President Jacob Zuma: do we have the leader we deserve? Picture: REUTERS
President Jacob Zuma: do we have the leader we deserve? Picture: REUTERS

“All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.” That’s the refrain of the popular Christmas song, written by Donald Gardner, about a young child who craves something that was lost – something dear and useful, and she would be oh so happy if she could only have it returned.

With both Christmas and the African National Congress’s elective conference fast approaching, this song is playing in my mind. I am also longing for something dear and useful that lost after Maida’s passing, and which would make us very happy if only we could have it back.

I am craving true leaders who will break the spell of toxic leadership in our beloved country.

It is hardly breaking news that South Africa is suffering from state capture. However, the notion of state capture is a euphemism. A much bigger problem tends to become hidden in the discourse. We have actually been captured by a spell of toxic leadership in South Africa, both in politics and in many organisations, without which state capture would be impossible.

Think of the many scandals rocking our socioeconomic environment – the government, KPMG, South African Airways, Eskom and many others. These have in common acute symptoms of toxic leadership. We all know them and we all experience the fruits of their toxic destruction.

Of course, the contributions of certain individuals to this situation are recognised in the discourse on state capture, but it is important to name the situation, move beyond the euphemisms and accept reality: we have been captured by toxic leadership!

Toxic leaders are people in leadership positions who abuse their responsibility and leave a group, organisation or country in a worse condition than before. They are destructive, hypocritical and deceptive. They put their own needs first at the expense of their subordinates’ needs, and usually do so without considering the long-term ramifications for their subordinates, their businesses or the country.

Do I need to continue defining toxic leadership when examples of such leaders are so evident in South African politics and business? There is an African saying: “When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.” The sad thing is, in these leaders’ battles and endeavours, the poorest and the most vulnerable suffer the most – those who can afford it the least. Economic growth and radical economic transformation, which should stimulate job opportunities, are just not possible while we remain captured by toxic leadership.

There is an alternative: the simple and basic practices of good leadership. Although toxic leadership may also be defined as strong leadership, according to some definitions, because of its ability to influence people, it does not reflect good leadership. In the minds of most people, true leadership first implies goodness in how leaders behave and in the outcomes of their actions to the benefit of others.

In other words, a true leader lifts individuals, groups, organisations or countries to a better position.

We desperately need leaders who have the humility to know they are just human and act accordingly. Probably more than ever before, we need good leaders in South Africa who know that:

  • leadership is not a position or an appointment, but a verb;
  • leadership is a responsibility with accountability, not a position loaded with entitled privileges or an excuse to get away with unacceptable behaviour;
  • leadership is first to serve, before anything else; and
  • leadership is about being dependable.

Perhaps even more important for the long-term growth of our country, we need leaders who can both stimulate economic growth and unite the nation during these difficult times; leaders who can be an instrument of change to help South Africa heal emotionally and not divide the country even further for their own selfish gains; leaders who show respect and demand that all of us respect each other. 

Leaders are only as good as their followers allow them to be

Unfortunately, the answer does not lie in rehabilitating current toxic leaders. Research does not provide support for the successful rehabilitation of toxic leaders, but shows that a toxic leader tends to be too enveloped in the tentacles of toxicity and too tainted to revert to good leadership. We need new leaders to carry the flag of leadership in our beloved country, to the benefit of all.

But let’s not project all our hopes onto leaders “out there”. Everyone has a role to play in creating the shift. There is a saying that one has the leader one deserves. We have to keep our leaders responsible and liable to account for their actions, or lack thereof. Moreover, we should fend against the fantasy that there can ever be a perfect leader who will solve all our problems. Leaders are only as good as their followers allow them to be. Life is tough and requires from every person to accept his or her responsibilities and accountabilities to make things work, in order to progress.

Nevertheless, as we are concluding 2017 with the ANC conference just before Christmas, I truly hope that sanity prevails and that we will get leaders of whom we can to be proud. In my mind, while craving good leadership, the lyrics of Gardner’s Christmas song have been somewhat twisted:

“All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth … true leadership,

Gee, if I could only have my two front teeth … true leadership,

Then I could wish you, Merry Christmas.”

Prof Mias de Klerk is head of research and head of the postgraduate diploma in leadership development programme at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

This article was paid for by the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

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