Top futurist, Merle O’Brien ponders the challenges facing our leaders in the years ahead


As the fields of art and science move into a common space, all fields of knowledge are hitting the wall and industries are being disrupted by the reformation of concepts; including the construct of leadership. We live in a world where ‘Millennials and Gen Z’ youth believe they are masters of the universes they explore through games and won’t follow a leader who does not know how to play it—or who plays at too low a level.

Such is the state of affairs in South Africa, as an entire country is kept beneath the ceiling of competency of a game master, where leaders can’t rise to flourish the nation’s full economic potential as everyone is stuck in a low-level development trap.


The world in the 21st century is 5-dimensional, comprising : (1) the natural environment, (2) the human built environment made of technologies created for a mechanised world, (3) the phygital environment, which socially connects people across all realms, (4) the digital/virtual environment, where virtual reality games and cloud-based automation enables artificial intelligence to interact without much human intervention in a space where Industry 4.0, the IoT (Internet of Things), Fake News and Artificial Intelligence thrives, and (5) outer space, with satellite GPS points that create a central axis on which data from all five dimensions come together to provide intelligent analytics—and this dynamic is preparing the way for ‘Big Brother’ (or Mama Afrika) to supersede geographic boundaries on which old power structures were formed.

Rising trends

Most under threat are the banking, retail and energy sectors—with blockchains, P2P payments that bypass conventional banking, the financialisation of food, renewable energy, E-tailing and Uber-type apps shifting value from the built environment to phygital and digital assets. This ‘flatland’ unchartered, uncolonised territory is where first movers in Silicon Valley, India and China are gaining a global advantage. While Afrika has the highest digital absorption in the world, it is on the backfoot in leading digital jurisprudence to regulate how it will play the game for digital property rights, virtual assets, artificial intelligence, dealing with fake news, post-truth and citizen journalism. Even the South African Constitution is outdated.

Where are leaders hitting the wall?

The construct of leadership is changing to embrace values of design thinking, creative intelligence, agile thinking and systemic collaborative strategy in order to survive—instead of Porter-type competition. As warriors for the new (such as the EFF, Uber, Facebook) do battle with bastions of the old (such as the ANC, bricks-and-mortar banks and retailers) Afrikan leaders are caught between the pattern of Verwoerd-style ‘top-down’ politics and Madiba-type inspiration. Systemic Collaborative Strategy is the ethos of leaders of the information age.

What may lie on the other side?

At Blombos Cave in the Western Cape, a team of experts led by Prof. Chris Henshilwoods of Wits University is unearthing archaeological evidence of how the human mind evolved from instinctual responses to intentional, calculated ways of solving problems and designing tools for survival 100 000 years ago. As the world now realises South Afrika as the global home of the new-age business paradigm of design thinking, leaders are recognising similarities between Ubuntu’s values and traits of leadership needed to survive the emerging collaborative, sharing and circular economy on a global scale—such as affordance, symbolism, collaboration, human-centricity and so on.

Yes, by unearthing the old, we can make better sense of the new in order to progress humanity in a wiser way that will flourish our full creative potential, cultivate wiser entrepreneurs who fail less and design products to meet the real unmet needs of Afrika’s people and the world at large.In Masi Township, where I teach kids martial arts at Projekt Ubuntu, the circular economy is thriving at the local car wash happening around the braai stand supporting a local mobile vendor and beer taverner… and the recyclable plastics are turned into lampshades. This is how community leaders are channelling currencies faster on the ground than corrupt government and business processes can deliver goods and services.Yes, Ubuntu is alive and well in the stokvels, car washes and creches of our second economy as it is growing around the world along with Shweshwe inspired intelligent textiles, Mopani worm silk bags and the other symbols of African luxury the world is yet to experience.

What action/tools might get us to the other side?

I ask: What might Madiba have done? What would Dr Frederick van Zyl Slabbert have done? Or any of the great leaders on whose shoulders I was blessed to stand and lead the future. They would have provided intellectual heroism to inspire leaders in a coherent approach to ‘Radical Economic Transformation’, #FeesMustFall, Industry 4.0, climate change, resource depletion, et cetera, on a central axis of leadership values on which to reform the economy by using blockchains to make stock exchange trading as easy as buying a Lotto ticket, incentivise our youth with bonuses for good health, passing matric, delaying parenting and participating in sports and cultural activities. The technology is there to solve humanity’s greatest challenges, but money does not flow and fruits don’t blossom where leaders are not mentally aligned. Reflecting on issues of employment creation, skills development and other ‘fruits and challenges of leadership’ explored in this issue, the writing is on the wall—leaders are standing at a critical turning point in history where Afrika’s wisdom is needed to shine a light to guide humanity in the 21st century.

comments powered by Disqus


This edition

Issue 410


Leadership_Mag Turning leads into clients is what #PersuadeMarketing specialises in - #Leadership sat down with #JaredKoning, owne… https://t.co/7GZWFiatvg 21 hours - reply - retweet - favorite

Leadership_Mag Cranefield College teaches its students how to develop the mindset and behaviour to be collaboratist leaders, with… https://t.co/7JTgkx5LXM 24 hours - reply - retweet - favorite

Leadership_Mag There is a beautiful tranquil nature reserve in an exclusive Wilderness Lodge tightly nestled in Mount Savannah… https://t.co/astcNtek9i 12 days - reply - retweet - favorite