AS I WATCHED the militant group Taliban take control of Afghanistan, ousting the sitting president and his government, I started to reflect on leadership. Very swiftly, as America was finalizing its withdrawal of troops, insurgents stormed across the country, capturing all major cities. It was a stark reminder of how precarious and delicate the concept of leadership is.
In 1994, Brooks Bash poignantly asked if leadership and parochialism or narrow-mindedness were an enduring reality. Yet, with the turn of the century, there was evidently no room for parochialism.
As globalism took hold, leadership stretched beyond the confines of walls and of borders. Strangely enough, when borders closed as nations locked down last year in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, we were once again staring down the barrel of parochialism. How have we managed to fall so woefully behind? We are collectively navigating a particularly challenging period – one defined by the Covid-19 pandemic, the rise in populism and resultingly a rise in intolerance alongside technological shifts at an unprecedented rate.
Perhaps the most stark question we have been faced with against this backdrop is what should leadership look like? How we respond as leaders will be a greater definer of the times. Will parochialism once again define leadership? Historically, we have seen the impact of pandemics, of wars based on intolerance and of industrial revolutions. Though these events soon took their rightful place in the annals of history, the response of leaders has remained stark in our collective memory.
Parallel to the pandemic, we have entered the era of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). The 4IR is changing every facet of society from the way we interact, to how our industries operate to the way we consume. While we have long been on the cusp of the 4IR, it is safe to say our current circumstances have hastened this shift.
As we interrogate leadership against our current and rather grim context, it is apparent that it is not willingness but the arsenal of skills needed to confront a major anxiety that is the essence of leadership. Of course, with the rapid pace of change we now find ourselves faced with, we have to interrogate what these skills should look like.
As we battle the pandemic, I have spent much of my time trying to understand what leadership in the 21st century means. Faced with the seemingly impossible task of righting the ship against a turbulent and unpredictable backdrop, leaders have had to take extraordinary measures, create Marshall plans and deploy resources. As the pandemic rolled into its second year, it became increasingly apparent that leadership could not be discussed in the abstract, or in terms of theoretical frameworks.
Rather, leadership as a practice needs to be interrogated and the layers of complexity have to be unpacked. Though there are various levels of complexities, it is apparent that a leader needs 4IR thinking, which entails the following skills: complex problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, judgement and decision-making, service orientation, negotiation and cognitive flexibility. Importantly, we have to lead from a place of knowledge.
How do we begin to adapt to a changing world, and our changing circumstances, if those at the helm of our country are ill-equipped? For instance, as we modernize and reform our agricultural systems through land reform, we must have sufficient people who are knowledgeable in the political economy of farming to ensure continued food security and global competitiveness. As we tackle the problems of our shrinking industries, we need to understand issues of automation, technology and human capital to improve the quality of life of our people. This fundamentally calls for a reimagining of what it takes to be a leader. Are we ensuring that our engineers, our academics, our scientists and our philosophers are at the fore of leadership? This is crucial if we are to close the gaps that exist.
As we face an ever-changing context, leadership must speak to it. Will we continue to widen our disparities or will we find solutions to some of our most deep-seated inequities? Will we continue to let intolerance define our world order or in the disarray we find ourselves in, will we forge a sense of unity? There are leadership lessons to be learned from the successes and mistakes of the last year. If we are to use the pandemic as a yardstick for leadership strategies going forward, it must remain stark in our minds what accounted for the successes. If we are indeed to tap into the promise and override the peril, we must begin by approaching leadership differently and reimagine what it takes to be a leader in this new world.
By TSHILIDZI MARWALA
The writer is the Vice- Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg, a member of the Namibia 4IR task force and author of the book ‘Leadership Lessons From The Books I Have Read’.