by Prof Basil Leonard

SA leaders

Changes in leadership raise serious questions

Leadership guru says a crisis looms in SA's private and public sectors.

There is no doubt that leadership in both the public and private sectors has been fraught with upsets, tension and change this year.

Questions have been asked about the leadership of the country, and whether there is something larger at play under which our country and private sectors' leadership is buckling.

Reasons for the changes in leadership both in the public and private sectors may be varied and complex, pre-determined or arranged, political or economic.

In the mining sector various platinum mining executives have announced their departure from the sector, as well as senior executives have said they will fire staff and management in order to save costs.

For example, former Aquarius Platinum CEO, Stuart Murray, was the third chief executive to buckle under the economic pressure caused by the uproar in the sector, especially in the face of the continual pressure of issues to deal with such as labour, the government, safety stoppages and rising costs. 

Pinky Moholi, Telkom’s group CEO, resigned along with board director Neo Phakama Dongwana, after heading up the parastatal for 18 months. Moholi’s resignation follows that of Lazarus Zim, who announced he would step down as chairman.  

It seems there are eight vacancies at senior management level at Telkom. Interestingly, no other Telkom CEO, other than Sizwe Nxasana, stayed for the duration of their contract. 

The changing of the guard occurs many times due to the natural ‘retirement’ age being reached as well as appointment contracts coming to an end. This is what happened, for example, when Pieter Uys announced he will step down as Vodacom and be replaced by Shameel Joosub as Group CEO.

Others leave because of promotions to different positions or sectors.  In the government, the appointment of Minister of Home Affairs, Naledi Pandor, recently resulted in the Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, Derek Hanekom, being promoted to minister in the department. Pandor’s move, however, was in turn as a result former Minister of Home Affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, taking up the post of chairwoman of the African Union Commission. 

Similarly, in April, in the private sector, Gert Schoonbee was appointed as managing director of T-Systems because the former MD, Mardia van der Walt-Korsten, was asked to move into the higher ranks in Africa because of her exceptional leadership.

While these may be part of the natural processes, other leadership changes occur when the leaders are alleged to be involved in activities untoward to the organisation he or she belongs to.

Julius Malema, for example, was replaced as president of the ANC Youth League due to his controversial utterances against Jacob Zuma, and bringing the ANC into disrepute.  

In 2008, the somewhat controversial recalling of Thabo Mbeki by the ANC resulted in Jacob Zuma being elected as president of the ANC, and the country, because of the electoral processes of a political party.

Whether in rugby, soccer or cricket, we have seen changes in leadership at different levels in South Africa, from the coaching level to chief executive officers.  Again, with questions raised, responses went from a lack of competence to unethical behaviour to end of contracts.

There are also a number of categories one can create for leadership changes – some more regular and prevalent than others. There are the "job-hoppers" moving from one position to another position, mostly exchanging one CEO or executive position for another.  I am sometimes of the opinion that the reason for such rapid changes is to 'leave before they discover my incompetence’.  

Much of the blame for people getting away with this is that too many companies are desperate for the next affirmative action person and therefore do not do such a thorough screening. I wonder if this could perhaps be a sign of Mamphela Ramphele’s observation that there was a lack of maturity (in leaders in the country).

I have also wondered how many leadership positions changed hands because of persons wanting to get back to South Africa, a specific province or city.  Friends, family and colleagues often assist with the creation of leadership possibilities in companies and the government.  

Almost all the areas of our lives are impacted upon by people in leadership positions. Interestingly, we do not always recognise effective leadership, but we always know when it is absent. There is no doubt that leadership in South Africa is changing, and so it is worthwhile remembering Heifetz and Linsky’s quote from Leadership on the Line: “In times of rapid change, leaders pretend they know what the answers are, leading people into a systemic dynamic where no one is asking the right questions and playing by outdated rules.”

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