South Africa’s political, positional leadership race is hotting up. Regardless of which contender one is backing, it is impossible to miss the classic signs. Usually, the battle to get ahead is characterised by initial negative tactics between competing parties. And, as history has shown us, it is unlikely to be different this time around. Sadly, this approach is not what many of us would choose as first prize in the selection of those in authority. We would like to choose positional leaders who closely reflect our collective values and shared vision as a nation. Ironically, many of the current contenders would not choose a dog-eat-dog environment for themselves either.
Outside of the political arena, this is certainly the case. Our recent research revealed that among the country’s rising business leaders, ‘power’ was one of the things they valued least. Regardless of the sector, what emerged was that it was better for leaders to be true to their personal values. Part of South Africa’s growing leadership crisis is that our emerging leaders are often not in the conducive environments they need in order to flourish, and are also not allowed, or are unable, to live out their value systems in constructive ways.
This impacts both leader and follower. “Value-consistent action,” write Bardi and Schwartz in their 2003 study, “is rewarding. It helps people get what they want.” But beyond delivering the reward, it also helps the action, in and of itself, to be rewarding, if it is value-aligned. Where there is a disconnect between what an individual strives for, and what is expected at an organisation or environmental level, distress follows and stress levels rise. Energy is diverted away from the person rising to their full potential and inspiring others to do the same. Disengagement ensues.
Authentic leaders, on the other hand, have a deep sense of personal purpose, reflective of their core value sets, and which, when allowed to be given expression in the workplace, draws others in and inspires them to step out authentically too.
Unfortunately, many of our country’s best and brightest are not able to live out their values at work and, shockingly, in their personal lives too. Our study, conducted amongst 500 post-experience students at two of the country’s highest-rated institutions, revealed two important findings: (1) that the greatest influence, for good or otherwise, is rooted in the leader’s environment and interactions with others; and (2) that the majority of emerging leaders were regularly battling the cognitive dissonance that arises when there is conflict between their values and what is expected of them.
Using cross-sectional research amongst these respondents, who were aged 30 on average, with five years of work experience, we gathered detailed data. They were questioned in depth about their value systems, including a list of 30 ‘value dimensions’ such as achievement, ambition, challenge, creativity, the freedom to be unique or different, honesty and integrity, leadership, leaving a legacy, recognition, service, time, vision, wealth and more. Once they had chosen which of these values were most important to them, they were asked to identify their top three stumbling blocks as well as their top three enabling factors.
Overall, there were no single enabling factors or stumbling blocks that were common to every individual. Nonetheless, a number of distinct themes and patterns emerged that made it possible to identify key clusters. Overwhelmingly, the respondents listed the same values as being important in their workplaces and social environments: family; enjoyment; and integrity or honesty. The factors chosen least often were risk, power and obedience.
Cause for concern is that, for the majority of emerging leaders, it was enormously challenging to achieve congruence between their personal values and the manner in which they work and live. Just 26% of the respondents were able to live out the values that were important to them consistently in their workplaces and social contexts. The remaining majority lived their values either in their working lives or personal lives to some extent, or in neither. The result for them was a level of cognitive dissonance and the attendant distress, which detracted from their overall wellbeing and ability to flourish. Additionally, the respondents reported an erosion of self-esteem and self-confidence, as a result of this incongruence (which ultimately negatively affected their decision-making and productivity).
A key theme that emerged from our study was that one of the more significant influences over people’s ability to live their values was a combination of environment and other people. This stands to reason: as Peterson and Seligman note, attachment theory argues that human nature demands we love and be loved. Humans are therefore malleable and responsive to environmental input (we continuously seek out ‘meaning’ and ‘belonging’). Human beings are social creatures by nature. It is understandable that we should have the desire to do good in the world - as the most common choice of values among the respondents suggested. But herein lies the challenge: because it is also human nature to be influenced by others and to want to please. So, it is no surprise that so many of our emerging leaders, whilst wishing to make a difference, are facing a tough call – what to do when their values are in opposition to what is expected of them in their environment.
It is a challenge we are increasingly seeing in news headlines, where whistle-blowers, the world over, are facing the consequences of their actions; where employees of large organisations, government entities or political parties are facing the wrath of their cohorts for speaking up for what they believe in. Looking beyond the headlines, at the next generation of ordinary South Africans taking up the challenge at ground level, it is clear that they, too, face a tough journey ahead, whether on a small or large scale – and will need to be both courageous and resilient to succeed.
The question we need to ask ourselves is what we are going to do about it? How are we going to facilitate a more authentic brand of leadership going forward? How are we going to nurture the next generation of leaders, whether they are driving the growth of start-ups at ground level, running large companies, or trying to institute reform on political levels? How are we going to ensure that those heading up South Africa’s corporate, government and social justice sectors in the coming decades, bring out the best in themselves and those around them?
We do not yet have all of the answers. But these are questions we cannot afford to take lightly.This research was carried out with MBA student Candida Schörger.