Where have the Leaders gone?


Leaderex 2016 held in Johannesburg last month posed an important question some of South Africa’s top CEOs, heads of business school and executive teams; “Where have all the leaders gone?”

The question provided a great transition into discussions about the state of leadership in South Africa, and the world in general, and laid the foundation for a host of sparkling debates and frank discussions on leadership. It would seem, from popular consensus, that the demise of leadership in South Africa, whilst a real challenge, may have been somewhat exaggerated.  

A Local View

Prof. Nicola Kleyn, Dean of GIBS echoed the feelings of many at Leaderex – “leadership starts with self”. She highlighted that our own day-to-day lives often demand that we play multiple leadership roles. This message supports conventional wisdom, that no matter who we are, or what status we hold, we all have a leadership role to play. “We have passed the point where we can simply look on and shake our heads. We all need to stand up and be counted” said Kleyn.

But how do we get this right? How do we turn around the confusion to create clarity around leadership? According to Dave Duarte, founder of digital marketing company Treeshake, it’s all about direction. The void is simply because “many leaders are more worried about holding an office than about creating direction”. Duarte’s view was backed by Jonathan Foster-Pedley from Henley Business School who stated that “The point of leadership is to provide people with purpose and meaning, and a sense of integrity and value. A good leader will make you and me give every last thing we have in the service of something we would die for.”

Yes We Can

So the question is, are we even remotely capable?  “Yes!” That was the clear message from the University of Stellenbosch’s Piet Naudé.  “We do have leaders capable of providing direction”. But as events unfold in pre-election United States and post-Brexit United Kingdom, it would seem that we are simply part of a bigger challenge.  “The world is currently battling the wrong kind of leadership. Leaders who use populist language and draw people back into their nationalistic and ethnic self-enclosed lives, whilst [what we need is] more openness and cooperation in a global world,” he said. Leadership is a responsibility, and just like businesses have a responsibility to its own employees, customers and stakeholders, so too is there a responsibility toward playing a moral and socially conscious role in providing direction for people.  When there is political uncertainty, business plays an even more critical role in guiding the performance and morals of the people it chooses to serve and employ.  Yet, to fulfil this role, we all need to be open to learning, change, and trying different approaches to achieve results.

A Lifelong Lesson

There are thousands of books, podcasts, and training courses on the topic of leadership, so many that it becomes hard to know which one to read, believe, implement. But can the skill of leadership really be learned or is this something we’re born with?  For the most part, our leadership lives start out with mimicry. For many of us, leadership skills are acquired from our earliest role models, and we quickly play back the tapes once given to us by parents, guardians, managers, community leaders and professors. So it’s not really what we’re born with but rather how we’re raised as leaders.  A leadership development challenge is figuring out how to break the patterns of the past and provide leaders with a new set of skills, tools and techniques for leading effectively in the workplace. Yet the study of leadership is no more an intervention than winning an election is an overnight game. Leadership is a lifelong study. And it would seem that the earlier in life you start, the better.

Leadership is the pursuit of greatness, achieved through others – a task that mankind may never be able to definitively tick. There is no silver bullet for leadership, but the positive and conscious application of a leadership philosophy can cause an attitude shift that helps you discover some great ammunition for leading along the way.

Whichever leadership philosophy you choose to follow, be mindful that it is just for now. The lessons we need to learn as leaders will continue to evolve, and change, over time. Perhaps our original question is rhetorical.  It’s not “where have all the leaders gone?” but more a statement of fact, that “leadership is forever a work in progress” and we should all be striving to build our own leadership capacity.

The great minds that coalesced at Leaderex offered us some starting points. Ponder these daily, for some time, and see what unfolds on your journey:  Listen. Have strong values. Inspire others. Know your purpose. Be a role model. Strive to achieve the impossible. Be Visionary. Be bold. Be transparent. And, be kind.  We are all living examples of leadership, and we all have the power to make a positive and meaningful difference.