Picture: iSTOCK
Picture: iSTOCK

These days, politics is not the place to go if you’re hoping to find leadership role models, which is surprising given that political leaders seem to grab most of the headlines. Hardly a day goes by without the likes of Donald Trump and Theresa May on the front page. Yet despite their prominence, they serve more as cautionary tales of how not to lead than as lodestars.

So it’s no real shock that neither features in Fortune magazine’s list of the world’s 50 greatest leaders. In fact, there is only one politician in the top ten: Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand. How is it that the leader of a country whose economy ranks a respectable but hardly spectacular 53rd in the world is listed second on that list?

Up until the terror attacks on two mosques in the city of Christchurch, Ardern had, perhaps, been no more than an icon for liberal fanboys inspired by a talk at Davos just two months earlier. There, rather than choosing to showboat or pat herself on the back for New Zealand’s still-healthy economy (projected growth of 3%) and enviably low unemployment rate (especially from an SA point of view), she courageously chose instead to talk about the areas where she felt her country was failing its citizens: “staggering rates” of homelessness, and high suicide rates among the youth.

Similarly, in the aftermath of the Christchurch attacks, while Trump in his typical style fumbled his lines amid criticism that his incendiary rhetoric had perhaps emboldened the perpetrators, Ardern became a paragon of what authentic political leadership could be.

Why does leadership matter for SA?

SA today appears to be lacking in such inspirational leadership. A few years ago, a report by the US-based Freedom House on SA’s first 20 years of democracy found that South Africans are  increasingly losing their faith in their political leaders and institutions. “Their top leaders are perceived as looking after their own and enriching themselves, rather than helping the communities,” said the report. The seemingly mercenary tenure of Jacob Zuma simply hammered home the disillusionment and scepticism that has become endemic in our country.

Perhaps most disturbingly, in its 2018 Corporate Governance Index Report, the Institute of Internal Auditors SA showed that less than half of the audit executives surveyed in that report believed that ethics is integral to the corporate workplace in SA

With SA’s sixth democratic election behind us, all eyes are on President Cyril Ramaphosa as we await the announcement of his new Cabinet, reflecting the much-needed downsizing and decisive leadership so desperately lacking in recent years.

Unfortunately, the misconduct is not limited to politicians. We have seen our business leadership falling short in recent times too. A forensic investigation into the collapse of VBS Mutual Bank revealed looting (and cover-ups) to the tune of R2bn. Poor corporate governance is said to have led to the failure of African Bank Investments. The leadership of companies such as KPMG, SAP and McKinsey are said to have turned a blind eye — rather than risk the benefits they were reaping — to state capture. The Steinhoff scandal has been described as the single biggest act of fraud in SA history.

Perhaps most disturbingly, in its 2018 Corporate Governance Index Report, the Institute of Internal Auditors SA showed that less than half (48%; a drop of 18 percentage points since the first report in 2013) of the audit executives surveyed in that report believed that ethics is integral to the corporate workplace in SA.

There are no easy definitions of what are considered universally accepted qualities of a good leader, be it in politics, business or civil society. Some say good leaders must be visionaries. Others say they should be ethical and have integrity. Many more argue for focus and humanity, or accountability and creativity, perhaps passion and commitment. Fortune extols its 50 leaders for their courage — men and women willing to risk their careers and good names to do boldly what others wouldn’t.

Common bond

In SA, I would argue, we need leadership that is values-based and reminds us of our common bond, and the common struggle we face to make the necessary substantive changes in our country.

Leaders in business need to seek to reconnect the values of the organisation with the values of their employees and strive to create inclusive, ethical and sustainable organisations that grow the economy and opportunities for their people.

Politicians, similarly, would do well to find ways to forge a common national identity such as president Nelson Mandela imagined when he delivered his Nobel acceptance address in 1993: “The value of our shared reward will and must be measured by the joyful peace which will triumph, because the common humanity that bonds both black and white into one human race, will have said to each one of us that we shall all live like the children of paradise.” 

In practice and in the face of pressures from a balance sheet or election days, this is easier said than done, of course. It takes not just integrity, but also courage and it starts with individual leaders being brave enough to look into the mirror and develop self-awareness and self-mastery. There is plenty of research to suggest that when we see ourselves clearly, we are more confident, make better decisions and build stronger relationships. Critically, it also means that we are less likely to lie, cheat, and steal. 

SA is rich in potential with many men and women ready to step into leadership roles to take this country and economy forward. We need to find ways to support and enable them to build their capacities — especially emotional intelligence and self-awareness — so  they can inspire and lead, as Ardern has, in difficult times. It is at these times that we need to have leaders who remind us that we all have the potential to be better versions of ourselves.

• Maughan is a senior lecturer at UCT, and convenes the executive development programme of the UCT Graduate School of Business.