• On good authority

    What’s considered successful business leadership no longer focuses only on outputs but also has to take the sustainability of broader society and the natural environment into account. And in Africa, the concept of ubuntu adds another dimension.

    On good authority

    Ask 10 experts what makes a good business leader and you’ll get 10 different answers. Ask 100 and you’ll get 100 answers. Sometimes you may even get more than that. ‘It’s a tough question,’ a professor from a leading African business school told this magazine. ‘If I answered tomorrow, I’d probably give you a different answer.’

    Leadership theory is a complex science in that it’s subjective, constantly evolving and lends itself to a multitude of approaches and endless possibilities. There’s no universal blueprint for a successful business leader. Perceptions of leadership requirements are not only fluid but they also depend on whom you ask and on trends in the rapidly changing macroeconomic landscape.

    However, certain basic leadership qualities are non-negotiable and apply to any candidate en route to the C-suite. On top of the right professional qualifications, they include integrity, a strong work ethic and being decisive and consistent.

    Historically, leadership research focused on pinning down personality traits of successful leaders, which suggested that a good leader is born – not made. This approach, known as trait leadership, investigates for example the interplay of cognitive abilities, social capabilities and dispositional tendencies. Critics say, though, that effective leadership requires more than a certain personality type because other factors, such as behaviour and context, also play a crucial part.

    Simplified, the other main leadership theories (in addition to that related to traits) are the theories based on behaviour (what does a good leader do?); contingency (how does the situation influence leadership?); and power and influence (where does the leader source their power and how is it used?). One widely discussed theory looks at leadership style, which falls under behavioural theories.

    The list is long and mostly self-explanatory, ranging from autocratic leadership to democratic, strategic, transformational, team, cross-cultural, facilitative, laissez-fair, transactional, coaching, charismatic and visionary leadership styles.

    There is a huge difference between a successful businessperson and an extraordinary leader, maintains Adrian Saville, chief strategist at Citadel and economics professor at the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science, who adds that ‘making a lot of money alone doesn’t make for a great leader’.

    Head of Rhodes Business School Owen Skae echoes this sentiment. ‘You can achieve business success and not be an excellent leader,’ he says, adding that there are many such examples, one being former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, ‘who allegedly stole technology and was filmed during a profanity-laced outburst. His leadership frailties eventually compromised his high performance’.

    Skae adds: ‘Contingency theories of leadership do have merit. In other words, you will sometimes need an authoritarian type of leader to turn a situation around. But after having done so that leadership style is no longer appropriate. Some can’t make the change and overstay their welcome. A good leader recognises that their style is no longer appropriate and makes the decision to move on.’

    The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer finds that global trust in business leaders stands at an all-time low. The firm’s annual trust and credibility survey shows a marked decline in CEO credibility across all 28 surveyed countries, including South Africa, between 2016 and 2017. Referring to the survey, Skae adds: ‘Having said this, the people expressing this view may themselves not be fair in their own perception of this, given that populism is on the rise and self-interest seems to be an increasing global phenomenon, which in turn is exploited by unscrupulous leaders for their own selfish reasons.’

    Margarita Mayo, a professor of leadership and organisational behaviour, has an interesting take on the rise of populist and selfish leaders. She argues that economic and social crises create conditions of uncertainty, which encourage the ascent of charismatic figures and make people more vulnerable to choosing the ‘wrong’ leader.

    Writing in the Harvard Business Review, she says: ‘My own research shows that our psychological states can also bias our perceptions of charismatic leaders. High levels of anxiety make us hungry for charisma. As a result, crises increase not only the search for charismatic leaders, but also our tendency to perceive charisma in the leaders we already follow.

    ‘The paradox is that we may then choose to support the very leaders who are less likely to bring us success. In a time of crisis, it’s easy to be seduced by superheroes who could come and “rescue” us but then possibly plunge us into greater peril.’

    Studies have clearly identified humility, not egotism, as a key ingredient for leadership excellence. An online search comes up with numerous articles on the subject (‘Humble leaders are the most effective’, ‘Six ways humility can make you a better leaders’, ‘Why the best leaders are humble’, and so on).

    Wayne Visser, a South African-born professor of integrated value who holds the chair in sustainable innovation at Antwerp Management School, quotes author Jim Collins, who also found that ego-driven, charismatic leaders are less effective than what he calls Level 5 executives, who build enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and intense professional will. The common characteristics of such leaders are humility, will, ferocious resolve and the tendency to give credit to others while assigning blame to themselves.

    ‘Research that I have done with Cambridge University suggests that there are seven habits of transformational or purpose-inspired leaders: systemic understanding; emotional intelligence; values orientation; compelling vision; inclusive style; innovative approach; and long-term perspective,’ says Visser. ‘If we can celebrate leaders with these characteristics, we are more likely to achieve transformation and a sustainable future.’

    This ties in with Dale Williams’ findings. The Cape Town-based executive coach has seen a massive shift in leadership training over the past decade, from hard business skills to self-awareness and emotional intelligence.

    ‘Ten years ago it was about how to be a strategist, how to plan ahead and how to run finances,’ he says. ‘Now the focus lies on personal growth and sharing – leaders get to learn about themselves and think about relationships and taking time out from work.’

    In a highly competitive market, a business leader will always benefit from having academic degrees, but it’s emotional intelligence and alignment to the organisational purpose and vision that really add value.

    According to Jackie Launder, executive partner at Mindcor, a talent consulting, executive search and recruitment firm: ‘Requirements such as having an executive presence, agility, authenticity, integrity, availability and accessibility, and not leading by proxy are becoming more important. Businesses and employees want their leaders to be involved, and they want to be part of creating the organisations of the future.’

    This supports the new understanding of leadership as a collective effort in which the CEO is an ‘activist-in-chief’ who puts the business before their own ego.

    ‘Great leaders build businesses that last long after their tenure is over, and people want to work for them – not for money but for the experience,’ says Saville. ‘We found that inspiring leadership takes the form of a system that is cultivated or established under a certain leadership – it’s an ecosystem.’

    Business is no longer only about outputs, such as products, services and market share, but also has to take the sustainability of the broader society and natural environment into account. Being a leader in Africa adds another dimension. Or, as Skae puts it: ‘In Africa, cultural intelligence, seeing multiple perspectives, even different realities are essential to business leaders who are committed to ensuring that business makes a better society for everybody.

    ‘In other countries, the rules of business are more or less accepted by most people. Here we have to overcome legacy issues, build sustainable businesses and ensure that our stakeholders actually see that business leaders are making a positive difference in all of our lives in a sincere and committed way.’

    Ameeta Jaga, an organisational psychologist and senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town School of Management Studies, points out that management and leadership practices in corporate South Africa are heavily based on those from the US – a society with pre-dominantly Anglo-based values, which assumes people are motivated by individual reward and where there is greater egalitarianism in relationships.

    She adds: ‘This doesn’t take into consideration the cultural values of many black employees who may place greater value on satisfying collective goals/needs and high-power distance may characterise the employee-manager relationship. It’s a complex issue because it’s so multifaceted and layered by race, as well as by gender and social class.’

    The African ‘ubuntu’ philosophy, in which individuals benefit from pursuing a common good, will require further research in the context of leadership. It’s been suggested that conventional Western business leaders could benefit from promoting the collective spirit of ubuntu to empower and motivate employees, create trust and boost organisational performance. Perhaps it’s time for sub-Saharan Africa to add another variant to the list of leadership styles: ubuntu leadership.

    By Silke Colquhoun
    Images: Gallo/GettyImages