A true leader, whether in the boardroom, in Parliament, or on the pitch, is the person who is willing to look ahead, pursue a plan, and have the courage to say, “I’ll go first.” The South African business environment today is volatile, and leadership in this environment requires exceptional courage. Yet, there’s no question that South Africa will continue to present tremendous opportunities for leaders who are willing to step up and help steer the ship in today’s tumultuous water.
The 2016 Human Capital Trends Report by Deloitte reported “engagement” and “culture” being top priorities in South Africa (and globally), followed closely by leadership. In 2016, an impressive 90% of South Africans rated culture as either “important” or “very important,” but only 53% said they were ready to tackle the issue in their organisations. Just over one-quarter of organisations in South Africa report that they are doing an “excellent” job building positive organisational culture, and nearly one-third report that their organisations are “weak at integrating social community and corporate programmes.”
Ultimately, the leader who can drive culture is the leader who can be trusted. And while trust may feel unquantifiable, the effects of trust (or lack thereof) sooner or later show up in terms of bottom-line results. Likewise, leadership isn’t a “soft” skill, but one that can be quantified in terms of an organisation’s success, and its reputation. Think of the banking sector in South Africa and its challenges. Mistrust of banks is common, and this combined with fear of fraudis holding back the country in terms of moving toward cashless transactions and the benefits that go with them.
Trust is constructed on a foundation of character and competence, with character being more important. People of good character or bad character can develop better competence, but character is a more stubborn trait that can be more difficult to alter – especially for the better. After all, if having a poor character still allows someone to have what they want, then why bother trying to develop good character? So how can a country where trust in leadership is low turn things around to where its plentiful natural resources can be turned into measurable social benefit?
The price paid by society for lack of trust can be quantified in economic terms. South Africa’s economy is coping with pressure on exports and mining production due to constrained commodity prices, weaker demand, and sluggish trade. On top of this, political unrest and weak growth have caused South African currency to slip, accompanied by rising inflation. Trust and the accountability on which it is built are the most crucial elements in overcoming these economic and social challenges.
For trust and accountability to become embedded into a company’s culture, they must be demonstrated from the very top. Leaders must be transparent about what they’re doing, and they have to own their mistakes and make amends for them. It’s simple, but not easy. Yet the results of a culture of accountability can be disproportionately good. When leaders set an example of accountability and “ownership” of the good and the not-so-good, the example spills over into the work of the entire team. As a result, pursuing and achieving goals that align with the company’s mission becomes the default.
Accountability also grounds an organisation in reality. Leaders who don’t use their position to make their mistakes disappear, or to cover them up help prevent dangerous phenomena like “groupthink,” which has the potential to block out reality. Additionally, accountability makes space for constructive conflict – the kind that leads to breakthroughs and innovation. Responsibility is the state of mind that allows a leader to put in the work necessary to build character and trust. Responsibility cannot exist without accountability, and it also cannot exist without courage.
South Africa in 2017 and going forward must navigate weak growth, tight monetary policy, high unemployment, and a struggling tax base. Infrastructure problems and a shortage of skilled labour compund these challenges. Stark inequality also remains a problem, but although growth is forecast to be weak, it is expected to improve in 2017. Meeting South Africa’s National Development Plan goals by the year 2030 can be done, but it will require focused effort, starting with South Africa’s business and political leadership.
Difficulties remain, but the break with the past that took place during the 1994 elections heralded a new South Africa, one with tremendous promise that can be fulfilled through outstanding leadership in both business and the public sector. The development of coalition administrations in South Africa will allow smaller political parties to play larger roles, and while this raises hopes of more productive pluralism, it also heightens possibilities for corruption. It’s up to South Africa’s leadership, in parliament and in corporate boardrooms, to focus on the positives and take steps to prevent the negatives.
Trust is the closest thing we have to being able to see into the future. It must be earned over time, and it can be lost in an instant. On a corporate or governmental level, unlocking greatness in leadership begins with the C-level leaders themselves who must demonstrate the courage to “think different and think big” while counterbalancing this thinking with heavy doses of vulnerability and humility. One of the great lessons I have learned coaching people like Steve Jobs (Apple), Roger Enrico (PepsiCo) and hundreds of other executives was that their greatest act of courage, in fact, was showing their vulnerability. For Steve Jobs, it took him nearly his entire life to even understand the power of being vulnerable. In the case of Roger Enrico, he learned this vital leadership lesson much earlier. Call it an irony or paradox. The reality is this: no leader can grow and help their organizations grow and transform into agile machines unless this decision is understood, embraced and executed by all leaders and employees.
Great leadership starts with the CEO and the C-level team. That’s why so many leading institutions invest in C-level executive coaching and leadership development initiatives aimed to “raise the bar” on current leaders but they also invest heavily in developing future leaders. This is not about “soft skills” (though they may be addressed as part of coaching and leadership development), but about good business. Like smart business practices, excellent executive coaching delivers quantifiable, bottom-line results. And when exceptional leadership is in place, built upon trust, accountability, and responsibility, those qualities spill over into the organisation as a whole, benefiting all.
I have spent over 30 years helping my executive clients realize their leadership potential with proven coaching and leadership development strategies that produce measurable results. Making the most of a nation’s business climate requires that businesses and public entities invest in their own excellence and ensure that their top leaders have access to the tools and techniques they need to provide leadership that measurably contributes to long-term economic growth.
I am looking forward to my next visit to South Africa the week of July 17th.