South Africa Deserves Investment in Wiser Business Leaders

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The corporate leadership failures in South Africa of the last few years demand that we approach leadership differently.

BY Associate Professor Kosheek Sewchurran

The last few years have raised some serious questions about South Africa’s corporate leadership. Business had a real opportunity to show its value to society in contrast to a severely compromised government, but it failed the test.

African Bank’s collapse in 2014 was the first high profile leadership failure of this decade. The report from the Myburgh Commission that examined the bank’s demise found that the company’s board had acted negligently and recklessly, while CEO Leon Kirkinis was accused of hubris and refusing to take advice to adopt more prudent accounting policies.

More recently a number of company leaders have been found wanting in their response to state capture. Instead of identifying what was happening and raising the alarm, senior management at the likes of KPMG, SAP and McKinsey did exactly the opposite. They turned a blind eye to problems in the relationship between Gupta-owned companies and the state because they were profiting themselves.

Then, at the end of last year, it emerged that Steinhoff’s financials may have been manipulated for years. CEO Markus Jooste resigned under a cloud, and it remains unclear whether the company will be able to dig itself out of the hole he appears to have created.

As a country that has a proud history of developing outstanding entrepreneurs and business leaders, these failures have been a stain on South Africa’s reputation. Collectively, we have had to examine what went wrong with our corporate governance that these kinds of things were allowed to happen.

Business schools have also had to reflect on what we can do to ensure that they don’t happen again. What is our role in making certain that the Guptas, Jooste or Kirkinis are not the kinds of leaders for which South Africa is known?

As part of the EMBA programme at the UCT Graduate School of Business, we have grappled with this extensively. It is not just a question of how we produce leaders that will act ethically, but how we produce authentic leaders with purpose.

One of the most important things we have come to recognise is that teaching theory alone is insufficient. Simply imparting concepts and expecting them to be applied in practice is largely ineffective.

This is because managers don’t operate on a plane removed from the activity around them, where they can employ abstract, rational thinking to lay out their options and pick the most applicable theory. They are constantly in situations that require on-going adjustments and adaptations rather than pre-designed plans.

Put another way, we can teach theory, but we can’t teach wisdom. That only comes from practice, and experience.

Even more than that, it requires the ability to reflect on what you have experienced. It comes from trying things out, refining what you are doing, and having the ability to evaluate whether you achieved what you intended.

What we have discovered is that this ability to turn everyday management practices into learning opportunities is not just possessed by a few particularly gifted people. It can be taught, and learnt. It starts, critically, with mindfulness. Some years ago that might have sounded quite new age, but the practice of mindfulness has become mainstream in the business world.

Put simply, mindfulness is keeping your mind fully attending to what is currently happening to you, what you are doing, and where you are. With that comes the ability to observe what you are thinking or feeling, and a greater curiosity about where each action leads.

Mindful leaders are less reactive, and more responsive, they adapt more quickly as situations change, and they are more able to regulate their emotions. They are, critically, far more authentic.

When you are being authentic, there is direct agreement between what you are feeling and what you are doing and saying. You are also more deliberate about the actions you take. Authentic leaders don’t allow hubris to cloud their judgement. They don’t mislead or manipulate those around them. And they don’t fiddle the books.

These are the kinds of leaders South Africa needs to be developing, and within the EMBA programme, we are seeking to do exactly this by teaching the practice of mindfulness, together with reflection on concepts to reshape an understanding of mundane, everyday management practices.  Philosophers would call this “being” and “becoming” – phrases that are likely to make their way into everyday business language in much the same way mindfulness has.

We called our intervention Phronesis Development Practices (PDP), borrowing the Ancient Greek term for practical wisdom used in Greek philosophy. It required students to reflect every day on their moods, tensions and personal practices.

The first realisation that comes from PDP is usually that it is hard to sustain. It is not always easy to find the time. Even that, however, is the start of an important reflection because students are confronted with how relentless their lives are. Hopefully that leads to deeper reflections about unnecessary or unhelpful habits that they can do without, and are often the cause of unnecessary friction.

As their reflections become deeper, they discover more about themselves and how they work. The feedback from students is that by reflecting and recalibrating every day, they grow more aware of the choices they are making and the values that inform what they are doing. They are also more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses.

One of the most important things they discover is that they are less likely to simply gravitate to the path of least resistance. Their actions are more deliberate, and more authentic.

We aren’t so self-important as to claim that this is the solution to all our leadership worries, but a new generation of executives following these practices might encourage a very different approach from businesses in South Africa. They would also be far less likely to allow for the next African Bank or Steinhoff to slip by unnoticed and that would be good news for our economy and society as a whole.

Kosheek Sewchurran is the acting director of the UCT Graduate School of Business.

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