Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 7 December 2012

Only disruptive leadership can achieve real change

If there is one thing most of us agree on, it is that we need change. Facing every one of our challenges, from education to housing and jobs and all the others, we know that what is in place now is not working. Trying to fix it by tinkering around the edges won’t do it. 

The key structures of our society are so close to being broken that to make any progress in putting them together we need massive, constructive change of a kind that is nowhere visible at this moment.

The leadership turmoil leading up to Mangaung is not about how to change what isn’t working. It is about political manoeuvring and working a deal in the present messy voting system. Trevor Manuel’s grand Plan for National Development which seemed to house a vision worth pursuing at one point is now sid lined, if not completely forgotten. While there is underlying acknowledgement that big issues need to be addressed and that a dramatic change in leadership is needed to do it, on the surface it is all trying to “play nice” with speeches about unity and working together.  

President Zuma is the flag carrier here. Resisting change and warning that it could “ruin the ANC”, he said on Sunday at Mgababa that there must be good reasons for change and that those who wanted to change the ANC had to explain what was wrong with it, and what the reforms would be. He warned against a “new culture”. No thought of an innovative vision here.

His fear is understandable. Conflicting with the need for change and for better solutions is his and our very human drive to keep the status quo. We don’t like disruption. It’s easier just to box on. We become comfortable in our adjustment to bad situations.  

But the greatest advances in the life of a country or that of a business have most often come from disruptive leadership; the vision and initiative to stop messing around with peripheral adjustments and to launch real, meaningful change.  In business, luminaries like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson were known for kicking over the traces and doing something so new as to be almost revolutionary. Adrian Gore and others are also doing it.

In politics, the great inspirational disruptors were people like Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Albert Luthuli, Margaret Thatcher, Mao Zedong, John F Kennedy. They were not accommodators, they did not look to see who they could please and seek votes from. They were not driven to hold on to unity or how to just “tick along”.  

Feeding off any challenge to the established order is the perennial quest of our leaders for unity. It is for everything and everyone to stay in place and not to create waves. Whenever there is some major issue to be resolved, the threat we most fear is that we will split up and end in disunity. Embracing any forward-looking change inevitably means taking a risk, and that almost always causes those who are fearful to hold tight and resist. 

Planted into our DNA, it seems, is the old “Ex Unitate Vires” slogan: “Out of unity is strength”. 

Even the great gathering of the tribes at the ANC Centenary celebrations rallied to the theme of “Unity in Diversity”. Political leaders are always the front-runners in the quest for the unity stakes. Various cabinet ministers, including Paul Mashitile and even Kgalema Mothlanthe, have emphasised the need now for unity going toward Mangauang. Instead of seizing the opportunity to break free and take the leadership to the next level, Motlanthe insists on playing by the rules and working according to the ANC establishment. He and the ANC would rather make a bad decision than sacrifice the unity or the established process of the party.

And it’s not only about the increasingly bad habits of the ANC. Governments everywhere want to keep themselves in place, and will often do just about anything to achieve this. The most ruthless ones do all they can to take out the dissenters. In totalitarian regimes opponents are murdered or tortured. Everyone has to stay in line for the leadership formula to work. It is unity by the sword. 

But even unity of the constructive kind has its downsides. The pre-occupation with making everyone move in lock-step, unified at all costs, is essentially self-conscious and inward looking. It is not an outwardly directed vision to be achieved. When a business develops disagreement in its leadership ranks and works to establish internal unity, it becomes so preoccupied with itself that it risks losing its focus on the client and forgets to take note of what the market wants. The same applies to political leaders when they strain to hold a party together. Their energy is inward. It is not toward its stakeholders or the task of finding an inspiring vision.

Somewhere in the notion of unity there resides something akin to compliance. Don’t step out of line. We must stick together. Don’t let anyone see us disagreeing. We are told that as parents we should not disagree in front of the children. It makes them feel insecure. Divergence of opinion smacks of disloyalty. But disruptive leadership requires exactly that; someone who will break rank and propose a radical departure from established practice. It has to be a new and inspiring vision.

It is interesting how, in the run-up to the American presidential elections, the candidates started campaigning with some outlier opinions and radical proposals for solutions. They then, as the campaign unfolded, moved increasingly toward the centre, the home of solidarity. As always, it was to find some form of unity and convergence. Mitt Romney paid the price.

Comrade Lula da Silva, regarded as the most popular president of Brazil, who grew up in the impoverished north east of the country, did the opposite and turned his country in a completely new direction. Not focusing on internal solidarity and without whingeing on and on about unity, looked ahead and with classic disruptive leadership, made a dramatic impact by lifting millions of his poor people out of their poverty.

Steve Kingstone of the BBC says: “ I used to tell visitors to close their eyes as I drove them into Sao Paulo from the airport. Seven years ago, the first impression of South America’s biggest city was a pot-holed motorway, running parallel to a stinking river along whose banks economic migrants had made their homes in wooden shacks. This week I have come back to Sao Paulo to cover the election. While not exactly scenic, that airport run has improved significantly. The river bed has been dredged; the motorway is smoother with more lanes… and the eye is drawn to massed cranes and tower blocks which house the city’s rapidly swelling middle class.”

Oh, for a disruptive leadership that can reverse the distressing image published on the cover of The Economist of “South Africa’s sad decline”. DM 

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