Business Leaders of South Africa: WAKE UP!

What lies at the root of many of South Africa’s problems? Education, or should I rather say, the lack thereof. You speak of skill shortages, the lack of talent, the struggle to retain what talent you have, but what do you do? You criticise government! In the past big business had men and women of vision, people who played a significant role in the political space of South Africa. Men and women who helped end apartheid, people who wanted to create a country that is sustainable, a country that could prosper. Business leaders of today are nowhere to be seen.

It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that university education is beyond the means of most South African households. Some students get to study at university on government grants, but how they get there, eat and exist puts it out of their reach. We need to make university education accessible to all who deserve it. Clearly our government cannot do this on its own. So, are we going to point fingers and criticise their inability to even address demonstrating students, or are we going to get involved?

The next 3-5 years are going to be critical for the future of our country. We are seeing the poor becoming disillusioned, the progress that the new middle class has made is beginning to reverse, the nation is protesting against poor service delivery, students are becoming active, not fully political yet, but mark my words, it is coming. We are facing a water crisis, an electricity crisis is a reality and the labour movement is fracturing. South Africans have lost patience.

We need a revolution.

Business leaders of South Africa: Can you create one?

It is my belief (greatly informed by the work of Mathew Gitsham and Jo Wackrill at the Centre for Business and Sustainability) that a new generation of business leaders is needed.

The prevailing attitude of business leaders of today is that it is the role of political leaders to address the big societal issues of the day. They don’t see it as their role. Some business leaders engage in philanthropic activities, either as individuals or through company contributions, but most argue that such concerns are only a distraction from their core role and a source of unnecessary costs. Business leaders of today should have a very different attitude. Senior executives should have a nuanced understanding of the major societal forces shaping our world, and know where and how to respond to these through the way they go about their core business, in a way that benefits both their business and wider society. A sizeable cohort of business leaders now evidently believe that playing a leadership role in understanding and addressing the major forces shaping society – far from being a source of cost – is central to how they create value.

Leaders of today need to collaborate with all stakeholders. That includes government, labour and your competitors

You might think, as a business leader, that in the midst of current pressures, you cannot afford to waste time and resource on big societal challenges, that it is not your job. But you would be missing the point. As your peers at the top of a growing proportion of the world’s most influential businesses reshape and redefine tomorrow’s business landscape and what it means to succeed as a leader in it, the evidence suggests that in today’s world, you cannot afford not to. As a business leader, the future of the country and indeed the world has become your business.

And if your business is talent management, executive search, or management education and leadership development, the shifting demands of business leadership mean you too need to be thinking about the implications of how you identify, support, nurture and develop today’s and tomorrow’s leaders. The future of the world has become your business too.

What is required?

A different perspective on the role and purpose of business leaders:

  • Business, civil society & political leaders work in partnership to deal with societal challenges
  • Business leaders engage through core business and see addressing societal challenges as central to creating value
  • Business leaders’ need a nuanced understanding of major societal forces, and know where and how to respond in a way that benefits their business and the wider world

Leading change across the business:

  • Seeing the connection between external trends and the implications for core business
  • Creating the conditions to enable leadership to emerge
  • Encouraging innovation and framing challenges that inspire it
  • Using language and symbols effectively,
  • Influencing mind-sets and culture
  • Creating appropriate metrics
  • Recognizing and rewarding positive new behaviours and outcomes
  • Having the courage of one’s convictions and persisting in the face of vested interests
  • Ensuring support where needed

Leading change beyond business boundaries:

  • Contributing to public debate with an informed point of view
  • Proactively leading change in consumer and supplier behaviour, industry norms and government policy
  • Relating well with multiple constituencies
  • Engaging in dialogue to understand and empathise with groups and communities with perspectives contrary to one’s own
  • Engaging in multi-stakeholder collaboration with unconventional partners

The leader of the future knows that he/she can only solve complex or “wicked” problems through collaboration. How do you solve “crime in South Africa” or “world hunger” or “global skills shortages” if not through collaboration?  We need to work together, involving numerous and diverse stakeholders. We need to collaborate across industries, countries and even across religions if we are serious about finding sustainable solutions.

Ultimately, wise leaders need to learn that to lead, facilitate and participate in such collective undertakings, requires an act of faith. It begins with the hope that there is a better way of doing things, a recognition that failure is possible, and a willingness to ‘trust the process’ without guarantees of a particular outcome. It is sustained on personal reserves that enable people to remain calm and centred in the face of the unknown and the unknowable.

Can you do it?