Good leaders are humane and inclusive

Dr Siphokazi Ntetha discusses what will constitute good leadership in the future.

Near the end of 2018, I ran a think tank with emerging leaders in South Africa from varying industries to help me reimagine a leadership that works. I invited some of the brightest people I know to a session in my Joburg Airbnb apartment on a Sunday and promised them great conversation, aha moments, a hearty home cooked meal, and crossed my fingers that someone would show up.

At around 3 pm that Sunday, I had a sizeable and quite diverse group which included IT professionals in banking, business and change consultants, academics, bloggers, a lawyer, and even a spiritualist. My co-facilitator and I posed three main questions:

  1. What is an observation or experience of leadership that made a difference in your life?
  2. What shifts are needed for leadership to help us prosper?
  3. Imagine being part of a movement that facilitated these shifts, what are the tangible things we could start doing tomorrow?

My aim was to begin a multidisciplinary conversation of what people considered good and effective leadership to be, how it made them feel, and how we can all get involved in creating it. I was also low-key establishing what Simon Sinek would call “the WHY” of my business. I needed a purpose.

Through a six-part series, which I’ve titled “the future of leadership”, I will unpack what we discussed, revealing "the WHY" of our emerging organisation and the work we are engaged in. To lay the foundation work, I will begin the series by discussing some fundamental beliefs about leadership that the group articulated:

  • Great leaders are authentic humans.
  • Great leaders keep their word.
  • More people can participate in leading than those in leadership positions.
  • Leaders do not have all the answers.
  • Through individual and collective action we can create better futures (in our lifetime).

Soft vs. hard leadership qualities 

This moved me to believe that the leaders we need and want have qualities that are more humane and inclusive. When I think about a fitting example of this, I am drawn to the leadership shown by New Zealand's Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, who, after the recent terror attack which shook the nation, held the nation together with a striking example of compassion and respect.

I have been following her leadership for some time, and I can say that this was not the first time she displayed leadership that stood out. During the UN General Assembly in September of last year, I was moved when she said:  

"In the face of isolationism, protectionism, racism — the simple concept of looking outwardly and beyond ourselves, of kindness and collectivism, might just be as good a starting point as any … we must demonstrate that collective international action not only works, but that it is in all of our best interest.”

She is someone that practices what she preaches and whatching her live up to the values she espouses during such a disruptive and tumultuous time seems almost revolutionary. Yet all she did was to go back to the basics of our humanness.

To avoid the usual substitution error, we often fall into where we would now conclude that soft qualities are better than hard qualities, it is important to also state that by elevating these human and humane qualities in the kind of leadership we need, we are not disregarding the value of the ‘hard qualities’ of leaders. 

Prime Minister Ardern also set out to introduce new gun laws to avoid this from happening again and committed financially to support the funerals of the victims, showing both strategic acuity and practicality (often assigned to the harder qualities of leadership).

Another recent example of this kind of boldly human leadership is Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, who when entering office as the new Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town raised 5 million rands to pay off the student debt of 100 students by redirecting the funds allocated to her inauguration ceremony. 

She remarks:“I thought I can sleep better with myself if my entrance into office is done in a way that communicates who I am. Think about it, if you are a mother and have children, you would not throw a party with one of your children's school fees not paid. It is a similar principle for me."

As if that was not enough, she continued to pledge 10% of her salary to fund previously disadvantaged black postgraduate students, which amounts to R200 000 a year. Prof. Phakeng, affectionately known as the “Fab Academic”, (and fab she is), represents a striking display of not merely empathic words and empty promises, but of responsive action, compassion, and a complex account of the economics of caring. 

This kind of leadership has been lost in the endless sea of greed and self-interest that has become an unfortunate trend in people we expect to lead us into a brighter future.