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Leading in South Africa: Breaking the Patterns of its Past

South Africa is in the doldrums economically. Most would agree. Unfortunately economics affects the fabric of every society and every facet of it — how people think, how they come together or dissent, and what actions they collectively take as a nation.

It is in dire need of a different kind of leadership — and at every level of its society.

A highly fractionalised and corrupt ANC, low quality education, a large unskilled population, high youth unemployment, and increasingly deteriorating public services are just a few examples illustrating the problems the country is facing. New COVID variants that are said to be discovered locally are further dampening the economy and people’s livelihoods.

Recently, many skilled South Africans left the country looking for a better life, giving up hope on their country that they once believed had incredible potential.

Hope is the ultimate human motivation, necessary for survival and tends to serve as the bridge between our greatest fears and our highest aspirations.

But when hope, which helps us develop faith in the potential of our country’s future, is gone, what are we left with? We are left feeling powerless, without a sense of purpose and possibility for a future.

It is a necessity now, more than ever, to instil hope and a sense of possibility in the hearts and minds of South Africans. For that to happen however, we need to focus on building a leadership that is in itself instilled with hope and purpose and a vision.

  1. Vision Based Leadership — have we arrived yet?

Vision

/ˈvɪʒ(ə)n/

noun

1. the faculty or state of being able to see

2. the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom.

Founder and CEO of Discovery (South Africa), Adrian Gore, recommends that we adopt a vision-based leadership approach rather than a problem-centric approach to solving the problems that South Africa currently face. He says, a “vision-based leadership involves acknowledging our country’s progress and creating hope; seeing our problems as real but solvable, and seeking out positive cues alongside negative ones when reading our environment; and recognising the potential of our economy and investing in it.”

This is how change happens. Gore reiterates, in an article on Business Day.

Most people and organisations are familiar with the vocabulary of a vision-based leadership. But the true foundation of a vision-based leadership lies not only in instilling hope in the hearts and minds of the people they serve, but first in acknowledging that our conventional ways of leading are no longer working.

However, there is an incapacity in leadership, everywhere in the world — whether leaders in organisations, countries or institutions — and an unwillingness on their part to admit that conventional ways of leading are no longer working.

One of the reasons for this denial is because most people are not aware of a different type of leading.

Or should we say a different type of learning.

2. The Capacity to “Lead from the Future as it Emerges”

For most people, it is a difficult task — to not learn from our past. We are hardwired to react and solve problems from what we know: what we learn from books, our past and what we learned from others who succeeded and failed in the past. We implement solutions and learnings from the knowledge we acquired from of our past.

That is how the past repeats itself.

There are two ways in which we learn as leaders, says Dr. Otto Scharmer, MIT Sloan School of Management. Most learning focuses on learning from the past. Although “this type of learning is important, it is not enough when we are moving into a future that differers profoundly from the past”.

We are not aware of a unique capacity in us: there is a less well recognised, second type of learning which Scharmer calls “learning from the future as it emerges.”

Leaders are continually confronted with a future that differs profoundly from the past. Scharmer discovered that real innovators and leaders learn from the future as it emerges.

Learning from the future is a capacity that needs to be learned and acquired. After many years of working with leading innovators, organisations and thought leaders of the world, Scharmer developed Theory U.

It is a type of learning that anyone can acquire and as a leader, one is able to approach the root cause of all the challenges (currently facing South Africa) in ways that won’t repeat the failings and patterns of the past.

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