Where have all the leaders gone?

2014-06-02 00:00

ON May 7, South Africans went to the polls for the fifth time since 1994 to elect a government and leaders to take us forward for the next five years. As I look at the political landscape, I find it extremely difficult to be inspired by any of the leaders who stood for their different parties during this election. Many of them seem to be self-serving and power-hungry individuals who cannot seem to see that leadership is about serving others in a compassionate and caring way as well as acting with integrity, gentleness and decency. Where are all the leaders? As schools we have failed our country if we have not been able to produce leaders who can make a meaningful difference in the world.

World driven by


Margaret Wheatley, a renowned academic and writer with a particular interest in leadership, puts forward some interesting arguments as to why the world is struggling with leadership. In her book So Far From Home, she writes that the world is in a very bad way, for three reasons.

Firstly, she points out that enormous technological advances have created a situation where people have become consumption-driven, opinion-centric and paranoid. “… the irresistible forces of self-making, consumerism and the Internet interacted and fed on one another to begin the spiral of descent”.

Wheatley points out that advertising and reality TV create unworthy heroes and make us want “things”, like cars, houses, gadgets, the latest hairstyle or fashion accessory. An article in Time magazine by Joel Stein pointed out that there has been a significant increase in narcissism. He points out that this generation is known as the “me, me, me” generation. We only think about ourselves. We record our steps on FitBit, our whereabouts on PlaceMe, we use Facebook and Twitter where we tell the world about ourselves and what we are doing. What we have, what we look like and the power we have, have become all important to us.

Wheatley contends: “This consumer culture of manufactured selves has left behind more than half of the Earth’s seven billion people and conscripted millions of poor people to terrible working conditions to produce what we affluent consume.”

Our leaders in South Africa are self-absorbed with their own power and importance, forgetting the millions who are struggling to survive. They use the plight of the poor to talk about what they will do for them but then build mansions for R246 million. They use the poor to garner their vote and then live off the power and influence.

Distracted by technology

Wheatley’s second point is that we have become distracted from the real issues and from thinking clearly about what is happening by technology. The Internet and computers are connecting people, yet true connections and real relationships are suffering. Furthermore, she points out that “as we surfed, clicked and linked on the net, discovering things that interest us, we didn’t notice that we were losing fundamental human capacities such as memory, meaning, making and thinking. We were paying a terrible price to everything, but we were too distracted to even notice”.

Not only are we losing our ability to relate, we are also losing our ability to think critically.

Command and control

Lastly, she points out that organisations have become exceedingly more complex and bigger. She writes: “Twentieth-century leaders built corporate empires, organisations too big to lead. Inherently unmanageable by virtue of size and complexity, inherently meaningless by virtue of work reduced to disassociated part, these behemoths were ill-prepared for this new world of rapid change and unpredictability.”

The rising complexities and the sizes of our organisations have meant that leadership has gone back to leading by the more autocratic means of command and control. Even though leaders are aware of servant leadership and the like, they find it far easier to tell others what and how to do things instead of trying to empower them.

This new world that we live in, arisen from the industrial revolution and the information age, has resulted in us becoming disconnected, fearful and unsure of most things. We are living in a world of constant change and complexity resulting in people becoming more self-serving and absorbed.

Greed and corruption have become the order of the day in South Africa and our potential leaders have withdrawn from the public domain instead of exposing themselves to ridicule and negative sentiment that may come from answering the difficult questions.

The problem here is that, as Edmund Burke says, “Evil flourishes when good men do nothing”. Our challenge in this country is to find leaders who will lead with compassion, integrity and with decency. We need servant leaders like Nelson Mandela who are not concerned about power and influence but rather concerned about doing what is right and just.

Our schools have a responsibility to produce leaders of the future who are able to think outside of themselves, to fight for the vulnerable in our society and to lead with integrity and principles. The missions and visions of most schools today are to ensure that children become the best they can be. However, this vision feeds into the narcissistic world that we see ourselves in today. The skills that we assist the children to acquire and perfect are then used by them for their own edification and enrichment, regardless of those around them. We must ensure that our children understand that the education they have received is a privilege and that they have a responsibility to use their God-given talents to give back to society so that this broken world can be fixed.

Leading with


Wheatley concludes that we need to have warriors in the future who will act with gentleness, decency and bravery. This is our most important task at schools today. We need to ensure that our children have compassion, which has two aspects to it. The first is that for people to demonstrate compassion, they have to become aware of the plight of others and then once this takes place they will then be in a position to care.

Caring is an action word followed by doing. We need a future generation who will care enough to do something about what is happening in the world instead of only looking after themselves. We need to arm the bystanders of our country with compassion, decency and bravery to stand up for what is right and just, and to reconnect with those around them in a principled way so that these many problems can be overcome.

Fundamentally, we need new leaders who will look to the good of the whole instead of the good of the one. This is the only way to fight greed, corruption and consumerism.

One of the ways that we can teach our children to respect and to love instead of acting in a bigoted, selfish or discriminatory manner is to concentrate our efforts on inculcating manners. Manners show that we respect and care for other people. We need to ensure that our children think about others in all that they do. We need to ensure that our youth has the courage to stand up for what is right and protect those who are vulnerable. When someone is being bullied, they need to have the courage to say something or do something to help the victim.

Our children and perhaps ourselves are in desperate need of going back to basics and to the unchanging values and principles which are our real anchors in our turbulent and chaotic world.

As we contemplate the results of the elections, let us take stock of where we are in relation to leadership in our country and pledge to make sure that we grow our children to serve others and the world instead of themselves so that the world can look forward to a future of hope instead of despair. Let us pledge to develop compassionate warriors who discover their gentleness, decency and their bravery to make our world a better place for all who live here.

• Simon Weaver is the principal of Cordwalles Preparatory School.

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