A few weeks ago, at our MBA graduation ceremony, I opened proceedings with this extract: “We have a complete fracturing of leadership in this country. What we need is a vision of optimism, unity and inclusion. We are no longer living in a time where we can look up and see the leaders that perhaps we once aspired to. We are in need of an economic and moral transformation. There is tremendous anxiety and concern about where the country is headed.”
The person speaking was Howard Schultz, the American CEO of Starbucks. The focus of his reflection was the US.
Yes, Schultz’s call for leadership to drive economic and moral transformation was made within a particular context, but no country today is immune from the fact that the broader economic, political and social system is deeply turbulent.
The world is shifting – not just in SA. The assumptions about the role that business and leaders play in building strong societies is being thrown into question in the face of revelations like the Panama Papers and the Petrobras investigations in Brazil.
Look to the unfolding migrant crisis in Europe. What does that say about how fiercely people hold on to what is theirs and how passionately they resist change?
We have much work to do; the question is where to start.
Certainly we need to look at leaders who will serve the world best in the future. I believe there is a lovely provocation in Schultz’s words. He is, of course, talking about Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump, but his words contain lessons for every country currently experiencing leadership challenges: Brazil, Ukraine, the EU, Iceland.
SA, we must remind ourselves, isn’t alone in experiencing a turbulent socioeconomic landscape and questioning morality.
Yes, some of our challenges are no doubt the consequences of our political leadership, but I wonder how much is globally symptomatic.
This worldwide evolution forces us to examine what makes strong economies, societies and political systems. At its core, this shift is driven by technology and the democratisation of voice brought about by social media. Citizens are no longer wholly reliant on leaders to dictate their fortunes.
However, these technology enablers have also increased our personal opportunity to ignite change and the sense of ownership we have in society. We’re being compelled to stand up.
It requires us to don multiple hats, as citizens, neighbours, leaders, parents, sons and daughters. Now is not the time to look for inspiring leadership, it is time to be inspiring leadership. At the very base of this idea of agency is the responsibility of every citizen of voting age, in every country, to vote. But it goes deeper. We all have a voice, we can all reach out. It’s unacceptable for any South African to say they can’t make an impact. Even in the poorest of communities, where economic power is denied to many, individuals can be politically active and build strong societies. We need to get away from seeing leadership as the purview of the elite. We’re all leaders in our homes, schools, at the workplace, within our churches and our communities.
Business leaders, of course, have the platform to make a significant difference within their organisations and through participation in industry forums and networks. But I warn against business leaders adopting a myopic view of their responsibilities. We need to take a leaf out of the “slash generation” mindset, where those born in the new millennium chose to define themselves by all they are and do, not by single identities. They know they’re not just an entrepreneur or teacher; they are philosopher/mother/student/business owner/community activist/music lover/science fundi.
This approach recognises that you shouldn’t just be a change agent in the workplace. Increasingly we are seeing this play out in SA, with leaders like Mark Lamberti, CEO of Imperial, Gold Fields chair Cheryl Carolus, and Nedbank CEO Mike Brown standing up as members of civil society.
There is an encouraging rise in such engagements locally, including the likes of the Socio-Economic Future of South Africa, with which my colleague Nick Binedell is involved.
Just recently, our second year MBAs went through our Dynamics of Competitiveness course. The idea is to experience how the economy operates beyond primary business hubs, so they went out into secondary town and spent time engaging with educational institutions, local communities and business to build a deeper understanding. What struck me was the number of students who, having become aware of needs, had acted to improve those contexts.
This highlighted the leadership role which we all can play in society. We need to look beyond pre-existing leaders and recognise that we all need to contribute as leaders if we are to successfully drive the moral and economic transformation imperative to which Schultz refers. Else, if we just sit back, we open the door to scaremongers like Trump.