Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 16 March 2012

Listen and stay close to your stakeholders

There often seems to be great void between “I hear you” and “I am listening to you”. Hearing is passive. Listening is active. The former is too abundant in South Africa and the latter all too rare.

In Reuel Khoza’s profound treatise on African humanism published recently in his book Attuned Leadership he describes the benefits for a leader of listening and of staying in touch with his people. He refers to Nelson Mandela as an outstanding example of this ubuntu-driven leadership and mentions Thabo Mbeki as one who had lost touch and did not have it.

The book is a great inspiration and Khoza gives a carefully reasoned, almost academic account of African leadership peppered with wonderfully positive opinions like, “I firmly believe that within the heart of our communities there is always an ethical sense, like a gyroscope on a ship, which can bring the social vessel back to rights if people are reminded of the values of African humanism and ubuntu.” He also describes how a smart and skilled analytical intellect like that of Thabo Mbeki caused him to lose the support of his people at Polokwane because he was not “attuned” to them. His successor, of whom it is said, has less intellectual ability and with questionable analytical reasoning, has the connectedness of populism and the support of his people

Reuel Khoza’s account emphasizes the leader’s responsibility to build a relationship of “leadership-followership”. Leading not from above, but from within and alongside. It becomes almost a joint enterprise and “where there is harmony between the two, accountability becomes a given”. He stresses accountability as “the cornerstone of sound governance”

With such a root structure of great leadership in Africa, and with role models like Reuel Khoza, we will be forgiven for asking why there is so little evidence of ubuntu in the perceived leadership of Africa.

No need to talk here at any length about Africa’s embarrassing list of corrupt, ineffective leaders. Barney Mthombothi in his Foreword to the book says it all: “Africa lags behind the rest of the world in all human development indices – health, education, literacy, and food security… Many countries are ravaged by war, famine and leaving millions displaced as refugees within their own borders… surviving on handouts from international charity organizations”. And certainly no need to list the leaders of Somalia, DRC and Zimbabwe or any of their appalling leadership practices.

Closer to home we may not see the depths of depravity seen in other African states, but on a smaller scale we still see a lack of governance and a lack of sound leadership which is distressing.

Examples abound, but take the recent debacle of Limpopo. To a tax payer and someone who regularly expounds the benefits of living in South Africa to those who had emigrated and now consider a return, I find such incompetence overwhelming.

Simply describing the poor state of governance on the continent and then listening to what Reuel Khoza believes is the heritage of African humanism makes one wonder what has gone wrong and why such a compelling leadership philosophy has not taken hold to any meaningful degree. We know the reasons given by the African apologists when they refer to our colonial past and the ravages of slavery and apartheid. Even Khoza himself uses these as part of his defence.

But we also know that other countries, like India and Singapore, which have had colonial pasts and their own terrible form of apartheid in the caste system, but have risen above it all and now maintain an average growth rate which is three times ours. And the question is why? Why, if African humanism is such an inspiring model of effectiveness, is our performance so disappointing?  If it has such a gentle, self-sacrificing core, why do we see so much aggressive behaviour and so much abuse of power around us?

If listening to the stakeholders and staying in touch with the community are the keys to attuned leadership, it is easy to see why in North Africa and other areas of the Arab Spring the populations have risen up and revolted. Entrenched leaders, many of them obviously corrupt and into building their own fortunes, were clearly not listening or staying close to their constituency for the greater good of their people. 

Isn’t this what the protest marchers and the trade unions want? To be heard? They believe that their point of view is not taken into account and they are not being listened to. In fact poor listening seems to be a pervasive cause of bad behaviour throughout our society from government to families, especially those with teenage children, to employees at all levels and beyond.

Let’s forget about the politicians, what about leaders in business? We used to be impressed with trophy CEOs and trophy chairmen who “led from the front” and who were seen to be hard hitting, tough decision-makers. For some time now the model has changed and greater respect for all stakeholders is now a mantra in the best executive suites. But is there enough listening, and is there sufficient “servant leadership” as exemplified by Madiba, to show that we subscribe to the principles of ubuntu in our listed companies? Probably not. Business leaders are so driven to produce the profits which keep shareholders happy that having an engaged concern for the community is difficult

We are all good at describing what management has to do to do a better job, or to have a leader aspire to an ideal style of leadership. But we also know that CEOs are human like the rest of us and tend to fall back on doing what is urgent rather than what is right. So if we could define just one skill which would make a considerable difference to the quality of leadership how about simply “Listening”. In the daily grind of our lives, talking and speaking our minds have become such entrenched habits that the balm of careful real listening most often eludes us. African humanism has many other elements which, if implemented, would improve our government, listed companies and our family lives. We need more African leaders to take us there. DM


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