Monday, 28 April 2008

Leadership lessons: finding meaning in the regional crises

There are major leadership issues in Southern Africa. This is exemplified in events in Zimbabwe, at Eskom and the recent positions taken by SADC on the Zimbabwean crisis. All these flashpoints illustrate that when leaders and leadership fail, the public gets the short end of the stick (and endure additional and unnecessary pressure, burdens and suffering).

In Zimbabwe, the main political leaders have taken advantage of the population for many years; at the same time, these leaders in the ruling party have managed to get vast numbers of Zimbabweans to continue to vote for them in successive elections. At present, the ruling party, Zanu-PF, with its controlling tentacles in all state institutions, has stifled release of election results and has for many weeks blocked the ascension of a new government into power. In the April elections, Zimbabweans have at last exercised their vote to remove Zanu-PF from office; however, ordinary Zimbabweans, by and large, still shy away from using non-violent means to restore proper functioning of democratic institutions and an to end to repression.

At Eskom, with electricity blackouts arising from a lack of planning and poor strategic management, the leadership has failed to assume responsibility in any substantial sense. The Eskom debacle raises the following: Are institutions accountable to anyone; do they subscribe to any sense of minimum performance requirements for such a strategic entity; do they subscribe to a formerly adopted notion of leadership? If they were and did, how can the organization simply concede failure without any actions – a suspension, a firing, a withholding of bonuses or (at the most limpwristed) a pro forma rebuke of a person or committee – to indicate that the parastatal subscribes to high leadership standards.

The SADC fails to take bold leadership action when a more courageous position is required in the interests of regional justice and regional stability. It would appear a kind of “club” loyalty, and sometimes a historical solidarity between heads of state, takes precedence. Certainly, we can see that regional leaders and heads of state would want to be polite and “chommie-chommie” with each other, but should they protect each other at all costs? Should they avoid speaking up during a regional crisis or in the face of a member state’s systematic viciousness against its citizens? The people of the region have expectations of SADC. These expectations will never be fulfilled if the SADC does not see itself as a body that must provide bold leadership, if it does not set membership ground rules and if the collective does not require that members be in good standing in terms of such rules.

When leaders go off the rails, especially national leaders, it is often not just leaders that are failing; in many cases it is in fact a failure of the entire leadership system.

In situations of such failure - depending on how followers react - a big question mark often hangs over followers. A good leadership culture requires followers that are active, on their toes and alert about what they are entitled to. Whether we like it or not, we as followers get the quality of leadership we deserve/ are prepared to work for/ are prepared to struggle for. We get the leadership systems that we are prepared to build and sustain. A failure of leadership may also suggest that an erosion of leadership and of leadership culture in political parties and other influential organizations. In such formations, systems of accountability and succession planning may not be functioning properly and are most likely not working to replace moribund leaders who are out of touch with the current context.

Finally, the collapse of leadership culture may mean that formal institutions are failing; institutions set norms and boundaries for what leaders may or may not do. When leadership problems take the form of excesses – attacks on human rights, corruption, misuse of powers, failure to fulfill a legal duty to act – institutions measures should kick in and ensure corrective action is taken. However, if perverse and destructive leadership hangs around for years or decades, their hands firmly on the reins of power, then key institutions urgently need rebuilding or rejuvenation.

Leadership as discussed here includes but is broader than the skills, behaviors and performance of individual leaders. Leadership should be seen as:
a system;
a set of relationships; or
a culture (in the sense of agreed norms and practices).

In this regard, leadership can be seen as the expectations we have, the consequences which follow poor leadership and the demand for good leadership.

It is necessary to refer to expectations as they refer to the standards that prevail in the community or in companies regarding leadership. However, “expectations” are still relatively passive - necessary but insufficient. Just having them says nothing about what happens when leadership expectations are disappointed. If “consequences” (e.g. that you be stripped of your leadership position in certain circumstances) as well as the “demand” for good quality leadership are part of the process, it would speak of a more vibrant leadership culture.

From this, one can see how important followership is. What are the things that make up good followership? I suggest these aspects are important: A sense that you are entitled to good leadership, being alert and critical, voting in an intelligent manner, calling on leaders to provide information and reportback, mutual accountability between leaders and followers, and openly expressing views on issues so leaders know what followers feel and think.

I hope these reflections contribute in a small way to an agenda for change in Southern Africa. To a process that moves us beyond crises and towards fulfilling the potential of the region. If we can draw out critical lessons about governance in the region, then maybe – just maybe – there will be some meaning in the crises we are experiencing.

As usual, readers comments and replies are welcomed!

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