Rebuilding trust: SA in dire need of humble leaders

2018-04-05 06:02

The recent behaviour of leaders in the private and public sectors greatly harmed an already unsteady foundation of trust that South African citizens have in those who claim to have their best interests at heart. Suddenly it is not only government that can be blamed for the state of affairs.

In fact, several corporate entities have also gained first-hand experience of the devastating impact of what Warren Buffet posited. “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it,” he said. South Africans feel betrayed, deceived and manipulated as never before by those who lead from the front.

When one analyses this more closely, it is clear some of these leaders have displayed narcissistic characteristics by displaying self-interest, with a sense of entitlement, not owning up to and taking responsibility for their part in authorising poor or unethical decisions.

The Tarzan leaders

Renate Scherrer‚ MD of JvR Consulting Psychologists, says many narcissists are charming and seem visionary, but they also have a false sense of importance and are self-serving and entitled. It does not take long before the trust people have in a leader, who is overly preoccupied with him- or herself and their own interests, disappears.

“They never own up to mistakes, never apologise, are quick to blame others and to praise themselves,” Scherrer says. “In fact, such a person does not shy away from taking the credit even though it is not due.” When things are running smoothly their language is lavishly sprinkled with “Me” and “I”, but when problems arise the conversation becomes a finger pointing exercise of “You” and “Them”.

This Tarzan-like behaviour (declaring himself the king of the jungle) is, however, often a mask or persona to compensate for a deep sense of insecurity.

The humble leaders

Scherrer says mature leaders have a large dose of humility. They do not put themselves above what needs to be done. President Cyril Ramaphosa eloquently demonstrated some of this when he referred to the words of the Hugh Masekela song “Thuma Mina” (Send Me).

“A humble leader takes responsibility for his actions, admits when he has made a mistake, and does not only focus on his own interests,” says Scherrer. In fact, a humble leader looks to himself first when trying to understand when things go wrong, but reflects on the actions of others when credit is due.

Humble leaders do not abuse authority and are willing to serve others first. Their language has phrases such as “We” and “Us”, and they insist on honest and direct conversations with clear commitments to a shared vision.

Former president Nelson Mandela remains an impeccable example of a humble leader. He is quoted as saying that “there is nothing to popularising a person; only humility, the ability to remain in the background and putting others in the spotlight counts”.

The complex leaders

South Africa requires “complex” leaders who are competent, innovative, mature, empathetic, ethical, connected and flexible. True complex leaders have an acute awareness of their limitations and do not try to disguise it for the benefit of the audience.

They realise that ignoring their own weaknesses will lead to inevitable failure. In the VUCA-world we live in, the complex leader will ensure organisations and state entities answer volatility with vision, uncertainty with understanding, complexity with clarity and ambiguity with agility.

Getting it right

According to Scherrer, it is difficult to rebuild trust in an organisation or state entity if the leader displays narcissistic tendencies. Trust is based on integrity and strengthened when leaders admit and take ownership of mistakes, something narcissists do not even contemplate doing. Therefore, it is necessary to get it right from the start.

“When appointing people, make sure the charisma is not narcissism in disguise. It is essential to implement a scientific selection process and validate references,” says Scherrer. Listen for clues in interviews, and to what extent organisational achievements and successes are attributed to the self.

She adds that when people are promoted from within the ranks it is critical to evaluate performance continuously in an objective manner and not fall into the trap of ignoring the “red flags” inevitably already visible, even if perhaps well managed. Having more power will expose true character, so if someone is already entitled, self-centred and arrogant when they are supposed to follow, don’t be fooled to think it will become less when they lead.


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