UP professor talks about 'wicked problems' and responsible leadership at the SARB

Posted on February 04, 2016

The Director of the Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership, Prof Derick de Jongh was invited by the South Africa Reserve Bank (SARB) to give a presentation on the topic ‘Wicked problems and responsible leadership’. This presentation was given during one of the SARB’s quarterly ‘What’s up’ public lecture series held on 22 January 2016.

Prof De Jongh described these ‘wicked problems’ as complex, messy and non-linear in nature, saying that they require multi-disciplinary engagement and collective attempts at solutions. The role of leadership in dealing with these problems is vital. Prof De Jongh stated that leaders need to be consultative, knowledgeable and wise. He emphasised that, if one considers the state of the world today, leadership theory, developed over decades, may have falied us. He pointed out that ‘we should move from understanding leadership as a stable set of attributes to recognising that it is actually a complex, socially constructed phenomenon’. Trying to reduce leadership to the individual qualities a person posesses is highly problematic. ‘This might be the reason the world is experiencing an unprecedented leadership deficit at the moment.’ He further argued that the missing ‘signifier’ in leadership theory is the concept of ‘responsibility’. Responsible leadership introduces the idea that the conflict between satisfying the concerns of owners/shareholders and those of the broader stakeholders should form the basis of investigating ‘wicked problems’. Exploring the relationship between humans and the environment, Prof De Jongh explained that the relationship is generally characterised by the callous exploitation of natural resources. Global economies are locked into certain pathways that have seen profit, growth and wealth accumulation at the expense of ecosystem health. He also acknowledged the fact that organisations are being pushed to demonstrate values of responsibility and sustainability by paying more attention to the implications of their actions on society as a whole, including the natural environment. The importance of solving these complex social and environmental problems, and more importantly the role of responsible leadership in making these attempts, can therefore not be overemphasised.

Prof De Jongh posed a few critical questions about the concept of responsibility, such as, ‘To whom are we responsible and for what?’, and ‘Is responsibility an individual or collective enterprise?’ Given the challenges we are faced with as humanity, Prof De Jongh asked: ‘How would one describe the responsibility the world needs, especially considering the “wicked” nature of the problems we are faced with?’ Quoting Sigmund Freud on the concept of responsibility, he said: ‘Most people do not really want freedom because freedom involves responsibility and most people are frightened by responsibility.’ In conclusion, Prof De Jongh shared his views on responsibility, saying that it is something that should be shared. Collective responsibility is needed more than individual responsibility and leaders should demonstrate responsibility and accountability in their everyday activities. This requires mindfulness, care, moral courage and a dose of practical wisdom, not only from those in leadership positions, but also from their followers.


- Author Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership

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