Why we need optimistic leaders and how we can make more of them

New centre opening at Henley Business School Africa to focus on understanding, developing and sustaining positive and optimistic leadership on the continent.

In the face of rolling blackouts, rampant corruption, climate change and a gloomy global geopolitical outlook, it can be hard to stay optimistic. But optimism, especially at leadership level, could be a defining feature of a business’s survival and success.

This is one of the core beliefs underpinning the new Henley Centre for Leadership Africa which opens its doors at Henley Business School (HBS) Africa in Johannesburg on Friday, 10 March, as part of the school’s expanding research agenda on the continent.

In a nutshell, the new Henley Centre for Leadership Africa is about recognising, developing, transforming, and sustaining positive and optimistic leadership in Africa. We aim to enable positive change for people, organisations, communities, and society in Africa,” says Professor Danie Petzer, Head of Research at HBS Africa. 

“Even when challenges overwhelm at every turn, there have always been leaders who can create a positive and ethical mindset that is able to help and motivate their people – and their customers and other stakeholders – to keep moving forward with purpose,” says Prof Bernd Vogel, the founding director of the Henley Centre for Leadership, at Henley Business School, University of Reading in the UK – a sister centre of the HBS Africa centre. 

It's important to identify and share those individual and shared leadership processes and capabilities that are making an impact, and to understand what’s working, adds Prof Vogel. “Admittedly, there is a lot going on that doesn’t work and leadership is under pressure globally. Yet, if we focus on what really works and stretch our imagination towards leadership optimism, we have a lot to gain. 

“It is for example imperative to be realistic about what senior management teams should be expected to achieve, and then to create the right environments and situations in which they operate to support these expectations. What would the effect on senior management team impact be if the parameters were defined and organisations created safe spaces for top-level employees to show up and perform?” 

A recent study that investigated the impact of a series of positive psychology interventions in a US health centre found that the percentage of respondents who reported that they were happy at work went from 43% to 62% after they participated in the workshop on creating positive mindsets on the team. Individuals feeling burned out “often” dropped from 11% to 6%. Individuals reporting “high stress at work” dropped by 30%. In the long run this translated into a stronger bottom line. 

Prof Petzer says that the new African-based centre will be looking to develop similar case studies in an African context to build out African knowledge on this critical aspect of business to inform African success. “When margins are tight and stakes are high, we need to be aware of every lever that could boost performance and then find ways to track and sustain this. Africa faces its own social, environmental, and governance challenges and related stakeholder management. As such, it has important insights that can inform the world. Knowledge like this can help build economies and we believe that African knowledge in particular has a key role to play in building a stronger world.” 

The new Henley Centre for Leadership Africa honours and advances HBS's strong heritage and reputation as a pioneer in the thinking and practice of leadership. It has already kicked off several research projects including an initiative that is looking at the attributes and energy dynamics of healthy, high-performing senior management teams, and their impact on individuals and society in an African leadership context. The centre also started an initiative in association with the Latin American Council of Management Schools (CLADEA) that is looking at the impact of situational leadership on project outcomes in times of crisis. Senior management teams, those top-level groups helping to steer a company's direction, play a pivotal role in creating alignment and achieving impact, yet they may remain an underutilised resource in Africa," concludes Vogel. "We are going to change that."


Photo caption: Dr Dulcy Rakumakoe, CEO of Quadcare, Prof Bernd Vogel, Director of the Henley Centre for Leadership, and Dr Melani Prinsloo from Infusion Knowledge Hub shared their thoughts on creating optimistic leadership in Africa at the launch of the Henley Centre for Leadership Africa.

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