SOUTH AFRICA’S LEADERSHIP STANDARD: From pockets to pools of excellence by Marius Meyer

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This week is #LeadershipStandard week in South Africa. The week will be remembered as the time when business and government leaders together with HR professionals decided that leadership should be our top priority by developing our first leadership standard for the country.  Nationally and indeed internationally we face a leadership crisis. Institutions, companies and countries either rise or fall on the quality of their leaders.  Despite these failures, admittedly leaders face the most complex environment in which they have to function. Therefore, what can be more important than leadership?  Leadership provides vision, hope, direction, momentum and the critical, but clear voice needed to take an organisation forward.


While it is a fact that there are many gaps in leadership, the irony about the leadership vacuum is that it provides opportunities for new leaders to emerge. These new leaders simply rise to the occasion by tackling the leadership gap themselves.  In fact, most non-profit organisations have been formed when government and business leaders have failed to address a societal problem.  Take the AIDS epidemic as an example.  When the AIDS crisis got out of hand, the Treatment Action Campaign emerged as leaders addressing the HIV/AIDS eidemic, even when certain government and business leaders denied the existence of the problem.  Epidemics such as AIDS also provide good leadership opportunities across sectors and traditional boundaries.  One group of leaders that has not been recognised for their contribution in curbing the AIDS crisis, has been HR Managers. Ever since HIV and AIDS emerged as a potential risk for individuals, families, business, government and society, HR Managers were the first professionals, or let me rephrase leaders, putting up their hands to address the problem.  Likewise, government has been so successful in addressing HIV/AIDS in the workplace and society in general, that the epidemic is now considered to be under control, so such so that infection rates have decreased.  It is therefore not surprising that notwithstanding the fact that South Africa still has one of the highest infection rates in the world, that its AIDS programme is also considered the best in the world. Thus, a crisis presents a leadership opportunity. That is the reason why so many non-profit organisations have emerged in response to gaps in the market. Sadly, though, some of them are formed when leadership in government and business has failed. For instance, the Partners for Possibility Campaign was formed to address the failure of the education system.  Community police forums and neighbourhood watches have mushroomed because police officers and police leaders have failed to address the problem of crime. Also, Business Against Crime and Corruption Watch were formed to expose and tackle corruption.  Why is it necessary for civil society to intervene in providing leadership when government institutions are failing?

Admittedly, some of the societal problems mentioned here appear to be insurmountable. Just take unemployment as a case in point.  Government, business and civil society have been unable to bring unemployment down, and poor economic growth has not helped either.  The question is:  Will (real) leaders in government and business emerge to make a real difference in bringing unemployment down?  – Leaders who can devise and implement the right interventions in bringing unemployment down, as well as the other socio-economic problems facing the country and its people.

The good news, however, is that South Africa has been blessed with great leaders in all spheres of society – in business, government and the non-profit sector.  Some of our banks, retailers and media companies are considered world-class. Our top universities are the best in Africa and outperforming universities in some of the leading countries of the world.  Our private medical practitioners and hospitals are among the best in the world. Some of our professional bodies such as SAICA, IIA and IODSA are world leaders in accounting and corporate governance respectively.   Our Auditor-General, SARS, Reserve Bank and some other government entities are world-class.  However, leadership at one time, does not mean leadership forever. Even our best institutions may regress into mediocrity.  Some of them may lose their reputation and status as world leaders when they enter a phase of demise or even collapse.  Once again, one factor stands out amongst others as the critical success factor determining organisational success and that is leadership.  Top institutions did not become world-class overnight, they also did not achieve world-class status because of luck. These institutions have been designed for excellence by their leaders.  Hence, it is clear that leadership determines success.  But leaders need to be replicated and multiplied to create, grow and sustain excellence.

We need to acknowledge the reality that the current leadership talent in South Africa remains a scarce resource. And when I use the term leadership talent, I am not referring to all people in leadership positions. I am referring to people who take a mediocre organisation and transform that organisation into an excellent organisation. Or entrepreneurs who emerge from nowhere and set a business up for fast and sustainable growth. Or a government leader who jumps in and turns mediocrity into excellence. These leaders do exist, but they are few and far between.


Have you booked your seat for The Leadership Standard Journey?


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With the development of South Africa’s first leadership standard this week, it is exactly our intention to replicate pockets of leadership excellence into large pools of leadership excellence. The pool of leadership talent should be so large that leadership becomes a key organisational capability in achieving sustainable organisational success.  And good leaders should support, mentor and coach struggling leaders to further enlarge the leadership talent pool.  Creating and developing leaders based on a clear leadership standard will elevate leadership to a national level and will ensure that good leadership becomes the norm and not remain the exception. Maintaining the status quo will not get us anywhere. Now is the time for leaders to emerge and to support one another in prioritising leadership as a top imperative for all organisations in South Africa.  I thank all leaders who already joined the leadership standard journey this week, and I look forward to thousands of other leaders joining this important national intervention after this week.


Marius Meyer is CEO of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP) and author of 21 books for Juta, Van Schaik, Lexis-Nexis, Knowledge Resources and more than 500 articles for magazines such as HR Future, HR Voice, Talent Talks, Leadership Online and Achiever Magazine.  Leaders will receive daily updates on progress with the development of the Leadership Standard, they can use the hashtag #LeadershipStandard and follow SABPP on twitter @SABPP1 or Talent Talks on @talenttalksnet  or by visiting the website