The 4th International Conference on Responsible Leadership was held in Johannesburg, South Africa, from 15 to 16 March . Hosted by the Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership and the Gordon Institute of Business Science in partnership with the Copenhagen Business School and the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative, the conference brought together nearly 150 speakers and delegates representing government, business, civil society, media and leading academic institutions from across the globe. Prof Derick de Jongh, Director of the Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership, in his welcoming address highlighted the complexity of the world we live in and how there is a global outcry for responsible leadership. He particularly emphasised the importance of re-looking at what leadership and responsibility really mean in such a complex world. He also situated the leadership debate in what many already refer to as a ‘post-truth’ paradigm where trust, credibility and legitimacy seem to dissipate right in front of our eyes.
A diverse array of plenary, panel and abstract driven sessions stimulated discussion around the overarching conference theme of ‘Leadership challenges that matter’. Speakers and delegates considered global, regional and national challenges that ranged from climate change to refugees and migration to the South African higher education crisis.
While the keynote speakers varied considerably in terms of their sectors and responsibilities, nearly all of them lamented the current deficit of responsible leadership in today’s world. This was of significant concern, especially in view of the increasingly complex challenges that must be overcome if the world is to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
In his keynote address, Mr Jeff Radebe, Minister in the Presidency of South Africa, highlighted the ‘need to find new solutions to the intractable problems in our society’. He called for ‘collective leadership’ that is ‘futuristic in its orientation’ and ‘does not characterise itself as public or private’. This appeal for stronger linkages across sectors and groups in society was further emphasised by Mr Tito Mboweni, Africa Advisor of Goldman Sachs and former Governor of South Africa’s Reserve Bank, who noted that the experience and insights of traditional Chiefs in rural South African communities ‘would serve well to inform the leadership of the country’. Isaac Shongwe, Chair of Barloworld Ltd and Founder of the Africa Leadership Initiative, differentiated between ‘successful versus significant’ leadership and lamented the disconnect between academia and practice. He called on the need to bridge Alexandra and Sandton, suggesting that ‘we can actually learn about leadership from squatter camps’.
‘Leading from behind’ was highlighted by several speakers as a strategy used by iconic South African leaders such as Chief Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela. Engaging anecdotes shared by Mr Mboweni conveyed how inclusive leadership behaviour helps to cultivate shared ownership of problems, thus leading to better solutions for all. The question of legitimacy in leadership was reflected on by Prof Willem Fourie, Associate Professor of Ethics at the University of Pretoria, who outlined four critical competencies that are regularly demonstrated by legitimate leaders. One of these is the ability to promote collaborative action among followers.
The focus on ‘bridging’ and ‘connecting across difference’ was a recurrent theme throughout the conference. Its relevance and importance is perceived to be growing as the need for novel solutions and new partnerships becomes more and more acute. Prof Mary Uhl-Bien, Professor of Leadership at Texas Christian University, emphasised how the complexity of today’s world is characterised by rapid information flows, interdependency and heterogeneity. Traditional leadership through bureaucracy and formal structures is ill suited to address these dynamics and the challenges they create. Rather, as Dr Uhl-Bien underscored, ‘complexity requires an adaptive response’ whereby informal networks and adaptive spaces facilitate diverse ideas and people to come together and generate solutions.
Complementing the plenary discussions were a number of panels and abstract-driven sessions that considered leadership across different sectors and contexts. These ranged from leadership in relation to diversity, sustainability and fiduciary responsibility as well as leadership within specific development sectors such as public healthcare and higher education. The latter was of central focus for the conference given the recent ‘fees must fall’ crisis in country, and the recognition that leading South African universities were completely ill prepared to manage it. As Chief Albert Luthuli’s granddaughter Zanele Hlatshwayo noted, it also revealed ‘arrogance on the part of leadership’ rather than inclusive empathy for all stakeholders.
Overall the conference spirit was one of self-reflection and acknowledgement of the need for better understanding of responsible leadership and how it can be promoted at all levels of society. In this regard, the need for leaders to be guided by evidence was emphasised and the conference also served to launch a new platform to disseminate knowledge and research in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals in South Africa. The SDG Knowledge Hub (www.sdgknowledgehub.org) is a freely available knowledge resource which aims to link policy makers and development partners with transformative research. As such it will help to strengthen the link between knowledge and practice in South Africa.
In addition to the need for evidence-driven action, other recommendations that were generated through the conference discussions included the following:
The interrelationship between inclusiveness, ownership and leadership needs to be better understood and taken into account. Leaders should consider and understand the needs of their constituents and involve them in the articulation of problems and development of solutions.
Local-level, bottom-up leadership should be promoted and space needs to be given to ensure that lessons from the community inform action at higher levels.
Care and reflection is required when designing and interpreting metrics to measure value and progress. Current metrics that are focused on economic indices influence leadership practices. To promote more responsible leadership by both business and government, there is a need to develop alternative measures and indicators and change the ‘rules of the game’.
Collaboration across sectors, actors and issues is of increasing frequency in the era of complexity and promotes both networks and adaptive spaces. While interests may not always directly align, there seems to be more value and efficiency in being explicit about individual interests, rather than concealing them.
Empathy, humanity, inquiry and listening are essential aspects of responsible leadership and need to be actively promoted and encouraged.
The conference was followed by a collaborative colloquium which brought together 50 participants. The main objective of the collaboration was to facilitate productive engagement with a diverse group of stakeholders, including students and both local and international academics on the issue of leadership in the face of the South African higher education crisis. The participants succeeded in refining a key question that formed the backdrop to a very fruitful discussion over the entire weekend, namely: ‘How do we co-create a university where open and difficult topics are embraced and debated?’ A full report on the collaborative outcomes will be made available.
It is expected that the conclusions and academic papers from the conference will be consolidated in a special issue of the Journal of Business Ethics. For additional information on the conference and its outcomes, please contact Professor Derick de Jongh, Director of the Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership (Derick.DeJongh@up.ac.za).