What a road accident can teach us about leadership amid challenges
Those who offer to help are the sort of leaders South Africans need to pull themselves out of our quagmire
N boer maak ’n plan.I’m going to take this local adage one further, and — at the risk of upsetting my fellow countrymen of Dutch descent — say that I believe this statement applies to all South Africans. In the face of adversity, and despite the odds stacked against us, we make a plan.
We’re more than au fait with extreme turbulence; we know how to operate under challenging conditions.
Those South Africans who emigrate to places such as the UK, Australia and US typically do well for themselves. When we find ourselves out of the pressure cooker and in “greener pastures” we’re recognised for our tenacity, energy and resilience. Even in other countries where it’s pretty tough to do business, South Africans shine.
Consider the recent looting, the skyrocketing unemployment, state capture, the unanimous “junk status” from the ratings agencies. Yes, it’s a road accident of disastrous proportions, but there are lessons here too. If we can find a way to survive the accident, we have the potential to become better drivers.
Perhaps the mistake we make is that we have a tendency to elevate our presidents to icon status. We perceive them as infallible, we need them to have all the answers and we expect them to lead us without fear or favour — across a playing field that is far from even.
Consider SA’s initial response to the Covid-19 pandemic — the declaration of a national state of disaster and lockdown level 5. It was indisputably clear, firm and speedy. It was the epitome of leadership.
It was also at this critical juncture that many developed nations flailed, declining to acknowledge the severity of the situation and act accordingly. And their citizens paid the price.
South Africans responded well to this definitive early stance from our leaders.
While it was a time of fear and uncertainty, there was also a tangible spirit of ubuntu —a word corporate SA loves to throw about to demonstrate its African-ness. We knew it was going to be tough, but we were all in it together.
Fast forward several months and our rose-tinted glasses have been unceremoniously shattered. Punitive and often nonsensical lockdown measures crippled the economy. Corruption accelerated, while our vaccine rollout moved at a glacial pace. But perhaps this is not quite accurate; a glacier adrift can move with relative speed — just ask those on board the Titanic.
While the immunisation programme can now progress, we are still trailing well behind the developed world — and even Morocco in northern Africa has fully vaccinated about 46% of its population. Compare this with SA’s estimated 13%.
We’ve lost critical ground, which we need to regain — and fast. Our country depends on it. We need to make a shift from focusing solely on the leadership of our president to ensuring there is a strong leadership structure in place; a team that is ready and equipped to serve, execute and deliver.
While the private and nonprofit organisation sectors are far from infallible, we’ve seen inspiring demonstrations of leadership during these times. Business for SA supported the government throughout the pandemic, and there are remarkable success stories from this collaboration.
Young Presidents’ Organisation (YPO) Africa, a network consisting of more than 900 of the continent’s most prominent business leaders, is another example of an organisation that pulled together as never before in the face of a crisis.
When the national state of disaster was announced, an action plan was rapidly devised that aimed to support across key pillars, covering everything from basic relief measures such as food security to business funding support.
This response was developed and executed in a matter of days thanks to a network of experienced leaders who were well versed in the need to be decisive in a crisis, tackling the problem quickly and head on.
So what can we learn from these examples? How do we become better leaders? When approaching the scene of an accident, there are those who freeze behind the wheel, waiting for someone else to respond. Others might reverse and get the hell out of there as quickly as possible. Then there are those who approach the scene of an accident and see how they can assist.
I see this playing out each day in a business context, and it is the latter sort of person we need right now. The sort of leader we need to be. We then need to ask ourselves: what determines our response in a time of crisis? Are we fully conscious and aware of the role we can play? What are the values that make us who we are, which we stand by? What gives us our sense of purpose, and does this align with the opportunity? We need to change tack, and run towards the problem.
Finally, we need to ignite our networks. One of the things I’ve learnt from my time as chapter chair of YPO Gold Johannesburg is the power of a highly co-ordinated peer-topeer approach in effecting ripples of change that have the potential to become tsunamis. We need to be intentional in leveraging these relationships towards the betterment of our fellow South Africans.
We are entering a whole new era. People want to work with, buy from and invest in businesses they believe in. Businesses now have an opportunity to truly demonstrate their purpose and make a meaningful contribution to society. This, in turn, will give us the kind of impact and sustainability that profit — on its own — never can.
WE’VE LOST CRITICAL GROUND, WHICH WE NEED TO REGAIN — AND FAST. OUR COUNTRY DEPENDS ON IT
BUSINESSES HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY TO TRULY DEMONSTRATE THEIR PURPOSE AND MAKE A MEANINGFUL CONTRIBUTION TO SOCIETY