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Back to Index 24 April 2017

Towards a Solution for Business Leadership Crises: Conversations, Conscious and Blended Leadership


There is something systemically and intrinsically wrong with leadership today. One only needs to scan news media to spot failures from the top and the devastating impact of these encroachments on the lives of ordinary South Africans.

Big bank currency collusion scandals, failure in the safety and quality standards of automotive manufacturing components, environmental crimes and state capture are just some of the recent examples that come to mind.

A silver-lining, it would seem is that the pervasiveness of such leadership crises are not entirely exclusive to the South African context. In fact, results of the World Economic Forum’s recent Survey on the Global Agenda showed that 86% of respondents believe the world faces a leadership crisis.   

In this critical moment in time, it becomes deeply worrying that some leaders across the private, public and civil spectra of society lack the moral and ethical compasses, skillsets and self-awareness that are needed to lead their organisations, communities or even countries along a sustainable path into the future.

As a result of this growing crisis, we need to take cognisance of the causes of unsustainable and irresponsible organisational practices, and recognise the types of leadership that are best suited for organisations hoping to succeed in the increasingly complex South African and global business environment.

Essentially, if we are committed to changing and improving the future of leadership in civil society, government and the private sector there are three changes that need to take place right now.

Firstly, we need to encourage a shift away from existing traditional leadership styles towards a more conscious form of leadership. Secondly, leaders need to suspend their authority to give way to  participatory leadership practices through stronger forms of organisational conversations. Finally, we need to celebrate our cultural diversity and unlock the positive and empowering features of leadership practices emanating from them.

Conscious leadership as a new moral and ethical compass

Leaders should move away from – or at least reduce their dependence on – traditional leadership styles that seem to be associated with unsustainable business practices. 

There is an increasing body of evidence which suggests that higher levels of consciousness are required to derive sustainable solutions that consider all life forms. This concept of consciousness needs to be recognised and adopted by forward-thinking, sustainability-focused business leaders.

Conscious leadership employs inspiration, evocation of greatness, mutual trust and truth-telling, and empowers leaders to have strong levels of trust in themselves and in their followers. It is a driver of sustainability competencies, sustainable behaviour and corporate governance focused on achieving sustainability outcomes.

Conscious leadership promotes business sustainability by encouraging long-term thinking focused on the greater good, rather than on short-term benefits. This type of leadership thinking opens up greater opportunities for the creation of social justice, promotes a respect for the natural environmental and ensures that decisions are made with a strong sense of moral and ethical awareness.

 Organisational conversations for participatory leadership to expand skillsets of leaders

As the ‘command and control’ model of organisational leadership is becoming redundant, participatory leadership instituted via organisational conversations is often seen as the panacea to drive organisational performance forward in turbulent times.

One way of instilling stronger forms of participatory leadership is through deepening and increasing the frequency of honest and authentic conversations between leaders and their executives, managers and employees; and between organisations and their stakeholders. 

Participatory leadership mobilises employees, managers and executives to take greater responsibility for success and better organisational performance. It also shifts leadership power away from senior leaders and instead distributes it equally within organisations.

Organisational conversations in support of participatory leadership will allow firms to unlock greater levels of creativity and innovation, improve the self-efficacy of employees and build more performance-driven and inclusive organisational cultures.

The concept, ‘talk less – listen more,’ is an intrinsic element of this form of leadership.

Awareness of blended leadership styles key to succeeding in African, emerging markets

new study by the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) Business School has found that despite their significant differences, Western and African business leadership styles can be blended to form an entirely new construct.

While African leadership approaches have often been criticised for being poorly adaptive to increasingly complex globalised economies, empirical data in this study presents an entirely different picture – one of confident, self-assured African leaders effectively heading businesses that are part of Western multinational corporations operating in emerging markets.

Leaders that blend African and Western leadership styles look at problems and opportunities through facts and logic but also with a strong humanistic approach. They move from individualist leadership styles to leadership which embraces communalism, cooperation and teamwork. In terms of decision-making, they make decisions that are business-oriented, but also rely on the support of colleagues and involve organisational stakeholders.   

This study highlights the need for leaders wishing to succeed in highly competitive African and emerging markets to blend elements of Western pragmatism and African humanism, in order to adopt a leadership style that recognises the importance of fact, logic and the nature of reality, but also promotes the recognition of human-focused and participatory forms of leadership. 

As ongoing leadership crises continue to impact the lives of everyday South Africans, leaders operating in government, the private sector and in civil society at large, need to reassess their current leadership practices, and consider the role that consciousness, conversation and blended cultural approaches can play in the future sustainability of their businesses and organisations.

- Ends –

Professor Cecil Arnolds is the Graduate School Director at Nelson Mandela University Business School.