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A leadership culture will make South Africa great

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It’s been an interesting year for South Africans so far. Between political uncertainty, unstable power supply, rising inflation, traffic congestion and a perception that crime is out of control, many of us are feeling gloomy, panicked and ready to pack up and go, writes Jean Moncrieff, CEO of Emerge Group.

However, as we all know (but sometimes forget), when the going gets tough South Africans make a plan.  We don’t have to look far to find examples of people who are doing exactly that, from the Capetonian who’s making home-sized wind turbines to the businesses who are using waste heat from their server farms to power their air conditioning systems.
Yes, we should hold our government to account: uncritical optimism is not a healthy response to a crisis. Neither, however, is blame and finger-pointing. Instead, we need to develop our ability to lead. History shows that out of adversity emerge some of the greatest leaders. And that’s exactly what we need to unify South Africa against the challenges we face.  
Leadership and taking responsibility doesn’t come naturally to most South Africans. Decades of apartheid government conditioned us, black and white, to the idea that authority must either be blindly obeyed or circumvented as far as possible. In both cases, there is no room for argument, accountability or true engagement. The result has been a blame culture: we’re all happy to point fingers at each other for getting us into this mess, but few are prepared to take initiative and lead us out of it.
Once we raise our heads up out of the swamp and get some perspective, it’s easy to see plenty of opportunity on the horizon. South Africa is still the fastest-growing economy in Africa south of the Sahara, with far better physical, legal and business infrastructure than our closest competitor Nigeria. With our skills and ability to work to difficult conditions, we are in a unique position to lead the continent’s growth – and to reap the rewards.
Taking leadership means accepting the challenges that face us and doing something to overcome them. At home and in the office, for example, it means taking action to reduce your power consumption by at least 10% and preferably more. This is not just to avoid more load shedding, but also to help minimise South Africa’s carbon emissions and thus the global warming which will make our children’s lives very miserable if we don’t act.
In our businesses, taking the lead means empowering our staff to become leaders in their own right, people who can take initiative to deliver service that wows our customers. Skills shortages are a reality and will continue to be so; we must develop all the talent we have to its fullest potential.
Sometimes, taking the lead also means acknowledging there is more to life than profit. If we want to live a good life, it helps if others lead good lives too: let inequalities of income and hope grow too big and crime is an inevitable consequence. We want to build businesses and communities characterised by the spirit of ubuntu – “a person is a person through other people”.
Ubuntu is characterised by trust, respect, sharing, community, caring and unselfishness. It is an approach through which we enable everyone around to benefit from our own success.
Taking ownership also means challenging our government, offering viable alternatives to policies that aren’t working. If we want to attract skills back to this country, for example, we need to stop making it so difficult for those who want to make a contribution.
There are too many stories of people who want to settle, work and invest here being blocked by red tape. Getting over-protective about local jobs will only backfire in the long run – we need all the skills we can get so that we grow new businesses to create more jobs. Let’s make it easy, not hard, for the world’s best and brightest to settle here. Some of them are eager to take up the challenges.