approachability, unity, human weakness and much more.

What is going on? How are we developing leaders in general? What kind of leadership culture are we starting to or have we already inculcated in our society? How ingrained is it? Should we be seriously concerned? Why do we see more and more leaders failing?

Like never before leaders are under pressure to perform and create successful movement, in a world where they are exposed and visible, also like never before. One wrong step and the world knows it, immediately. Ten right steps and it is business as usual, because surely the right steps are what stakeholders expect. And remember, this is happening at a time when we are at war economically – battling poverty, unemployment, unmet expectations that are at boiling point, rising costs, unmatched competition, strained racial relationships and much more. All this while society moves forward at break neck pace. Performance must happen yesterday.

As far as our leadership culture is concerned, when a new leadership group takes over an existing, already formed culture follows them into the leadership structures. As the “exile and struggle movement” ANC took over power it brought with it a culture that was formed under difficult, almost abnormal conditions – ranging from exile camps to prison. These were the places where certain behavioural patterns formed, where the powerful influences of what forms culture in any society were missing – the standard family unit, ordinary schooling system and even the standard church setup where so much of our values thinking stems from. Such institutions sculpt ones value system and resultant behaviour.

This same environment also bred leadership attributes that are worthwhile – determination and unity around one purpose, loyalty, resilience, commitment, adaptability, passion, hard work, and much more.

So the question of what leadership culture is forming in South Africa is partially answered because the ANC led government brought a behavioural culture, belief system with it. Some change happened and continues to happen as it rubs shoulders with many other societal influences and expectations, but some of it is so ingrained that it might never change. Is dishonesty or infidelity towards one’s spouse and children one of these? It seems to be acceptable for a married man to sleep with other women and still be viewed as a credible leader by his peers, because many of them do this. Was this habit or culture formed and/or entrenched as a result of different dynamics that existed in exile? If so, should this fact condone or mitigate such actions? Impactful decisions we need to make as a society.

Starting at the top, which is where culture emanates from, President Zuma was accused of rape and then acquitted. The truth was however that he cheated on his wives. Yet the ANC Woman’s League openly supported him as a leader. He also admitted to sleeping with the soccer boss’ daughter and after immense pressure offered some form of apology.  After all this he is still re-elected as the President of the ANC. This says a lot about a cultural element that prevails in our ANC led government.

Back to Vavi, according to the ingrained culture within the ANC led tripartheid alliance Vavi should simply apologise, as he did on Carte Blanche, and move on, because on every other front he is respected for his leadership and even “feared” as a threat to his detractors. Why? Because he could be the one to lead the next phase of the economic struggle that entails a bias towards working class expectations, nationalization and much more – pretty much what the EFF stands for.

When all is said and done society must realise that leaders are watched and respected closely on two fronts – their ability to create successful movement (success record) and their day to day behaviour while doing so.

On the second front, the more prominent the leader the more not only his everyday behaviour is watched closely and/or respected and imitated but also that behaviour that is deemed to be personal. So one might argue that if Vavi is an effective and respected leader and personal behaviour does not affect this, then he should continue leading. Unfortunately the result of such an outcome means his personal behaviour will also be followed and imitated – not only his ability to create movement. If as a society we want it to become totally acceptable to be dishonest towards ones family, one’s spouse then we must allow someone like Vavi to simply apologise and move on, in which case this kind of behaviour will become part and parcel of our leadership culture on an even broader scale. Do we want to risk the decline of the family unit even more? Do we want to ingrain further a culture where the prominence of the family unit as a core leadership school is eroded, disrespected and treated as a second class system for developing values?

CultureTruth is, if Vavi committed fraud we would never let him back in. Should the act of cheating on one’s spouse and children for that matter not be viewed in at least the same light or on the same level of wrong doing? These are pivotal moments where we determine our national leadership culture and value system, and where we show what is truly important to us as a nation.

On another level, during difficult times it is important for leaders to be aware of an inclination that most human beings possess: Under pressure we more often than not default back to current and even past weaknesses, negative behaviour and even those actions that seemed to work for us or relieved stress during previous stressful situations. If you had a propensity towards anger, then you will probably resort to it when pressure mounts. If your weakness is/was misappropriation of finances in some form (weakness for money), under pressure you may resort to unacceptable financial practices. If your past behaviour consisted of sexual promiscuity, or even an addiction to pornography, under pressure you may resort to same behaviour. The same goes for addictions like drugs or alcohol. Your weakness or negative behaviour may be as simple as being disorganised, having a low self-esteem, certain prejudices and even an unhealthy need to be liked, accepted. I can go on with examples.  During good times these weaknesses and negative behaviours remain hidden, suppressed or under control. The same goes for an organisation, weaknesses in its system and offerings are hidden during times of plenty. When times are very tough, these often surface and become more amplified. This is a ‘normal’ human tendency that leaders are of course susceptible to, only they are often under more pressure and more visible than ordinary individuals and when these manifest it becomes headline news. While this condition has existed over the ages, today, with the immediacy of information and media it seems more prevalent.

What to do about it? Leaders must work hard at knowing themselves – their weaknesses, past negative behaviour, strengths, desires, deep seated values, and much more. Personal reflection is crucial. Understand your current and potential barriers to your full potential. Where possible eradicate weaknesses, but know you are vulnerable in those areas, especially during difficult times, which will become more frequent than ever before. In fact, it is the new reality.

Learn to absorb pressure: Part of getting to know yourself is knowing how best to absorb pressure; how best to re-energise. There was a time when it was sufficient to work hard and at the end of the year go on a long holiday to re-energise, re-calibrate. Then some leaders caught the vision to somehow take more regular breaks, because pressure and pace increased. It seems even this approach is not enough as leaders come back to the same pace and pressure, with inboxes filled to capacity, and within a day they feel like they are back where they were. Because of the pace of our environment more decisions need to be made quicker than ever before. So, leaders decide to take technology with them so as to mitigate pressure upon their return. But this kind of defeats the purpose. It seems leaders will have to learn to re-energise weekly and even daily, over and above more regular breaks.

Find a way to remain balanced, happy, connected to who you are and what your actual purpose is. No human being can absorb extraordinary power, influence and affluence and keep their feet on the ground without conscious effort. If Vavi was really connected to who he was, his purpose of standing for honesty and integrity in all things, he would not have succumbed to cheating on his wife.

Become more confident and conscious about how you create successful movement. Far too many leaders depend on luck to create their movement. More than ever they need to be absolutely conscious about the process they implement to do it. There must be complete clarity in their minds regarding this function of leadership. When one is not absolutely clear and confident about any process, what happens is that under pressure your actions resort to very primitive behaviour – basic instincts like pure survival.

Confidence is trust in processes that work. A seasoned martial artist will, under pressure of defending himself against an attacker act in a confident and composed manner, while someone that only recently learnt some tricks of martial arts will resort to very ineffective behaviour like freezing, trying to run away or swinging wildly once or twice and being so tired as a result that the attacker can push them over with one hand.

If a leader is not absolutely confident in the processes that lead to successful movement, under pressure he will resort to ineffective behaviour that those around him just can’t understand. The behaviour will be totally contradictory to the intelligence of the leader. He will cut costs wildly, act aggressively towards those around him and even stop taking those universal steps that will and must result in effective movement forward.

The new reality is different. South Africa is different. Choices we make today determine the leadership culture we create. And, the leadership culture determines what leaders we develop in the future. We must get this one right. We owe it to our leadership legacy.

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Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022
Email: info@leadershipplatform.com

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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