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The more things change, the more they remain the same

The ‘gurus’ of South Africa’s business education sector need to learn to be increasingly adaptable – making sense of uncertainty and managing complexity. The qualities of openness, empathy, integrity and self-awareness should replace harmful elitist posturing.

‘I Write What I Like – Steve Biko’

In recent weeks there has been a flurry of debates in the written press regarding the South African Business School sector, particularly relating to critical questions of transformation. In this respect, a coterie of administrators from the so-called prestigious business schools sector is of the conviction that issues of transformation are not within the purview of their elitist spaces. More specifically, though, the emphasis in these deliberations has been on the issues of massification in higher education, marginalisation of black students, elitism, racism, access, equity and affordability.

In an epiphany, nay, multiple epiphanies, especially in terms of reflecting on the pedantic responses of these administrators to the critical debates, it dawned upon the author that the crux of these deliberations had more to do with issue of ‘leadership’, or the lack thereof. Some 20 years into democracy it would seem that some of us have to be constantly reminded about the cardinal principles of the country’s transformation agenda, that despite the fact that the public higher education institutions whence these administrators hail have ‘sworn’ to abide by the ‘solemn’ promise to change and disrobe themselves of sectionalist tendencies. Even, the transformation committees of these higher education institutions will ‘swear to it’, although in most instances, they simply pay lip service to this commitment. The recent uprisings at some former white universities are witness to this sad state of affairs.

One would have expected that given the problems and challenges that South Africa is currently experiencing, the business schools’ sector would have risen to the occasion and provided the necessary transformatory leadership. Instead, these ‘senior’ administrators, in an unwavering posture have dug their heads in the sand and like the proverbial ostrich believe that all is well in their protected elitist spaces. They either do not appreciate the realities of an emerging South Africa, or are arrogant enough to believe that issues of transformation are beyond the frontiers of their dominion – reminiscent of the apartheid ‘insider-outsider’ mentality.

Whilst these multiple epiphanies were like ‘eureka’ moments, they equally brought with them hurt. Perhaps more so, because these protagonists were supposed to be academics of renown and were supposed to educate our future leaders on how to be pragmatic and ‘lead’ in challenging times. South Africa, as we all know, is experiencing serious problems and challenges in dealing with many of the lingering legacies of a grossly regulated unequal society – lack of access to higher education, poverty, black youth unemployment and major skills deficits

Rather than rising to the challenge, some of our ‘esteemed’ administrators branded my colleague and I, ‘communists’ and all sorts of monikers, to boot. We have no problem with the ‘name calling’, especially if it brings about social justice and transformation for the betterment of our society. Their ranting, shouting, swearing or cursing do not bother me. As Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win.’ I shall not be intimidated by this childish name-calling and I shall always be the change I wish to see in the world. It is my pedigree. Call me what you may. I will persist with my quest to transform the higher business education sector, especially in the interest of a legitimate and democratic dispensation. I am familiar with my constitutional rights and the salient objectives of the Freedom Charter.

It is within this context that I believe that we need to remind these business school administrators and gatekeepers about transformational leadership and how it can assist in addressing many of the problems and challenges of critical skills shortages that confront our country. Is it not ironical that the very people who are supposed to be our business education ‘gurus’, have themselves to be intrinsically re-educated; or is it that they are beyond redemption and will continue being apartheid ideologues? Being the eternal optimist, especially having faith in the ‘good of man’, I am of the conviction that these administrators are not beyond reproach. From my side, they will constantly be reminded about the need to change their provincial and hidebound mind-sets for the greater good of humanity. They deserve no better.

I am skeptical about whether these bigoted administrators could be trained or re-educated to become transformational leaders. I am, however, convinced that if they have the courage to remove their self-donned prejudicial ‘blindfolds’, then they could be exposed to the realities of human frailty, redeem themselves and become ‘born-again’ academics, in search of the truth. They need to be reminded of Jodi Picoult’s wise saying, "Sometimes we find ourselves walking through life blindfolded, and we try to deny that we're the ones who securely tied the knot." These administrators need to untie the knot and free themselves and the future of our nation, for prejudice is the crutch of the mentally handicapped.

