The pandemic has cast a harsh light not just on the schisms within societies, but also – for leaders in the public and private sectors – the inherent unpredictability of doing business. But while COVID-19 has tested leaders’ mettle like few crises before it, there is a hope that the sheer intensity of the experience could birth a new kind of leader, one that is more in tune with their lived experiences and the immense learning and wisdom that can flow from this.
“If ever there was a time to turn to a different form of logic it is now,” says Kosheek Sewchurran, director of the Executive MBA programme at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB). He explains that in a complex world, leaders need more than knowledge and skills; they need the courage of their convictions about ‘goodness’ and an ability to think integratively, along with enough practical experience to act with wisdom. “As the world braces for the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, we need leaders who don’t just know?what?to do but understand?how?to do it.”?
Sewchurran says that business schools, accordingly, need to change the ways they teach. In essence, they need to innovate to allow leaders to experience new ways of being, doing and knowing that is rooted in a becoming world. In other words, there is need for rounded development that includes both knowledge, which inspires capability, and the development of virtue (Aristotle’s reference for personal excellence). And this needs to be rooted in practice. It is only out of wise, skilled practice that leaders can pursue new options and make new choices while uncovering and working with paradox and tensions.
The UCT GSB prides itself on being at the forefront of this puzzling frontier,?developing graduates who think and act in ways that foster innovation and positive change in the midst of complexity.?Its EMBA programme, ranked number one in Africa by the Financial Times and Quacquarelli Symonds, is one of the fastest growing postgraduate degrees at the University of Cape Town and is known for its focus on the practice of management and leadership rather than a traditional training in business functions.?Its location in an emerging market – a context that is increasingly recognised as being an?incubator of innovation?– gives the programme an extra edge.
The EMBA provides reflective strategies, practical insight, and tools to build students’ capacities to work productively with anomalies and complexity. The experiences of its graduates – many of whom have achieved notable success in the public and private sectors – demonstrate that leaders today must wrestle with three key provocations.
Provocation 1 – Wisdom comes from reconciling what’s on the inside with outside pressures, especially when your back is against the wall
Fortune Gamanya, associate director at Deloitte, and a 2018 graduate of the UCT GSB’s EMBA programme, says that embracing uncertainty involves acknowledging that we live in an unpredictable world. It also demands a degree of self-awareness; understanding how you as a leader respond when your back is against the wall, and you don’t have all the answers.
Fellow alumnus,?Buhle Goslar, is Chief Executive Growth and New Markets at JUMO – a?financial technology platform that connects under-served customers in Africa and Asia to financial services. Goslar believes in the power of industry disruption to drive broader access to health, education, financial services, transport and communications.?She says, “market disruptors are, out of necessity, lion-hearted – they are not afraid of tension and complexity.?Instead, they seek it out as a vehicle to seeing the world as it really is. They ask ‘why not? If not this way, then how?’” She also believes that successful disruptors find creative ways to learn in the midst of doing.
Provocation 2 – Becoming comfortable with emergence can help you deal creatively with social and economic challenges
Paxton Anderson says that the EMBA offers?a more experiential, emergent style of thinking and exposes students to different ways of viewing the world. He says, “often this shift in perspective or a process of questioning closely-held beliefs can lead to creative entrepreneurial breakthroughs.”
Jerome Thomas,?service sales director for Southern, West & French Sub-Saharan Africa at GE Healthcare, echoes this saying that learning to embrace VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity – proved helpful when his organisation had to adapt to the outbreak of COVID-19.
“Before doing the EMBA at the UCT GSB, I was resistant to change but have since learned to embrace the uncertainty. I am more comfortable leading in an unpredictable environment which has enabled me to lead my team better in the time of COVID-19,” he says. Humanity is at the core of his leadership strategy, a value that was also strongly influenced by his EMBA, where he recalls lectures on mindfulness and how it improves awareness, self-knowledge, and personal growth. It was here that he was encouraged to think about a reflective leadership style, which he has come to incorporate as much as possible.
“A stressed mind cannot see clearly, much like a jar with muddy water, in which the water only becomes clear once the dirt has settled.”?
Provocation 3 – Having a sense of the things that ennoble us, is proportionate to the?pleasure we derive from any created thing. The authentic and creative practice of?strategy and leadership?emerge from this understanding
Themba Kalua, Head of UN Women in Papua New Guinea in the Pacific says the EMBA provided her with the knowledge, skills and tools to lead teams in times of complexity, as well as a keen understanding of what her own values and needs are. This has given her the strength to lead within the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The EMBA has helped me to be a more authentic and mindful leader. One of the unique offerings of the EMBA is that in addition to the combination of academic rigour, it focuses on personal leadership development that takes the students in a journey of self-discovery and out of their comfort zones.”
Phathizwe Malinga, former CEO of SqwidNet – licensed network operator for Sigfox in South Africa and subsidiary of Dark Fibre Africa, credits the insights he gained on the EMBA for preparing him for his leadership role by transforming?his way of thinking and enhancing his strategic decision-making abilities. “It gave me the confidence to navigate complex problems with integrity and humility. I learned that there are many truths and I no longer feel the need always to be right. I have learned to listen.”
“The essence of practice in management, of really coming to grips with the lived experience of disharmony and complexity, is a crucial skill for leaders in disruptive and uncertain times,” says Sewchurran. “The truth is that managers don’t operate on a plane removed from the world around them, where they have all the answers and can employ abstract, rational thinking to lay out their options and pick the best.”
It is only by changing their relationship to their lived experience, embracing emergence, and having a deep understanding of self that leaders can make sense of these times.?“We refer to this on the EMBA as providing an understanding of ‘Being’ that is changing skilful practical coping,” says Sewchurran.
As a distinctly African business school, the UCT GSB’s expertise in teaching students how to strive for excellence in tough operating environments has made its programmes internationally sought-after qualifications in the world today.