There is a common sentiment that Madiba’s passing enjoins us to pause and seriously reflect on the lessons of life that he has bequeathed to us and ask how seriously we have applied these lessons in our own lives. Indeed there could never be a better time to engage in this exercise and the themes that we can engage with will reflect our own individual circumstances and challenges in life. There is also a common sentiment that South Africa’s socio-economic challenges warrant us to review our leadership capability and capacity honestly and seriously at this moment. I would like to explore some truths about admirable leadership qualities and the challenges we face in this area.
There is convergence of understanding and knowledge among researchers about the type of exemplary leadership practices and qualities that people admire in the leaders they would willingly follow. And judging from the unprecedented love and support demonstrated since the passing of Madiba, it is clear that he was a living example of what we most admire in a leader. I would like to explore only four of these truths and exemplary practices identified by James Kouzes as critical in driving effective leadership.
First, it is entirely within you to make a difference. There is a false perception that leadership is something found at the top of successful organisations whereas leadership is a broadly distributed ability that is accessible to anyone who has a passion and purpose to change the way things are. The starting point is to look inward because anyone has the potential to lead others to places they have never been before. LeadSA has been very successful in its campaign to identify and expose influential leaders that are doing amazing things in changing the lives of people in their communities. They come from every organisation, small and large. They are young and old and they come from all races.
Second, credibility is the foundation of leadership. People willingly follow leaders they trust. This is an indisputable truth. Being honest and dependable seems to be leading characteristics of admired leaders. It is only when people believe that you are credible that they will follow you. Being honest means telling the truth and having ethical principles in the way you conduct yourself. People need to believe that you are a person of solid character and integrity. You also need to be honest with yourself about your strengths and limitations.
Third, values drive commitment. If you are ever to become a leader who others willingly follow, you must be known as someone who stands by his or her principle. Values represent the core of who you are. They also influence your moral judgments and the people you trust.
Fourth, you either lead by example or you don’t lead at all. The truth about leading by example is an ancient and universally accepted truth. People are always watching. They are watching what you do and comparing it to what you say. As their leader, they expect you to be a role model for how they should behave.
Using the last three criteria, it is clear that at this juncture in our post-apartheid transition, we face a serious deficit in ethical leadership in both the public and business sectors. At issue in all cases is the abuse of power by those who have been entrusted with the responsibility to lead. In the business sector, the uncompetitive environment resulting from abnormally high business concentration leads to collusion and other unethical business conduct. The workload of the Competition Commission and its case load is testimony to this unhealthy state of affairs.
In the public sector, the central challenge is one described by Abraham Lincoln when he stated that “nearly all men can stand the test of adversity, but if you really want to test a man’s character, give him power”. Developing character in leaders that will withstand the crucible of acquired power over others is the central issue to address. This “character gap” will remain the most discussed and yet least acted upon leadership challenge in the public service today. It is the parable of the emperor’s clothes!
The current slide into the abuse of power and corruption in the public service is symptomatic of this dilemma and reveals a deficit in character and values that people are looking for in leaders: humility, courage (moral and personal), caring and integrity. Madiba was inspirational not only in his pronouncements but in how he lived these values. He once stated that the most difficult test of his time as president was to resist the temptation to abuse power. His legacy must indeed concentrate our minds as we celebrate his life.