Leadership Lessons Continue From a Tumultuous Year

21 Jan 2016

Leadership Lessons Continue From a Tumultuous Year

This year has certainly been a tumultuous one for many South Africans. Events affecting almost all of us, such as #feesmustfall, load-shedding, water-shedding and the rand-sliding, especially since Nhlanhla Nene was removed as finance minister, have dominated our headlines.

At the core of many of these and other issues our country is grappling with, is one central challenge – a lack of strong, credible and effective leadership. What are the leadership lessons we can learn from some of the major events that have shaped our economy and society this year?


  • Senior leaders need to be appointed on merit only. We can no longer afford to appoint leaders based on patronage – South Africa needs leaders with credible experience that the market respects, with a track record of success. The recent appointment of the highly experienced Brian Molefe as the group CEO of Eskom, who stepped down as CEO of Transnet to take up his new role, is without a doubt a step in the right direction. The struggling power parastatal does seem to have experienced a turnaround since his appointment, with far less load-shedding as a result. Mark Barnes is another good example of a private sector CEO entering into the public sector when he took up the position of Post Office CEO.
  • Proper due diligence to investigate leaders’ track record is essential. Over the past year, a number of high-profile executives were exposed as having cheated on credentials and faked their qualifications. It has become crucial for companies to conduct a thorough due diligence with regard to candidates’ professional qualifications, stated skill sets and track record. This is where the services provided by leading executive search firms are invaluable – making use of the services of an expert executive leadership firm will remove any possibility of appointments being made on patronage, thereby increasing corporate credibility and reducing reputational risk.
  • The ability to communicate with all stakeholders is crucial. This may include cross-generational communication, via all possible channels, including social media. The recent #feesmustfall student-led protest movement across South Africa is a good example of both success and failure in this regard. The students – who were organised across divides of race and social class – communicated a very coherent message around the aim of their campaign, and they ultimately achieved what they had set out to do. The same cannot be said for the leaders they were addressing their concerns to, however – the arrogance with which certain government ministers and senior leaders responded was alarming. These leaders clearly failed to communicate in a way that showed they were taking cognisance of the frustrations of the millennial generation – the future leaders of our society.


As an emerging market, South Africa has much to offer on the international stage. After a four-year decline, the country returned to the top 50 of the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive Index. There is confidence in our securities exchange – the same index has ranked the JSE the top securities exchange in the world in terms of regulation. South Africa’s corporate leadership in general is highly regarded, and the country is, despite government intervention, still regarded as the best gateway into Africa. It is also still a destination of choice for expatriates wanting to resettle here, and there are pockets of excellence in all sectors of our economy.

The issues South Africans have grappled with over the past year present a tremendous opportunity for corporate leaders to step up to the plate and take ownership of providing solutions to some of these challenges. That they have already done so in many cases is an encouraging development. What our country sorely needs is more ‘totem’ leaders – leaders that are highly visible, that South Africans can rally around. We need leaders who can step forward and say: “I am the leader, it is my responsibility, hold me accountable.”