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A crisis of moral leadership

By Gregory Solik

The struggle against apartheid produced a long tradition of exemplary leaders. This tradition continued through the negotiations post 1994 during the years of transition. Yet despite this strong tradition, we currently talk very often about the “crisis in leadership”. Julius Malema’s recent expulsion from the ANC has been upheld and this marks the formal end to disciplinary proceedings against the controversial leader. But it certainly isn’t the end of his influence. Indeed, the disciplinary proceedings itself raised questions about the ANC’s ability to discipline Malema, which in turn raises significant questions about the strength of leadership in the ANC. So what do we really mean, then, when we speak of a crisis in leadership? Should we be saying that we have a crisis in unity of visions? Or perhaps a crisis in dealing with change – a changing economy, changing technologies, and changing social relations? Perhaps we should say that we have a management crisis? Or a crisis in capacity to implement?

These questions are significant because, fundamentally, the true measure of leadership is the ability to initiate change. This includes influence and getting people to follow. Leadership is about setting direction, motivating and inspiring people to follow a path, aligning the right people to make that vision a reality, and coping with change when both internal and external factors cause alteration shifts that requires adaptation. Importantly for me, leadership is about navigating an organisation or a movement, often in a challenging environment. Individuals tend to invest in the vision of a leader or leadership, so when followers like the vision but not the leader, they will look for another leader to replace him or her.

Importantly too, management is not leadership. For the most part, management is about coping with complexity, about budgeting and planning, organising and staffing, and problem solving. Management is about getting the most out of people in any organisation. Setting direction is never the same as planning. Setting direction is more inductive, it relies on research and analysis, looking at patterns to create a vision and a strategy. But the interplay between the two disciplines, although quite different, is essential for success.

An assessment of the judiciary is useful in this regard. Former chief justice Sandile Ngcobo began the process of introducing and establishing the office of the chief justice to increase the independence of the judiciary and introduce efficiencies. Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng is continuing the implementation of this system by expanding the office of the chief justice in order to increase access to justice, amongst other aims. And this is an initiative we should all support. Increasing access to justice cannot be realised without creating a democratic apparatus based on professional, efficient, effective, open and ethical management and administration. But in order to introduce an effective management system, one needs leadership.

The chief justice’s much discussed invitation to the country’s top judges to attend a leadership conference is instructive. He tried to provide an opportunity for judge presidents, their deputies and other leaders within the judiciary to learn about leadership. What was often missed amid the harsh criticism surrounding the invitation was the important educational purpose of the conference: as heads of courts, judges ought to attend leadership conferences in order to lead divisions in accordance with national plans, and to be better equipped to introduce systems that ensure tight controls and better efficiencies. Judges are often not natural leaders and managers.

Not one person attended the leadership conference. The result of the chief justice’s failure is highly ironic: it reveals that he cannot motivate his cohort to attend a meeting on exactly what he was trying to do – lead. It is disconcerting that one of the most powerful leaders in our country, Julius Malema, has no official position in the ANC but holds great influence, yet Mogoeng Mogoeng, in a position of great power officially, holds no influence practically.

I supported the invitation by the chief justice to the “Leadership event with Drs John Maxwell and David Molapo” and found much of the criticism that followed to be misguided on at least two fronts: first, that the chief justice was attempting to promote a particular religious view within the judiciary and second, that the chief justice purportedly contravened the Constitution by advancing a private business venture. John Maxwell is not only an experienced leadership expert promoting strong business ethics, but judges have a duty to attend conferences of all sections of society to listen, learn and to promote judicial independence and access to justice. The criticism was so weak in fact that it failed to underline the real problem with the invitation: people do not trust the chief justice as a leader of our courts and, consequently, his every decision is viewed with skepticism and suspicion – even when it is a good one.

The outcome is a shame. The heads of our courts should not just be excellent legal practitioners; they should be good leaders who understand the importance of strong management, they should be up to date with international trends in technological advancements, such as electronic filing and social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, in order to increase access to justice.

But more generally, I want similar leadership and management capabilities going forward from people with influence in government, not just the judiciary, and I want to see the real crisis – that is, the lack of a culture of moral leadership – addressed. We need to take a stand against inequality, corruption, and moral degeneration and cultivate leaders with an understanding of South African history, politics and law who can engage with global issues. This includes promoting public debate that is respectful and not demeaning of opponents, and deals with issues and not personalities in a way that openly addresses the challenges of our society. Julius Malema’s strong leadership is problematic, but weak leaders like Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng are equally of concern. It is a concern because when a country is led by individuals who lack authority, and that authority is challenged by unelected influential leaders who speak on behalf of a deeply disillusioned youth, the seeds for revolt are sown. The real question then becomes: How are we going to solve the problem of the crisis in leadership? Where are we going to find these leaders and how are we going to train them?

There is an urgent need to create a culture, established through a network of strong leaders and mentors, that provides an alternative to the current culture of money and individualism guiding young leaders that is exemplified by Julius Malema and much of the ANC leadership. This culture of moral leadership needs to be based on trust, which can only be built through competence, connection and consistent communication. The foundation of moral leadership is principle, the use of evidence, and promoting education, including self-education. It is only secure leaders that give power to others. Real leaders build leaders, not followers. And if young leaders are nurtured effectively, then the rich tradition of politics, economics and leadership in South Africa will not be lost for another generation.

Gregory Solik is the office and research coordinator at Ndifuna Ukwazi, a not-for-profit trust that builds leaders and provides support to other social justice organisations. He is a qualified attorney and former clerk at the Constitutional Court. He writes and tweets on law, current issues and technology. Follow him on Twitter: @gregorysolik


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