If re-education is the potential redeemer of this bigotry, then what is leadership? A perfunctory investigation will alert one to the fact that the question of leadership has been of interest for many centuries. Moreover, seldom has the need for effective leadership been voiced more strongly than in current times. It is argued that in this changing global environment, leadership holds the answer not only to the success of individuals and organisations, but also to nations. Consequently, leadership is one of the quintessential problematiques in terms of legitimate governance, whether in business or in other organisations. Leadership, though, is a complex phenomenon that touches on many important organisational, social and personal issues. It eludes simple definition or theoretical representation and yet is becoming increasingly significant in all aspects of our lives.

A detailed literature survey of the concept of ‘leadership’ reveals that there are as many theories and definitions of the term as there are authors. Indeed, it has become a contested issue. Considering that the critical issue dealt with in this submission is about the imperative for change in harmful elitist posturing amongst these administrators, the author is of the opinion that the concept of ‘transformational leadership’ is both appropriate and opportune for the purposes of enlightenment.

In respect of ‘transformational leadership’, I rely on the conceptual elucidation of co-authors, Bass and Avolio. According to them, “The goal of transformational leadership is to ‘transform’ people and organisations in a literal sense – to change them in mind and heart; enlarge vision, insight, and understanding; clarify purposes; make behaviour congruent with beliefs, principles, or values; and bring about changes that are permanent, self-perpetuating, and momentum building”. In essence, this concept of leadership is a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents.

Another expert, James Burns, suggests that transformational leadership occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality. At the heart of this approach is an emphasis on the leaders’ ability to motivate and empower their followers and also the moral dimension of leadership.

The administrators referred to in this text practice leadership that is not only prejudicial, but far removed from transformational leadership. In this context, leaders work for selfish or deluded aims and encourage followers to work towards goals that are ultimately not in the interest of society. Within this context, leadership functions as a social defense whose central aim is to repress inconvenient truths, especially when they are challenged on their indefensible positions or biased postures.

Transformational leadership requires a deep sense of self and community – valuing diversity, ethics, the individual and the larger collective. In effect, at its heart is a shared emotional intelligence or, as another author on leadership, Alan Wheelis, expresses it: “Freedom is the awareness of alternatives and the ability to choose.” Stubborn refusal to consider alternative and competing approaches, can lead to narcissism - common amongst some of our administrators because it is one of the forces driving them to seek power - that is the power to make their vision come true. In effect, these administrators have become blind, and only seek out information that supports their self-righteous positions and ignoring that which conflicts.

Finally, it would be in the interest of these administrators to take heed of the changing nature of our society in South Africa and the world at large. Our nation is undergoing an unprecedented period of change and this trend appears to be accelerating. There is an improved awareness of the social and political impacts of our actions; a decreasing allegiance to traditional power structures; an increasing complexity with regards to stakeholders and decision-making; increasing demands from our restless youth; an acute awareness of human rights; and a climate of change and uncertainty.
The moral of this story is simple – transformational leadership is key to addressing the challenges of a changing society. Our administrators need to learn that it is an imperative that they become increasingly adaptable – making sense of uncertainty and managing complexity. The qualities of openness, empathy, integrity and self-awareness are coming to the fore and demand a more participative leadership style, whereby the leader not only involves all stakeholders, but listens, and is responsive to feedback. The transformational leader will increasingly need to win the right to lead, lead from the front, lead by example and be accountable to the collective. No more can these gatekeepers dig their heads in the sand. The realities of South Africa prevent them from doing so. If they persist in their obstinacy time will overwhelm them – recent history of student protests in South Africa bears testimony to this.

As administrators of public educational institutions that constantly claim to be prestigious, you need to appraise the intrinsic value of the word ‘prestigious’. Metaphorically, you can be assured that it is not about enhancing the value of a polished diamond by embedding it in a piece of fine jewellery, but by crafting an uncut diamond into a beautiful gem – giving it shape and form. You can then claim the right for your institution to be called ‘prestigious’, because it positively contributes to the transformation of a student from a disadvantaged background into an intellectual or someone who can positively relate and contribute to the development of an emergent South Africa.

These business schools’ administrators or gatekeepers need to remember that the transformational leadership journey is a never ending one and that change is constant. Where the journey and the constant come together true leaders will flourish. I beseech you to become the agents of change which you unashamedly preach about in your master classes, seminars, lectures and marketing campaigns.

I implore you to remove the self-donned prejudicial blindfolds and free yourselves!

* Dhiru Soni is an academic and researcher and writes here in his personal capacity.



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