by Marius Meyer

A CALL FOR ACTION

South Africa needs a leadership standard

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When we consider the current problems in organisations and society in general, it is evident that we face a leadership vacuum in business, government and society. While we can indeed be proud of pockets of excellence in both the private and public sectors, the reality is that excellence remains exceptions and not the norm. Therefore, we have reached the stage of a serious need to develop norms for leadership. We will not appoint an engineer without an engineering qualification, yet we let engineers report to leaders without leadership skills doing harm to followers, customers, the environment and society at large. This article challenges the reality of the leadership crisis, including the factors causing the crisis, but also offers the solution to building good leaders so that leadership in itself becomes the key success factor to organisational and national success.

Last week, we were all inspired by the CEO of Business Leadership South Africa, Bonang Mohale when we publicly committed business leaders in ridding the country from fraud and corruption, and to transform companies in developing black leaders as top managers. I am inspired by this commitment, and with the South African leadership project I want to support Business Leadership South Africa in a tangible way. Bonang has given us hope that business will come to the party in creating a better country for all its people in which the common good supersedes self-interest.

There is a total lack of leadership in many spheres of society. When the World Economic Forum annual session in Davos, Switzerland convened in January this year, the theme was responsible leadership, less than two months after Americans elected their most “unpresidential” president, Donald Trump. Since then, his popularity ratings have gone down. In South Africa, we also face a crisis in leadership, so much so that we have ran out of role models and leaders. Any person putting up his hand to enter a leadership position, is accepted by followers and the absolute lack of accountability and consequences management, has resulted in society adopting an “anything goes” mentality on leadership. The current factional battles in the ruling party exacerbates the problem to the extent of the media and public have now become the only trusted independent judges, and the narrative in their mind is the often one-sided minimalistic and simplistic categorisation of ethical versus non-ethical leaders, let alone their level of effectiveness as leaders in driving specific organisational or societal outcomes.

Given the leadership crisis, I asked myself: What is the solution? Is it possible that leaders are totally oblivious to their incompetence as leaders? How did we get into this mess in the first place? How come that leaders have no insight into their lack of leadership? How come that leaders do not have a conscious at all? How does a leader go to bed at night, knowing full well that s(h)e did not add any value as a leader during the day? How is it possible that leaders don’t care at all? Or are they simply unconsciously incompetent?

In 2013 the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP), developed the world’s first set of national human resource (HR) standards to guide HR teams in applying a consistent set of HR practices aligned to the overall goals of business. We had a situation that any person ended up in HR and could do what they wanted to, but we then decided to start the process of “cleaning up” the HR profession.

The solution to the leadership crisis is a leadership standard. This year the HR project is expanded to include a leadership standard for managers. The objective of the leadership standard journey is ultimately to create a set of leadership standards for the country.

It aims to inform stakeholders and clearly position their role in the leadership landscape, as well as to motivate people in business and government, and civil society with the knowledge and power to take action.

A ‘hands-off’ approach to leadership issues is no longer an option. Leaders need a framework with a clear standard on what is acceptable and unacceptable leadership behaviour. In fact, the standard must be so strong that barriers to entry must be raised significantly and leadership development must be compulsory for all leaders. For example, if you are unethical, you do not quality for leadership. The King IV Code on Corporate Governance for South Africa starts with the premise that board members as leaders of the governing body must be ethical and effective. This principle assumes that unethical and ineffective leaders should not be on governing bodies. How can you direct an organisation into the future if you are driven by self-interest, greed and other unethical and destructive leadership thinking and not the greater common good in terms of the stakeholders of the organisation?

The right leadership practice will enable the right staff and stakeholder behaviour, thereby leading teams, organisations and the nation towards success. Inevitably, with SABPP having raised the bar on HR practice, attention is drawn by many stakeholders to the parallel need to raise the bar for the people management skills and behaviours of organisations’ leaders and its managers at all levels of the organisation.

The SABPP sees leadership as the first in a list of key people practices that managers need to master for proper governance and performance. Once the leadership standard is in place, other people management standards can follow. These people management standards should cover guidelines on how to manage people such as teamwork, delegation, dealing with conflict and ethics management.

