Sociopolitical volatility, economic and financial challenges, rapid advances in technology, globalisation and the Covid-19 pandemic are placing today’s leaders under profound pressure. To continue to advance the African renaissance in the face of these challenges requires robust leadership.

A recent Business Day Dialogues LIVE event, in partnership with Unisa Graduate School of Business Leadership (Unisa SBL), focused on how organisational leadership can be optimised in an SA context, and considered what leadership within the African context entails.

Many organisations that have adopted Western traditions battle with the concept of leadership in an African context, said Joanne Joseph, the moderator of the event.

What makes leadership in Africa unique are the values that African leadership espouses: collaboration, community and ubuntu, against a backdrop of excellence, says professor Pumela Msweli, executive dean and CEO of Unisa SBL.

Prof Anton Grobler, the area head for responsible leadership at Unisa SBL, said most organisations and literature have adopted Western leadership models, which are not always appropriate for the local context.

He shared empirical evidence about African behavioural taxonomy, pointing out subtle differences in Western and African leadership styles. SA tends to be focused on the internal environment and relationships, forgetting about external stakeholders. US leaders are expected to drive innovation, unlike their African counterparts. US leaders focus on individual performance compared with the emphasis on group performance locally.

Three doctors of business leadership students are conducting research into different areas of leadership in the local context. Kerryn Powell’s research has been focused on understanding the notion of ubuntu leadership, in particular how the community concept of togetherness and caring translates into the organisational environment. Powell says that a strategic decision to incorporate the ubuntu principles into an organisation is a more sustainable one in the long term.

Khumbulani Sibanda has focused his research on examining the role of spiritual — not to be confused with religious — leadership and how these translate in the company culture. 

Eben Enslin’s research is on the role leadership places in driving success in SA businesses. Leadership is an evolving practice. Given the complexity of the local environment, he said leaders need to be self-aware and empathetic.

Underpinning all three bodies of research is the concept of ethical leadership.

One of the most important functions of tertiary education institutes is community engagement, said Msweli. The learning from the research being conducted at Unisa SBL are being used by Unisa’s urban-rural linkages programmes, which link urban businesses with micro-rural businesses and provide skills to SMMEs to allow them to better navigate the new normal.