Posted on July 11, 2017
Professor of Leadership Studies Jonathan Gosling from the Business School at the University of Exeter, United Kingdom, visited the Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership (ALCRL) on 26 June 2017. He is the co-founder of the interdisciplinary One Planet MBA, which addresses global economic, societal, environmental and technological challenges by equipping students with innovative business thinking and new business models. Also, he has been highly instrumental internationally in introducing sustainability issues and sustainable development as part of business school curricula. His field of expertise includes sustainability, leadership studies and contemporary strategic leadership.
Prof Gosling is currently involved in an internationally funded, multilateral African research project on malaria where he is part of a team of advisors responsible for the project on leadership and organisational development aspects. He visited the ALCRL en route to the project to share the work he is currently involved in and how it connects to leadership. From a leadership perspective, he is currently focusing his efforts on what we can do to curb the impact of malaria on the African continent and reduce malaria-related deaths by thinking practically about leadership.
Getting specific and practical about leadership
In the very unjust world that we live in today, Prof Gosling is convinced it is not enough anymore to intellectualise leadership on abstract levels. He argues that we should keep ourselves busy by thinking practically about leadership. It is as if we have almost forgotten what it means to lead. He believes we should not be concerned about the leadership 'for what' but rather be concerned about the leadership 'of what'. This means that we should identify key issues that require the attention of leadership which are practical, tangible and focused on the here and now. For example, malaria, famine, poverty and the many other challenges that the African continent is facing and, more specifically, the practical role of leaders and leadership should be at the top of our agenda. He argues that this practical approach to leadership should not distract us from continuing to advance the body of knowledge through research, but that the time may have arrived for academics to spend equal time on finding leadership solutions to these imminent problems the continent is facing.
In South Africa, for example, he suggests we need to ask some practical questions related to leadership in times of complex transitions. He uses the #FeesMustFall student movement as a classic example of how leadership (or the lack thereof) at a practical level should be investigated to deepen our understanding of the various practical manifestations of leadership. He also mentions that the issue of “followership” should not be ignored and again refers to the #FeesMustFall movement as an example of strong followership in support of a common cause or social movement.
Prof Gosling has a particular interest in university-attending youth, typically between the ages of 18 and 25. He suggests that this is an example of an area in SA where we need to get practically involved by exploring leadership at a deeper level, but also with a strong practical lens, asking questions about the leadership role of students and what students' needs are regarding leadership development, and to juxtapose this against #FeesMustFall (a phenomenon that many already refer to as a leaderless movement). He further emphasises the fact that we have to spend significant time to understand leadership in these times and to reflect on what should be done to develop youth leaders to ensure that, as institutions of higher learning, we produce not only well-qualified graduates, but more importantly, change agents for a better society.
Understanding power dynamics
During the conversation with Prof Gosling, he also emphasised the issue of power dynamics and the importance thereof when understanding leadership in complex societies. He referred to underlying power structures in organisations, which according to him play an important role in our ability to bring about change through leadership. For example, people that occupy leadership positions usually have a particular origin or base of power and influence which plays an important role in their ability to bring about change – in the case we were talking about, changing society for the better. For example, if one wants to develop leaders but fails to acknowledge the power dynamics and structures in the environment they operate in, leadership development almost becomes a futile exercise.
Prof De Jongh commented on the benefit of having such esteemed scholars visiting the ALCRL. 'These scholars bring to the ALCRL a wealth of knowledge and experience and usually leave us with deep levels of reflection on the work we do.'
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