I am inviting leaders to join me for a national conversation on leadership on 14 September in Kyalami, Johannesburg. But this will not be a talk shop, but a leadership factory or shop. We will create a common understanding of the leadership we desire to become a winning nation. If we continue to be unsuccessful in our leadership journey, our current problems of unemployment, poverty, inequality and zero economic growth will simply be perpetuated. Thus, the leadership standard project is a leadership factory and we will then sell it to the nation in getting their buy-in and support.

As partners in developing this unique leadership journey, an opportunity is created to reach a common understanding of the demands of leadership which can serve two important functions:

  • To present to leaders in simple terms what is expected of them; and
  • To form the basis from which to understand current failures of leadership in many sectors.

And surely we want to set ourselves up for success and prevent further leadership failures. From here, we can identify specific actions to improve leadership at all spheres in South Africa. The country calls on leaders to share, develop and create the leaders they want to see. If the sustainability of organisations is our aim, we should only have leaders who are interested in sustainability. And if we cannot trust our leaders to sustain our organisations, our future is already at stake.

Within an organisation, especially those with multiple sites, inconsistencies in leadership and people management practices occur. The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that leaders at different levels have different levels of competence. The different philosophies of universities, business schools and other learning providers contribute to the problem, given the fact that some institutions’ management and leadership curriculums are dominated by traditional management approaches developed during the previous century, while current and future demands require a different leadership paradigm and competence.

The result is that students exiting these institutions come from different academic backgrounds based on vastly different schools of thought. In many cases, these students have to be retrained according to the needs of the organisation and its environment, and some companies even go as far to create their own corporate universities to train their own leaders. At least these organisations care about their leaders and their followers, that is the reason why they train them. Those organisations who don’t care at all, also don’t train and develop their leaders.

The enormous body of research and academic writing on the topic of leadership illustrates how complex the concept of leadership can be. On no other topic has more books and articles being written than on leadership, yet every newspaper is a collection of articles on leadership failures – from the front pages, to the sport pages, to the business pages. However, most people taking on leadership roles with the aim of achieving leadership success would like to know in simple terms what is expected of them and how they can continuously improve their leadership skills to achieve greater impact as a leader.

Poor leadership is holding back the development of the South Africa we want to see, in fact without leadership, we will not be successful in achieving the goals of the National Development Plan (NDP), with only twelve years to go. We cannot accelerate NDP implementation if we don’t accelerate leadership development. Therefore, we need commitment to bring forth action and lead with a standard of excellence in leadership.

The effects of poor leadership can be seen across society:

  1. Private companies are limiting their own profits by not leveraging the role of leadership in driving performance, others are simply maximising profits at the expense of key stakeholders such as employees, customers and society at large;
  2. Public service organisations and government departments in all three spheres of government are under-performing when it comes to service delivery and ethics, as a result of ineffective leadership;
  3. Non-profit organisations are stagnating, wasting funding and limiting their own growth or moving backwards, due to a lack of leadership in crafting better strategies and execution plans.

The period 2015-2017 has presented us with several cases of poor leadership in each of the above three categories. Some of the reported cases in the media are as follows:

  • State Owned Enterprises becoming financially compromised, thereby increasing the state’s risk of debt defaults on its contingent liabilities and thus investment ratings agencies downgrading the country;
  • Companies in several major sectors of the economy such as construction charged with collusion and anti-competitive behaviour;
  • Ongoing violent protests at universities and in several towns throughout the country;
  • Several schools achieving (sic) a 0% pass rate in the matric examination, attributed to poor leadership by principals.

Some of the possible causes of leadership failures are as follows:

