Read time: 3 minutes

Leading with the people for the people

How amazing if we could vote for the 'CLEAN Party', a party that values competence, leadership, empathy, advancement and nation-building! Alas, many might agree that such a party does not yet exist. What we will get, judging from the recent election lists and the political party manifestos, are much of the same that dragged South Africa into its worst socio-economic crisis since 1994.

In a context with a failing economy, rising unemployment, key parastatals' dysfunction, and the nation's most prized assets, its citizens, facing daily threats of crime, unemployment and deteriorating service delivery, South Africans are justifiably angry. After 25 years of post-apartheid rule and another election result waiting to be heard, the words of Charles Dickens: "It was the spring of hope; it was the winter of despair" (Tale of Two Cities) aptly describes the prevailing mood.

The electorate are 'gatvol' with their leaders. The incompetence, lack of empathy, abuse of power and corruption have severely undermined civic trust. Pathetic or no service delivery is driving the overwhelming number of social protests engulfing the country. This is what political leaders should have reflected on as they crisscrossed the land, making extravagant promises about how lives will improve now that the magical 'X' is made next to their party's name on the ballot form.

The poor state that South Africa is in boils down to the quality of our leadership. As we learnt from our 'wasted years', leadership should be more than a title. Unfortunately, many who currently occupy leadership positions, either in the political, public or corporate sectors, assumed the role through entitlement, influence, or coercion, irrespective of whether they have the competencies to lead.

From local and global examples, there is no doubt that leadership is a finely honed skill acquired through learning and experience. These are especially critical in the challenging times we're living in of global volatility, rising uncertainty and rapidly deteriorating domestic challenges. Effective leaders will need to know how to respond, operationally and strategically, to ensure the country remains viable and sustainable.

It's not difficult to see what citizens appreciate in a leader. Look no further than the tragic mosque massacres in New Zealand's Christchurch on 15 March 2019, and how the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, dealt with the crisis. Her empathic, compassionate and inclusive leadership response not only galvanised her nation into a shared public grieving rarely seen in the world, it also facilitated social cohesion. What was a grotesque act of terrorism, Ardern's response made a catalyst for nation-building and cross-cultural understanding.

South Africans are hungry for leadership. But, what kind of leadership? The days of the charismatic leader who leads through the power of personality are over. Transformation theorist and MIT academic, Otto Scharmer, refers to 'open heart' (emotional intelligence), 'open mind' (accessible intellect) and 'open will' (authenticity) as vital to the leadership process. These qualities are necessary to address some of the critical challenges facing us, such as economic decline and high unemployment. Hence, what we need are leaders who demonstrate empathy, who act in harmony with their people, who listen and who show solidarity with their pain, and ultimately come up with solutions to ease their suffering. However, this does not advocate passive followership, or as a Sunday Times columnist refers to as a 'sheeple' mentality. Leadership is transactional and people are 'choosers' with the capacity to make independent and critical choices, depending on their attitudes, knowledge and skills levels.

Since we're living in a globalised world, leadership has to recognise our interconnectedness with global communities and to understand the complexities of these relationships. Leveraging value from our standing in the world through potential foreign investment requires our political and economic leaders to have the adaptive intelligence to make critical judgments timeously and be quick to spot new opportunities in the dynamic global reality.

Managing and indeed benefiting from the disruptive impact of globalisation requires what Harvard University's Ronald Heifetz says is "the courage to face reality and helping the people around you to face reality. It's no accident that the word 'vision' refers to our capacity to see. But the quality of any vision depends on its accuracy, not just on its appeal or on how imaginative it is."

The success potential of South African human capital as demonstrated by some of our political, business and sport icons is immense. Unlocking this in our broader society should be our vision as we contemplate these elections. All it requires is for our political leaders to free themselves from the narrow confines of positional politics and migrate their thinking and actions from what Scharmer eloquently defines as the egocentric (I-in-me) state, to an empathic (I-in-you) state. This is where Prime Minister Ardern excelled.

Rudi Kimmie (PhD) co-ordinates the Aerotropolis Institute Africa at UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.