UP academic reflects on responsible leadership during a seminar hosted by the JSE

Posted on August 05, 2015

On Tuesday 28 July, the University of Pretoria’s Prof Derick de Jongh, from the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences and Director of the Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership, was a guest speaker at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE). He was tasked with providing an overview of how far we have progressed in our thinking about leadership, where we are or should be heading, and why companies should be internalising ethics.

Referring to the Accenture UN Global Compact 2014 CEO Survey of CEOs of the 1 000 largest corporations, Prof De Jongh explained that only one third of the CEOs who took part in the survey agreed that business is making sufficient strides in addressing sustainability challenges or believe that the global economy is on track to meet the growing demands of consumption. In this lies a clear paradox, especially if one situates sustainable development in the dominant economic logic. The origin of this paradox lies in the very nature of these global challenges or problems, which he referred to as ‘wicked problems’, whether it be food security, climate change or a global economic crisis (such as the Greek ‘tragedy’ playing itself out at the moment).

Prof De Jongh explained that we tend to focus on symptoms rather than the real problems that we face as a society, and that it was clear that leadership (or the lack thereof) seemed to be the missing link. He argued that one would be doing leadership theory a disservice by sugar-coating any of the abovementioned large scale problems with a ‘leadership vanilla flavour’. If one considers responsible leadership, or what some might prefer referring to as ‘leadership for sustainability’, one realises that it is not about adding a bit of leadership to sustainability or a bit of sustainability to leadership.

He also spoke about the traditional approach to leadership that used to emphasise a ‘stable set of leadership attributes’, which he explained was highly problematic for our understanding of the role of leaders today. Today we prefer to hold a more critical view of leadership and recognise it as a complex relational, socially constructed phenomenon. This suggests a dramatic shift from the leader as the so‑called hero, to recognising its complexity and the resultant importance of collective leadership.

Prof De Jongh made a strong case for a radical change in the current discourse on leadership. He feels that mainstreaming sustainability into leadership debates simply denotes the importance of changing and transforming the very aspects of the mainstream that are driving the crises we are facing today. It comes as no surprise that New Liberal Economics could be regarded as a key element of this mainstream. He further emphasised that it is our limited understanding of what it means to be a responsible person that gives rise to these misconceptions. We tend to focus on the retrospective and limited legalistic view of responsibility rather than what he believes should be a prospective, forward-looking view of responsibility. Present-day South Africa provides ample opportunities to recognise this inappropriate view of responsibility. As a nation we have become masters in shifting the blame because we do not know where to situate responsibility.

He said that this could be viewed as a direct outcome of a limited legalistic and retrospective understanding of leadership and gave the example of what happened at Marikana in 2012. Today the debate around Marikana and the Falum Report revolves around who the culprits were rather than how we should ensure that such a tragedy never occurs again and the society we as leaders would like to create for future generations.

Prof De Jongh explained that ‘what we are facing as a country is our inability to deal with systemic problems, by isolating key events and interrogating this in detail, which in essence won’t resolve the bigger issues. We should not reduce the leadership debate to individual responsibility and consequences.’

He concluded by saying that we are not succeeding in allowing leadership to emerge by all taking part in this (different) conversation. Criticising leaders and leadership squarely puts us in a retrospective responsibility debate, which will not take us forward. Prof De Jongh strongly believes that part of the solution lies in positioning the next generation of leaders in a much richer global context shaped by social and environmental norms and, most importantly, in not blindly accepting the leadership conversations and discourses that currently dominate our lives.


- Author Myan Subrayan

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2024. All rights reserved.

FAQ's Email Us Virtual Campus Share Cookie Preferences