We can all be like great leaders commit to learning and hold on to a sense of purpose…

Times of late have been a bit of a roller-coaster – even by what passes for normal in this country. We emerged from the festive season to a series of rapid-fire bombshell disclosures by the former chief operating officer of Bosassa, Angelo Agrizzi, which recalibrated how we conceptualise state capture.

The Daily Maverick, 6 March 2019


By Jon Foster-Pedley

TIMES of late have been a bit of a roller-coaster – even by what passes for normal in this country. We emerged from the festive season to a series of rapid-fire bombshell disclosures by the former chief operating officer of Bosassa, Angelo Agrizzi, which recalibrated how we conceptualise state capture.

Then most of us who had been buoyed by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s state of the nation address and his plans to deal with one of the most toxic legacies of that kleptocracy; Eskom, only to have the country plunged into a new series of unprecedented Level 4 rolling blackouts. Our mood seemed to follow suit. This is not a new phenomenon for us – neither the load shedding nor the national depression.

Our problem isn’t unique. We suffer from dramatic thinking, a bipolar intellectualism if you like. We respond to the lurching highs and lows and lose sight of the long, smoothed trends. The brilliant theorist Hans Rosling speaks about this in his book Factfulness, using the example of poverty. The world is better off than it was a century ago; the percentage of people living in absolute poverty has declined immensely – that’s a statistical fact. But because people’s lived reality doesn’t reflect this, they dismiss it out of hand.

It’s a little bit like Ramaphosa’s much vaunted New Dawn. We are in a far different place in this country than we were two years or even a year before, but because it doesn’t feel like it, many people are starting to see it as a false dawn into a very gloomy future. This happens because we dramatize our thinking as we sit in the dark or peer at each other during another night with candles.

Rosling explains it like this: if you take a bell curve, we will observe the extremes and extrapolate it into the centre where things are actually boring and possible ambiguous. It’s one of the root causes of racism. We take extremes and then stereotype that onto everyone who looks different to us. We have to wean ourselves of this addiction, this bipolarity not just here but on the rest of the continent where the narrative is either hope or despair – despite the actual long-term trends which posit the opposite.

Psychotherapist Viktor Frankl emerged from the horrors of the concentration camps to found a new dogma of existential analysis which he called logo therapy and explained in his seminal book “Man’s search for meaning”. He survived two of the worst Nazi death camps; Auschwitz and Dachau, spending his time trying to establish what made a person survive. The optimists he found would inexorably be worn down in their lived hell, while the pessimists would suffer the same fate – unable to make sense of the horror. The tragic optimists though would survive. These were people – who believed that in spite of everything around them, all evidence to the contrary – that life was worth living.

A tragic optimist is almost a counterpoint to the dramatic thinkers that we all seem to be. Dramatic thinkers tend to demonise and fetishize in equal measure, with the objects of their loathing or adulation often segueing seamlessly from pinnacle to precipice, but in the process, the dramatic thinkers place themselves in the very groups that Frankl identified – the hopeless optimists and pessimists, neither of whom survive. We want our leaders to be heroes, we want them to be perfect. The truth is they are none of these; they’re human, tainted, vulnerable – some of them are even corrupt. Some might have weaponised theft into state capture, others might steal a little but create more value for the rest in the process.

The bottom line is that our leaders are just like us, but we refuse to accept their ordinariness. It’s abject proof of our lived level of despair that we create these icons and clutch to them – and then pin almost impossible expectations upon them increasing our despair when they fail or are shown up. It comes back to the old question famously asked by that great South African grown captain of industry Norman Adami; do we want a world of dreams or do we want to make reality our friend? When we refuse to accept the inherent humanity of our leaders and their associated imperfection, we dissuade ourselves from ever stepping up to the challenge of becoming leaders ourselves, because we are scared of being found out.

We need to accept our imperfections and overcome them just like other leaders do. The best leaders, the great statesmen of the world, understand that leadership is a role that they put on to achieve the purpose at hand and are able to shed that mantle when the purpose is achieved and go back to being ordinary human beings once more. They just allow themselves to take on the attributes of leadership while they need to. The best leaders are not just great characters, they have great character.

We can all become better, even great leaders; the first step is holding our leaders to account, which we don’t do. We should see our leaders as performance objects and treat them as such, rewarding them when they do perform and sanctioning them when they under-perform, by replacing them if need be. We can only do this through a free and wholly transparent media, holding them to task without fear, favour – or agenda. But also supporting and recognising good performance.

We also need to start preparing our leaders for the roles they take on, like they do in China. If you’re an aspirant politician, you start off being entrusted with the running of a large village or a small town by their standards – like Welkom in the Free State. If you excel, you get given a bigger town to administer, like Johannesburg. It’s the same in corporate life, where it is humbling to see young managers taking on and running massive corporate projects. Through all of this they are learning deep skills in management and administration and they’re being tested and forged, hearing from their stakeholders – whether voters or shareholders all the time – learning accountability.

They’re no different from us, they’re just trained differently and they have a vastly different approach and understanding of scale which allows them to master large projects and deliver them. We can be like them, there’s nothing stopping us – we just need to ditch the dramatic thinking, own our frailties and hold very tightly to our sense of purpose that makes everything worthwhile and keeps us on track to achieving what we set out to do. And commit to relentless, never-ending learning.

Jon foster-Pedley is dean and director Henley Business School, Africa.

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