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Leadership in the 21st century

FEW organisations and national governments were ready to deal with the SARS-CoV-2 aka Covid-19 pandemic. The Covid-19 may be a dress rehearsal for the greater disruption of global climate change.

Leadership which understands the systemic interconnectedness of the world and have a planning time horizon of 20 to 25 years into the future can anticipate discontinuities and develop resilience strategies that avoid or minimise the costs of disruption.

National governments often seem out of touch and slow to react because they are organisationally removed from their citizens. Leaders in capable city and town government as well as capable organisations have greater leverage to develop and deploy a resilience strategy.

The logical sequence in the eight-level framework of a resilience strategy hierarchy described in detail in Gauging the Resilience of City and Town Government: A Manual for Strategists (Van der Merwe 2021) starts with the foundations of capability assessment, capacity building, execution, anticipation, adaptation and recovery, sustainable development which enables green growth and finally accelerated by smart cities.

The diagnostic instrument contained in the textbook by van der Merwe for Resilience Practitioners provides benchmark descriptors with which any organisation can gauge their level of resilience and build a resilience strategy before it is surprised by the next disruption.

Capability assessment and capacity building processes are the essential foundations upon which to build orqanisational resilience.

In June of 1215, Britian’s King John agreed to be bound by the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta is a basic document that states liberties guaranteed to the English people. It proclaims rights that have become a part of English law and is now the foundation of the constitutions of most English-speaking countries.

The Magna Carta, which means “great charter” in Latin, was drawn up by English barons (nobles) and church leaders in those feudal times to limit the king’s power. In 1215 they forced the tyrannical King John to agree to and abide by the charter.

The Magna Carta stated that the king must follow the law and could not simply rule as he wished. It was one of the first documents to state that citizens had such rights. Today many people consider Magna Carta to be the first written constitution in Europe.

King John’s cruelty and greed united the powerful feudal nobles, the church leaders, and the people against him. He demanded too much money in taxes. While the king was waging a disastrous war in France, the leading barons of England met secretly and swore to compel him to respect the rights of his subjects.

When John returned, they presented him with a series of demands.

The principle underpinning the value of the Magna Carta is that by agreeing and abiding by a constitution through the rule of law and accountability, the interests of everybody would be best served.

The power of rulers will have agreed on checks and balances. The Magna Carta marks the transition of Britain from a feudal or fascist state to a modern constitutional, capable democracy.

A question that should be answered in all emerging polities is; have we reached our Magna Carta moment yet?  Capability has been recently defined by the Australian Public Service Commission as leadership (taking a stand), strategy (scenario-based to look 25 years into the future) and delivery of goods and services to its citizens.

Effective leadership, defined as “influence potential” provides a critical ingredient for building an organisational resilience strategy. The primary metric for constructive leadership effectiveness is; “that it provides the greatest good to the largest number of people”.

A key competency for effective leaders is understanding and leveraging the interconnectedness and avoiding unintended consequences in the complex modern world on a 20-25 year planning time horizon.

This is the time-span in which a policy at national president level can be seen to be right or wrong (Jaques 2013 p105). Focusing on this planning time horizon enables leaders to anticipate and avoid discontinuities in the environment and other disruptions thereby enabling resilience.

The tragic 2022 Russia/Ukraine conflict is providing a masterclass, for the world, in effective leadership. Two very different archetypal leadership styles are being demonstrated by Presidents Putin and Zelensky.

The former style which seems to guide the decisions and leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin is based on the principle of “command and control”.

The top of an organisation decides and the bottom acts. The command-and-control approach to leadership has been inherited and absorbed from the colonial masters and is still most pervasive.

The leadership demonstrated by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky is based on the principle of leadership attuned to followership aka “servant leadership” popularised in Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Senge’s literature on learning organisations. As a result, learning faster than the competition has been widely accepted as the ultimate form of competitive advantage.

Dr Reuel Khoza provides an authoritative description and reference to leaders in the service of followers in his bestselling Attuned Leadership-African Humanism as Compass. (Khoza 2011)

Command and control require increasing levels of coercion and results in compliance. Sometimes vicious compliance where followers do exactly as they are told even if it is counterproductive.  Attuned leadership results in commitment where followership takes ownership of the way forward and engages the human spirit, loyalty, even love.

In the early stages of this Russia-Ukraine conflict, we have witnessed and learnt about the asymmetrical power of commitment versus that of compliance as motivator.

Decolonisation of the current practice of command and control will naturally result in servant leadership aka attuned leadership as described by Dr Reuel Khoza in his authoritative writing.

In southern Africa, we have been blessed by the inspirational examples of statesmen and leaders in the service of followership and enlightened national interests.

Madiba, Khoza, Sir Seretse Khama and President Julius Nyerere and others. These towering examples are fine examples Ubuntu (Engaging African Humanism as Compass) in practise.

We are learning in real-time how Ukraine is mobilising this powerful dynamic in the service of a greater good and defending its national freedom.

It has been said by Yuval Harari that Putin has already lost the war for the hearts and minds of Ukraine. He may prevail in the military war. However, his attack is planting the seeds of hatred that may prevail for generations to come.

The fierce, heroic Ukrainian resistance has been described as a paradigm-shifting test of national resilience and leadership that will resonate in geopolitics and international relations for decades to come.

It will probably become a celebrated case study in effective leadership and strategy. And it may yet prove to be either the death knell for the Putin’s imperial aspirations and perhaps of Russia itself or of Western European democracy.

  • Dr Merwe is an international process consultancy. He is author and educator based at various times in Boston MIT, Amsterdam, and Johannesburg. These weekly New Perspectives articles published in the Zimbabwe Independent are coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society and past president of the Chartered Governance & Accountancy Institute in Zimbabwe (CGI Zimbabwe). — kadenge.zes@gmail.com or mobile: +263 772 382 852.

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