by Marius Meyer

A GUIDELINE FOR LEADERS

The development of a Leadership standard for South Africa

SABPP logo1.jpg

In 2013 the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP) developed the world’s first set of national HR standards to guide HR teams in applying a consistent set of HR practices aligned to the overall goals of business.  This year the projects 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 debate their role in the leadership landscape, as well as to motivate people in business and government with the 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. The right leadership practice will enable the right staff and stakeholder behaviour, thereby leading 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 on the people management skills and behaviours of organisations’ leaders and line managers, and the SABPP has been requested to address this issue. Many of the HR Directors implementing the HR Standards have commented on the lack of leadership and people management skills of their management teams, which is seen as a major obstacle to implementing the HR Standards successfully within their organisations.

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.

As partners in developing this unique Leadership Journey, an opportunity is created to reach a common understanding on 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.

From here, we can identify actions to improve leadership in South Africa. The country calls on leaders to share, develop and create the change they want to see.

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 some companies even go as far to create their own corporate universities to train their own leaders. 

The enormous body of research and academic writing on the topic of leadership illustrates how complex the concept of leadership can be.  However, most people taking on leadership roles would like to know in simple terms what is expected of them and how they can continuously improve their leadership skills.

Poor leadership is holding back the development of the South Africa we want to see, so the SABPP, Talent Talks and Wits have committed 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, 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  model 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.

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, 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 in 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.  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 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. The leadership journey has started, and we need to ensure its success in creating successful and sustainable organisations. 

Marius Meyer is CEO of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP).

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