  • People with functional knowledge or technical expertise move into leadership positions without leadership training or skills;
  • Different and divergent perspectives and definitions of leadership with the result that different leaders try different approaches, some of them failing in practice;
  • Managers attempting to apply management theories from overseas without adapting them to the South African context;
  • A lack of leadership vision and strategy, and many execution gaps;
  • Poor decision-making skills by leaders resulting in disillusioned followers;
  • Ineffective and outdated leadership and management practices frustrating employees and customers;
  • A lack of accountability and responsibility;
  • Poor governance and ethics;
  • Inadequate leadership development inside and across organisations;
  • Managers often do not have the right qualifications and/or the right leadership skills to take their organisations and people forward;
  • Chasing short-term targets at the expense of long-term sustainability and social relevance in the broader society.
  • The results of poor leadership are manifold and include, amongst other things:
  • Waste of resources and disengaged workforces;
  • Inability to perform or compete internationally on key benchmarks;
  • Inability to build and sustain high performance organisation cultures;
  • No or poor corporate citizenship;
  • Slow progress in implementing the National Development Plan (NDP);
  • Poor service delivery;
  • The perpetuation of a “business as usual” approach by not making any difference to the country’s big problems: Education, Inequality, Unemployment, Poverty, Health and Crime;
  • Many lost opportunities to resolve South Africa’s problems as a result of the inability of leaders to form and build effective public-private partnerships.

An explicit standard and approach is needed to utilise the knowledge of South Africa’s good leaders and to replicate and build on their successes. Good leadership should become the norm and not the exception, hence the need for a leadership standard that spans across industries, sectors and spheres of society. Exceptional leadership is needed to take organisations, industries and South Africa as a country forward.

It has been said so many times that we get the leaders we deserve. We elect and appoint leaders and while leaders are failing, followers are failing, organisations are failing and society is failing. We are failing because we don’t have a clear picture on what good leadership is about. In the absence of an explicit leadership standard, we are risking our future by following leaders who are good at making a lot of noise and misleading us into a very uncertain and unstable future, thus going nowhere slowly with outdated and empty slogans and little action before we regress into our eventual demise. We need leaders who can provide us with hope, direction and inspiration towards a bright future (not a mediocre or better future). We need excellence, not mediocrity. Conventional wisdom will not take us anywhere, we need fundamental change and transformation into a new world that does not exist currently. The sky is not the limit, it is the beginning.

Against the backdrop of the leadership crisis, the development of a national leadership standard will assist in mobilising and developing authentic leaders to rise to the occasion with clear guidelines for leadership practice. An honest conversation will form the foundation, followed by focused collaboration and action. As authentic leaders we will recognise our shortcomings and get help, but individually and collectively commit to improve our leadership based on a clear standard of action.

The standard will be developed in a collaborative manner and formally launched at the 5th Annual HR Standards conference on 26 October.

In the light of the above explanation about the need for a national leadership standard, it is clear that a formal approach is needed to commence with this important initiative to formalise a national approach to first set leadership standards, and then to develop the country’s leadership talent in a focused manner. It is the intention of this project to move away from the current approach of leaders being appointed without leadership skills, but rather to encourage, develop and replicate good leadership behaviour and practices.

The leadership standard journey starts in September 2017, but it will continue through the different phases and milestones of the process until pockets of excellence are replicated to multiply leadership success stories. Also, a leadership network will be formed to ensure that leaders are supported by fellow leaders and leadership experts in ensuring that all leaders are set up for sustainable success. In 2018, further people management standards will be developed in support of the leadership standards. These people management standards will guide all managers to become better managers of people, thereby assisting them to unlock the potential of their people and organisations.

Despite so many examples of poor leadership around us, the leadership journey has started, and we need to ensure its success in creating successful and sustainable organisations. The standard will set the benchmark for leaders, and ensure a framework is available to hold leaders accountable for their behaviour and actions. Now is the time for leaders to rise and set the standard for leadership so that we can realise our potential as a nation in becoming a competitive country.

World leadership cannot be achieved without world-class leaders. We owe it to ourselves and the next generation to have the best possible people in leadership positions – as school principals, rectors of colleges and universities, entrepreneurs, business leaders, student leaders, government departments leaders, municipal leaders, political leaders, community leaders, heads of non-profit organisations or any other entities. The leadership standard will be the legacy of South African leaders, and inspire us to greater heights and tangible actions. This article is a call for action in raising the bar for leaders by setting a leadership standard for South Africa. Let us thrive as leaders and set the tone for creating a thriving South Africa. Please join me in making a contribution to this exciting initiative. We need leaders with a leadership voice and commitment to leadership action. Become involved and follow all the action on hashtags #leadershipstandard and #leadersmustrise

Marius Meyer is CEO of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP), the human resource professional and quality assurance body of South Africa.

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