Monde Ndlovu | South Africans are losing trust in leaders – here’s how we can change that

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South Africa is famously a rainbow nation, but in recent years, many have sought to divide rather than unite us. Photo: Darren Stewart/Gallo Images
South Africa is famously a rainbow nation, but in recent years, many have sought to divide rather than unite us. Photo: Darren Stewart/Gallo Images


While I was growing up, my father defined what ‘business’ and ‘leadership’ meant to me: a briefcase, a diary, a business suit and, of course, a boardroom, where he would occasionally have me sit in on meetings.

But more than that, it came to mean a level of integrity and service; my father inspired trust and loyalty.

I watched him as CEO of the People’s Bank division of Nedbank, executive director of Nedcor (Nedbank Group) and at the Black Management Forum (BMF) in the early 1990s, where he worked diligently for what he believed in.

He was, as I am, passionate about the importance of advancing equity in the workplace.

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A generation later, this battle is far from over. In fact, it appears to be going in the wrong direction in the current economic climate.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that in South Africa right now, people are losing their faith in their leaders.

Afrobarometer, a pan-African, independent and non-partisan research network, reports that South Africans no longer trust their political leaders, state structures, the judiciary, the country’s broadcasters, political parties, the police and even their traditional leaders.

Trust and good governance are key if we want to build a healthy society with strong economic performance.

It is, therefore, vital that South African leaders give some thought to how to restore lost trust. The country needs a particular brand of leadership that will nurture true transformation at all levels of the economy.

Taking a page from my father’s handbook, aspiring leaders could consider these three leadership tenets if they want to make a real contribution to the country.

1. Service to others comes first

While the leader is often cast in the light of the hero, being a true leader means being committed to others.

Leadership is all about service, whether you’re the CEO of a business or the director of a public service institution – you are serving others, be it your electorate or your shareholders.

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The originator of the term “servant leadership”, Robert Greenleaf, defined the servant leader as one whose aspiration to lead is rooted in a desire to serve others.

What distinguishes servant leaders is the care they take to make sure other people’s priorities are being met.

And, to get things done, they need to build trust and influence in the organisation rather than give orders.

2. Focus on what unites rather than divides us

South Africa is famously a rainbow nation, but in recent years, many have sought to divide rather than unite us.

To move past this, leaders need to make a choice; rather than focusing exclusively on the differences between them and those they lead, they need to develop an appreciation of the universal value systems they share with others.

Those commonalities could help to overcome the divides between South Africans in the workplace and beyond.

This is a concept championed by the spiral dynamics model developed by Don Beck and Chris Cowan.

The model describes the evolutionary development of individuals, organisations and societies and it has a particular resonance with South Africa.

It was a real eye-opener to discover that Beck had worked with political, business and religious leaders in South Africa – Nelson Mandela included – for some two decades, well before and after the transition to democracy.

3. Keep your eye on the prize

Another business school concept I picked up during my studies is that of ‘cathedral thinking’ – an approach that demands a long-term vision that is committed to sustainable implementation.

This means we have to build generational leadership where values and goals are passed on from generation to generation – as my father passed his values on to me – and rebuild purposefully.

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According to Punit Renjen writing for Deloitte Insights: “Trust is not a static, unchanging force that flows toward leaders from their stakeholders.

Both trusting and being trustworthy require us to make conscious, daily choices to invest in relationships that result in mutual value.”

Trust is the foundation for a better future because it enables stakeholders to believe in us and to build with us.

Just as apartheid and the harms it did were built up over time, so too must the new South Africa be rebuilt one brick at a time.

We have wasted too much time and have fallen behind already, but with a commitment to a single-minded objective of a more equal and harmonious South Africa, this is what leaders – and those they lead – must commit themselves to.

Monde Ndlovu is head of advocacy at the Black Management Forum and holds an MBA from Henley Business School


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