Leadership at the Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership

Posted on May 24, 2016

In our view and understanding of the complex concept of leadership, we have decided early on to shake off the shackles of convention. Therefore, it is not strange in our daily dealing with the concept that many of our colleagues, as well as the wider community, often view our understanding thereof as contested and controversial. However, we believe that this very reaction to our views gives us traction and confirms the relevance of our work. We have long ago moved past the point where leadership is something that can be reduced to a set of characteristics and skills describing the ideal leader. We consider this popular view as very problematic, as it does not relate to the very complex world we live in, and because such oversimplification of leadership is not the solution.

The question that is regularly posed to us, is whether an example of the perfect leader exists in the history of humankind. It is probably true that different leaders made meaningful contributions to certain goals in different stages and within specific contexts. I however believe that this view of leadership does not answer the most critical questions about leadership. To me, it is too simplistic to view leadership as a theory that is applicable strictly within the individual. We believe that leadership should rather be seen as a socially constructed phenomenon. Thus, it is something that is given meaning by various role players within a certain context and time frame, and usually is not applicable only to one person and his or her successes.  

The convention of individual leadership as theory has its origins to a large extent in the psychology discipline. As a result of this convention, the theory of leadership was presented as variations on the central (individual characteristics) theme for years and thousands of authors and consultants comfortably enjoy their annuity income today. Don't get me wrong, there is and always will be space for more notorious new leadership theories, but if it will help us handle the problems of the day is another question. The serious shortage of (individual) leadership and the resultant leadership vacuum in the world is surely evidence enough. I shudder at the thought of what would happen if the USA's fate is left in the hands of Donald Trump, who is ironically still seen as the model of a good leader by many Americans. The question here on home soil is of course whether our future can be guaranteed solely by individuals like Jacob Zuma, Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema?

At the Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership we rather choose to analyse and understand leadership on multiple levels. In other words, we analyse leadership on individual, institutional and collective level. The realities faced worldwide are complex enough to necessitate this approach to leadership. Take for instance the recent decision by a few large SA banks to cut their ties with the Gupta family. Depending on how you look at it, this action can be seen as decisive collective leadership shown by large companies in an effort to take an ethical stance against corruption. In our analysis thus a clear example of collective/shared leadership. The time of referring to leadership as a purely individual phenomenon is over. On the contrary, maybe we have just reached the point where leadership should rather be declared a myth so that we can bury this chapter in the history of humankind once and for all. Maybe the time has come to rather ask the question: 'Leadership for what?' In other words, in the final analysis, who or what should benefit from leadership? Shouldn't we rather do an in-depth investigation into the concept of responsibility, which is often underestimated? I firmly believe that, if we find an answer to this question, we will automatically understand what is really expected of leaders.

As an academic, I experience great satisfaction in thinking about leadership. It is after all how I earn my bread and butter. What is even better, is to try and grasp the discourse of leadership and responsibility here at the Albert Luthuli Centre. My colleagues and I are confronted on a daily basis, particularly by our postgraduate students, with fresh and critical views on leadership and how the theory thereof is moving in new directions. Apart from our master's degree programme in responsible leadership, we also offer a PhD degree in leadership. Both these postgraduate qualifications bring us in contact with the spectrum of unanswered questions in the field of leadership on a daily basis. Naturally we also deliberately attempt to navigate our students' intellectual curiosity in the field of leadership past the conventional to the critical. It gives me and my colleagues endless pleasure to see how students shake off the shackles of conventionality in their own world views and make meaningful contributions to the field of leadership. My colleague Ben van der Merwe's PhD study critically investigates the philosophy of responsibility and how it manifests in the corporate world. Another colleague, Rene Swart's PhD looks into integrated reporting as a leadership phenomenon, and how it influences investment decisions. Clare Lalor, a PhD student of mine, is busy with an in-depth analysis of Aristotle's view of character and how it represents responsibility in a contemporary context. These three studies hold great potential to deepen and enrich our view of leadership.

It is the contested space of leadership that interests us here at the Luthuli Centre and gives real meaning to our day jobs. We are privileged to be named after one of South Africa and Africa's most remarkable, and controversial leaders, Albert Luthuli. In my opinion, he definitely didn't take the conventional route of what it means to be a good leader. He was everything but. He much rather served and challenged structures and systems behind the scenes, often unnoticed, thus contributing to the country that SA is today. He was par excellence someone who understood what it meant to be responsible. We readily follow in his footsteps and try to honour his legacy. 


- Author Prof Derick de Jongh, Director of the Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership at the University of Pretoria

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