Intentional leadership

international leadership

Author: Akona Gazi-Babana CA(SA), Senior Lecturer (BCTA Co-Ordinator) of Accountancy at UJ

At a time of significant changes in leadership across the globe, leadership continues to be the cornerstone of successful innovative organisation. Leadership is everything but a title. One can be appointed the CEO of a large listed company and still not be viewed as a natural or successful leader if they are unable to exhibit and deliberately apply leadership qualities to the organisation and its people.

I have come to realise that leadership is not self-centred; it embodies self-awareness and sacrifice. A leader and manager is often differentiated by saying that ‘managers do “things right’ and that leaders do the “right things”.’ I think of South Africa and how it became a democratic state. Many of our leaders had to sacrifice their own interests for the betterment of South Africa. That is considered true leadership − doing the right things.

During my career, I have come to appreciate the importance of good leadership which considers the interests of stakeholders inside and outside an organisation. Leaders can no longer be those that stand at the top of the pyramid, the ‘main creator’ – instead, leaders are those that have been given licence to lead from their stakeholders. Leaders have been entrusted with the responsibility of bringing together different stakeholders to achieve a shared common vision. This means that leaders are not shepherds nor are the stakeholders sheep. However, leaders are responsible for the quality of relationships amongst stakeholders in ensuring such relationships are inclusive and based on sound values that serve a common purpose and vision of the organisation.

A leader’s actions should be aligned with their words and the organisation’s values, goals and objectives because this contributes to their integrity, legitimacy and the trust of stakeholders. An authentic leader endeavours to develop trusting relationships with individuals throughout the organisation. Entrusted with the responsibility of integrating individuals with different perspectives and conflicting interests, it has become imperative that a leader understands the varying perspectives and has the obligation to balance conflicting views and opinions. As difficult as it may sometimes be, a leader needs to always do the right things.

Of my many takeaway points on leadership, two resonate deeply with my values and idea of leadership, namely incidental leadership and genderbiased leadership.

Incidental leadership

As South Africa navigates through turbulent waters, it has become important that those entrusted with leadership positions are intentional and clear about their purpose and vision of their organisation and the greater South Africa. In the recent past there have been many untimely resignations and/or retirements of CEOs and CFOs in South African JSE-listed entities: the C-suite exodus. One cannot help but question the effectiveness of succession planning and intentional vs incidental leadership decisions that many of these organisations are faced with. In some instances, organisations find themselves needing to elect a leader with minimal succession planning in place.

Furthermore, many of these appointments do not follow a well-ordered process of identifying the right leader. Often, leaders are appointed by considering a combination of circumstances such as organic progression in organisation through promotion, excellence in their functional expertise, confidence, and self-interest – essentially being in the ‘right place at the right time’. I have learnt that being great at your job does not necessarily mean you are a good leader. It’s so important that these lines do not get blurred!

Managers who find themselves in these incidental leadership positions need to consciously apply intentional leadership, where a leader upskills themselves to deliberately fill the shoes they are having to walk in. Mentorship is an important component where those that have walked the path before pass on the baton to these incidental leaders. The baton represents what experience has taught them, what they wish they had done differently and why.

Whether a leader is intentionally or incidentally appointed, each leader has a responsibility of committing to the art of leadership through consistent dedication to the organisation and its people. While a leader’s appointment can be incidental, the leadership style needs to be intentional and not incidental or accidental. Without intention, organizations will continue to be faced with the cliché saying, ‘people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses.’

Gender bias in leadership

The underrepresentation of women in leadership positions is concerning, with only 8% of JSE-listed entities being represented by female CEOs. While this percentage has been gradually increasing, it is simply not enough. There is a gender bias resulting in men being promoted into leadership positions and this could result in many incidental leaders.

The underrepresentation of women in top leadership roles because of an unconscious bias results in the under-recognition of women in the workplace. These biases can lead to women being overlooked for promotions or not being given the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Practical realities such as marriage and childbearing and raising are viewed as some of the hinderances to the recognition of women in the workplace by their male counterparts.

Leadership is a trait that has historically been unfairly limited to a specific gender, the male gender. However, both men and women can exhibit strong leadership qualities and be successful leaders. Research has shown that leadership characteristics are more commonly associated with one gender over another however both genders have the capacity to exhibit these traits. While men are often seen as more decisive and confident, women are viewed as more collaborative and empathetic. It is essential to recognise that these characteristics are not exclusive to one gender and that anyone can possess, cultivate, and integrate these traits to become an effective leader.

Having women in leadership positions is not only important to strive for diversity and inclusivity in leadership, but having a range of perspectives and experiences can lead to better collaboration, more decisive and innovative decision-making, and better outcomes towards a shared common vision. In addition, women in leadership positions serve as inspiration for other women and breaks down barriers and negative stereotypes that prevent women from pursing leadership roles.

This serves as a component of implicit mentorship. Lastly, the importance of underrepresented (gender and/or race) individuals in leadership positions cannot be discounted, especially given South Africa’s demographic and economic status. It is not sustainable that individuals with similar backgrounds, lived experiences, educational experiences continue to make decisions for organisations constituted of a diverse range of individuals – this results in an unappreciation of the diverseness of the organisation and its various stakeholders.

The art of leadership is a never-ending commitment to building skills and capabilities in the service of those that are led. Good leadership is intentional, unbiased and not gender specific. A leader does the right things!