“You can create a world. You can pull it from your dreams. If you dream of a dark place of anger and division, enemies, wars, greed, dominance and a constant test of wills, then that is the world you will have.”
In 2008, amid the seismic fallout of the Enron scandal, ethics scholar Jags Singh published what would become one of the seminal articles on corporate malfeasance: Impostors Masquerading as Leaders: Can the Contagion be Contained?
Most successful leaders, Singh suggested, possess three essential qualities, in varying proportions: energy (the enthusiasm and stamina to lead); expertise (the skill and competence to lead); and integrity (the vision to lead in the right direction).
Of the three, energy and expertise are highly dynamic. They contract and expand over time. They wax and wane with experience, environment and context. And they can go into protracted hibernation, until a new injection of inspiration or motivation materialises. Ultimately, neither are infinite. In inhospitable environments, energy and expertise can atrophy, wither, or burn out altogether.
Integrity, on the other hand, is something very different.
The internal compass that tilts us towards the collective good rather than selfish gain, integrity has been shown to be largely constant. Hardwired into our psyches, it is all but impervious to changing circumstances or environments.
As the renowned economist Michael Jensen says:
Like the law of gravity, the law of integrity just is.
Or – as is the case for a disappointingly high number of corporate and world leaders – it just is not.
And when it is not, when dubious characters devoid of a strong integrity compass rise to positions of power and privilege, we end up with what Singh calls “crass imposters masquerading as leaders”: Ego- and self-interest driven individuals for whom personal benefit and personal power always triumph over collective good. Often with disastrous consequences for those they claim to lead.
Fast forward to July 2021.
The story of our would-be insurrection, when a group of Machiavellian plotters tried – and failed – to overthrow our government, is being written under a variety of headlines: Looting. Crime. Corruption. Factionalism. Inequality. Attempted coup.
As annotations to the violence, each of the above labels is accurate in its own way. But they are also wholly incomplete. Because at its rotten core, the turmoil of the past few weeks is not a story of crime. It’s not even a story of politics.
It is the story of structured deception. About who we are, what we stand for, what we will tolerate, and what leadership really looks like. And it couldn’t have come at a more treacherous moment in South Africa’s history.
At its rotten core, the turmoil of the past few weeks is not a story of crime. It’s not even a story of politics. It is the story of structured deception.
Already on the ropes from the many body blows of a global pandemic, including our well-documented failures around the procurement and rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, South African society found itself ailing, frustrated and hungry for leadership.
Despite our president’s best efforts and noblest intentions, the pandemic steamed out of control, and into a second, and then a third wave. The death toll kept rising. The infection rate kept climbing. While the rest of the world were contemplating what a post-pandemic era might look like, South Africans were still frantically tallying hospital beds, and oxygen supplies.
Predictably, the slow, deadly burn of a vicious and unrelenting virus attacked the most vulnerable first, and hardest.
COVID-19, we learnt early on, is an equal opportunity invader; it shows no deference to social standing or status. However, the poor, the sick, the vulnerable and the aged are disproportionately affected, and afflicted. As a result, South Africa’s protracted pandemic quickly, and with devastating efficiency, exposed and exacerbated the deep inequalities that persist in our society.
COVID-19 tested us. And it revealed us.
It revealed the profound socio-economic imbalances; the deep pockets of poverty; the growing hopelessness; the rising tide of anger and resentment.
And it revealed our vulnerability to being misinformed, misled and, perhaps most tragically, to be mis-led by crass imposters masquerading as leaders.
President Cyril Ramaphosa did not get it right all the time, every time. He has admitted to making mistakes. To acting too cautiously, in some instances, and too expansively in others. But there can be little doubt that he acted with the highest integrity. That his actions were inspired, always, by the greater good.
President Cyril Ramaphosa
On the other side of the spectrum, however, we saw a plethora of Singh’s crass imposters – South Africa’s many leaders in name only – who seized on the pandemic and its aftermath with sickening zeal to sow division, amplify our anxieties, and fan the flames of marginalisation, always in service of self-interest alone.
Men – and a few women – who, when we were most in need of real leadership, exposed themselves as being driven entirely by greed and narcissism, who would stop at nothing to whip up violence and disharmony in a desperate attempt to remain relevant.
To profit from our tragedies.
Instead of urging calm and unity, or working towards healing rifts and building bridges, the imposters banging at our gate sought only to divide us further. To make us more mistrustful. To exploit our base fears and our deepest vulnerabilities. And to till the soil and set the scene for what would follow.
Hate is a finite fuel
July 2021 was a watershed moment for South Africa. But not in the way the would-be insurrectionists had hoped it would be.
It was a watershed moment of unity. Of coming together. Of pushing back. Of cleaning up. Of building anew. It was bread convoys and taxi barricades. It was ordinary South Africans – millions of us – saying: Not in our name. Not in our country.
And it was a watershed moment of redefining the kind of leadership that South Africa needs. And the crass imposters we need to expose, and strip, once and for all, of their ill-gotten and ill-deserved titles of leadership.
The events of the past few weeks have shone a bright and unforgiving light on the fake leaders at our fringes. The charlatans. The narcissists. The imposters. The soon-to-be irrelevant.
South Africa will rise, and rebuild, and emerge better. We are already. Because despite the frenetic efforts of those fanning the flames, hate is a finite fuel. It may burn hot, for a while. It may consume and destroy. But it always runs out of heat and oxygen.
Because hate doesn’t build. It doesn’t heal. It doesn’t unite. And it doesn’t fuel what the vast majority of South Africans want and need the most. Hope. And leadership.
True leadership that consists of all three essential elements elevated by Singh.
The energy to take on the myriad of economic, social and environmental challenges we face.
The expertise to not only unite us, but lead us, boldly and brimming with possibility, into a rapidly evolving future for which there is no blueprint.
And most importantly, the integrity to lead us with humility, courage and decency. And always in pursuit of the greater good. For all South Africans.
Yours in unity,