Jazzing up leadership
In these complex times that we live in, leadership in its broadest form is faced with dire challenges. The solutions to these challenges will require new and different approaches to leadership. R. Buckminster Fuller said that ‘You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.’
Prof Derick de Jongh, Director of the Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership (ALCRL) at the University of Pretoria (UP), shares the same sentiment as Buckminster explaining that when faced with a complex society you need new approaches to leadership. ‘According to a colleague of mine, Prof Mary Uhl-Bien from the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University, complexity is simply about ‘rich interconnectivity where various forces of change basically connect with each other’, while these forces of change refer to for example the levels of inequality that have reached a point where they connect to the political economy,’ says Prof De Jongh. Radical economic transformation, #FeesMustFall, and climate change are just a few examples of such forces of change in the complex society we live in today.
Prof De Jongh explains that institutions and organisations have not kept up with changing times. ‘In the past, you would come to university, study, get your degree and leave. Now suddenly universities are confronted with very complex situations with poor students relying on universities and government to support them in finishing their studies. This on its own has cultural implications because the demography of universities has changed over time.’ For this kind of complex issue, there is no simple linear process or answer. It will require much more than the traditional views of leadership generally seen as the so-called ‘strong, articulate, usually ‘great man’ theory of leadership’ to come up with solutions. ‘What we are basically saying is that the kind of leadership that we are used to is not going to be the type of leadership that we need to come up with solutions for these complex times going forward,’ he reiterates.
Prof De Jongh uses the metaphor of a symphony orchestra versus a jazz band to illustrate what he means when he talks about rethinking leadership in complex times. ‘A symphony orchestra is structured, predictable and it follows very specific rules (the music score) – there is a conductor with various instrumentalists and they all follow a particular music score as directed by the conductor,’ he explains. They cannot deviate from this score because this would negatively affect the harmony of the music, resulting in a cacophony of sound. He adds that this is like the conventional approaches to leadership – where leaders are trained to stand in front of people and strictly apply and enforce rules. ‘What is basically happening is that leaders are following or using conventional approaches and applying misplaced styles of leadership to try and deal with complex problems. Prof Ul-Bien simply writes ‘you need complexity to beat complexity’. What she is saying and Prof De Jongh fully supports, is that one should allow these conversions and opposing forces of change to emerge. This will cultivate a culture of new approaches to deal with these opposing challenges, valuing disagreements and embracing real, uncomfortable debates. ‘There is a lot to learn from this,’ says Prof De Jongh.
Jazz, on the other hand, is completely different. There is no fixed musical score. There is a lot of improvisation taking place between musicians and it might sound unmusical to someone who doesn’t know the genre. ‘To the unlearned ear, it could just sound like a cacophony. Jazz is an acquired taste, it is unpredictable and a bit crazy,’ says Prof De Jongh. He elaborates that right now, we are basically confronted with a ‘jazz band moment’ in the world rather than with a symphony orchestra. One cannot put a symphony orchestra conductor in front of a jazz band. ‘Circumstances today are not predictable and precise, they are complex and we need leadership that can deal with a jazz band scenario,’ he adds. Leaders must position themselves within the ‘unmusical and cacophony’ situation and become part of it. ‘Embrace the conflicting sounds,’ he says.
Fortunately, the ALCRL trains leaders that will be able to deal with the jazz band scenario. PhD and MPhil students are regularly presented with complex problems to solve. ‘We need to situate leadership in a world where we have unprecedented challenges whether in a social, economic or at an environmental level,’ says Prof De Jongh. The ALCRL co-creates what leadership looks like in a complex world by introducing forces of change and the emergence of creative solutions in the hope that it will equip our students for the issues they will encounter in leadership positions.
Prof De Jongh says that the ALCRL endeavours to spread the legacy of Chief Albert Luthuli into complex leadership situations. ‘We want to advance his legacy because he was a remarkable man who lived in very complex times and stood by his own values of peace and reconciliation. He showed courage to allow conflicting forces of change to interact and provided a constructive platform for dialogue and solution seeking. He never forced his ideas on people and he allowed society to form part of the solutions,’ he explains. With that said, Chief Luthuli continues to be a great leader to look up in jazzing up leadership.
Prof De Jongh first presented these ideas at the Governance Conference: Inclusive Capitalism – Leading South Africa with Courage. The conference was held at the Emperors Palace on Thursday, 22 May . He was one of the keynote speakers amongst Dr Reuel Khoza, Adv Thuli Madonsela and Prof Mervyn King.
– Author Mikateko Mbambo