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The Leadership Crisis

The American presidential election presents the American nation with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as the best the USA has to offer its people as the top two candidates to take up the country’s top leadership position. Recently, the Brazilian prime minister had to step down. Other parts of the world are challenged with poor leader leadership. It is time to declare a world-wide leadership crisis in many parts of the world.

Even within an organisation, especially companies with multiple sites, inconsistencies in leadership and people management practices occur. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that leaders at different levels have different levels of competence.

The different philosophies of universities, business schools and other learning providers contribute to the problem, given the fact that some institutions’ management and leadership curriculums are dominated by traditional management approaches developed during the previous century, while current and future demands require a different leadership paradigm and competence. The result is that students exiting these institutions come from different academic backgrounds based on vastly different schools of thought. In many cases, these students had to be retrained according to their organisation’s needs, and some companies have even gone as far as creating their own corporate universities to train their own leaders.

Poor leadership is seen in the three main types of organisations operating in South Africa:

  1. On the one hand private companies are limiting their own profits by not leveraging the role of leadership in driving performance; others are simply maximising profits at the expense of key stakeholders such as employees, customers and society at large;
  2. Public service organisations and government departments at all three spheres of government are under-performing when it comes to service delivery and ethics, as a result of ineffective leadership;
  3. Non-profit organisations are stagnating, limiting their own growth or moving backwards, due to a lack of leadership in crafting better strategies and execution plans.

In essence, organisations throughout South Africa are struggling because of poor leadership. Specific examples of poor leadership include:

  • People with functional knowledge or technical expertise move into leadership positions without leadership training or skills;
  • Totally different and divergent perspectives and definitions of leadership with the result that different leaders try different approaches, some of them failing in practice;
  • Managers attempting to apply management theories from overseas without adapting it to the South African context;
  • A lack of leadership vision and strategy, and many execution gaps;
  • Poor decision-making by leaders resulting in disillusioned followers;
  • Ineffective and outdated leadership and management practices frustrating employees and customers;
  • A lack of accountability and responsibility;
  • Poor governance and ethics;
  • Waste of resources and disengaged workforces;
  • Inconsistent leadership practices;
  • Inability to perform or compete internationally on key benchmarks;
  • Inadequate leadership development inside and across organisations;
  • Inability to build and sustain high performance organisation cultures;
  • Managers often do not have the right qualifications and/or the right leadership skills to take their organisations and its people forward;
  • Chasing short-term targets at the expense of long-term sustainability and being socially relevant in the broader society;
  • No or poor corporate citizenship;
  • Slow progress in implementing the National Development Plan (NDP);
  • Poor service delivery;
  • The perpetuation of a “business as usual” approach by not making any difference to the country’s big problems: Education, Inequality, Unemployment, Poverty, Health and Crime;
  • Many lost opportunities to resolve South Africa’s problems as a results of the inability of leaders to form and build effective public-private partnerships.

Despite the above shortcomings in leadership performance, even good leaders will admit that the role and task of leadership is complex in the year 2016. A volatile business environment, a lack of economic growth, uncertainty, increased compliance regimes, business and political scandals, rapid change, technological advancement, disruptive technologies, globalisation and a myriad of other factors complicate the role of leaders.

Against this backdrop, leadership needs to be properly defined, conceptualised and clear standards and practices developed to guide leaders during this difficult period of change, transformation and sustainability. However, notwithstanding our leadership failures, South Africa has been blessed with pockets of excellence as far as leadership is concerned.  An explicit model and approach is needed to utilise the knowledge of these good leaders and to replicate and build on their successes.

Therefore, leadership should become the norm and not the exception, hence the need for a national conversation on leadership that spans across industries, sectors and spheres of society. Exceptional leadership is needed to take organisations, industries and South Africa as a country forward.  Leadership talent is the most important type of talent in organisations. Talented leaders create talent workforces. The perpetuation of the current gap in leadership puts organisations, societies and countries at risk. It is time for a serious debate on leadership before it is too late to change the status quo.

“For the first time it is actually clear there is a leadership crisis in South Africa.”
Pholoho Selebano

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