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Are our business and political leaders living a life of integrity and visionary leadership?

April 2012

Leadership is the hardest part of political and business leaders. Let me draw my inspiration from three American political leaders from three different generations: Civil rights activists, Rev. Jesse Jackson once noted, “leadership isn't just about choosing sides. Nor is leadership a matter of making noise. It must bring sides together."

Before Jackson, Dwight Eisenhower once observed: "You do not lead by hitting people over the head - that's assault, not leadership."

Then another true American hero, Harry Truman, once advised that genuine leadership involves having the courage and skill to, "seize the opportunity to change things for the better."
In his company's annual report, Reuel Khoza, Chairman of Nedbank, said in part that "our political leadership's moral quotient is degenerating and we are fast losing the checks and balances that are necessary to prevent a recurrence of the past ..."

So why has Khoza’s comment caused such heated debate and antagonism between differing factions, from the ruling African National Congress, government and non-governmental organisations and business groupings across all sectors of our society? Because we are failing to differentiate or let alone grasp the relationship between political and business leadership as defined above.

Without a doubt, the challenges of political and business leadership today are daunting. But aren't they always?

Before proceeding further we need to define leadership. Here is how it is defined today in three introductory business textbooks:

Leadership involves influencing others to act toward the attainment of a goal. Leadership [is] directing or inspiring people to attain organizational goals. Leaders are individuals who, by their actions, facilitate the movement of a group of people toward a common goal.... Leadership is an influence process.

This is the generic, bare-bones definition of leadership, and it serves as a useful starting point.
The definition proves that leadership is a frequently used word, but there is no commonly accepted definition for the term. This situation is exacerbated because the differentiation between leadership and management is not always clear; many people use the two interchangeably. Furthermore, adjectives, such as transactional and transformational, often precede the word leadership, but these descriptors actually may create more confusion than clarification.

Dictionaries generally define leadership as a person's capacity to guide or direct others. There are famous leaders from military, political, religious, sports, family, and other organizational types, as well as from business. They are known for a variety of attributes including charisma and the ability to inspire others to follow their suggested course of action-even during times of crisis.

Today's leaders face political and economic challenges as significant as any we've seen in a long time. And in accepting the mantle of leadership, they must also accept the responsibility for making transparent, foundational changes to keep up with the times.

Unfortunately the Khoza versus government leadership debate has turned into “if you are not with us, you are against us” debacle.

This is because the barriers to constructive progress our business and political leaders face today include vested-interest gridlock and heated debate versus constructive dialogue.

The challenge for our business and political leaders is to find ways to inspire commitment to the common good, in everything they do, including complicated matters such as taxation, to health care, to education, to investment in the nation's infrastructure. It is in the enlightened self-interest of all leaders to have a clear understanding of the interrelationships between political, public and private interests, national and global goals, and short-term and long-term objectives.

Clearly, the role and practices of leadership are changing, as the situation around our country and the world changes. Success is less and less dependent on political leadership only and more and more on the leader's ability to encourage and support the country’s economic and business efforts and leadership. Acceptance, adaptability, and interpersonal abilities are keys to true leadership.

That is why author Michael Korda said, 'Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers who can cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.'

True leaders understand that they are but chapters, not books. They are part of a larger story -- they are stewards of a legacy, serving as links between the past and future.

Steward-leaders must be prepared to do battle with many loud voices and strong forces arrayed against them, not the least of which is the common (and often wrong) wisdom of political and business talk shops and armchair generals.

True leaders raise the level of business and leadership discourse and get on to collaboration and commitment. True leaders must convince us that greed and narrow self-interest will only compound the issues our children will face.

Here are a few leadership principles I am imploring our political and business leaders to observe:

A Leader must have a vision. Do our business and political leaders have a common vision for our country? If so, has that vision been communicated to the nation so that everyone moves from the same page hopefully and with the same passion as the leader.

Do our leaders have plans and are they executing them efficiently? The truth is no one, no matter how good a leader, can do everything by himself or herself. A leader seeks active participation from everyone. He or she gets inputs from wise counsel. After all teamwork is critical to get the work done. Do our leaders, business or political, have a plan or plans for their vision and are they "walking the talk" of the vision?

A leader, whether business or political, will always meet opposition. There will always be opposition. What is important is for the leader's passion and commitment to persevere despite overwhelming challenges.

Lastly our business and political leaders must have integrity and demonstrate fairness. This is very important. We can't respect or trust leaders who have no integrity. This is what governance is about, as well as -- to trust that the leader will be fair, transparent and not do things behind your back.

Are our business and political leaders living a life of integrity and visionary leadership? I leave it for you to decide.

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