What is Leadership?

Welcome to the second part of a four-part conversation I recently had with Maritha Erasmus, CEO of Managing Transformation Solutions (Pty) Ltd. MTS are a South African company that specialises in guiding business leaders through critical sustainability decisions, and our chat covered so much ground that I wanted to give each topic we discussed its own distinct spotlight.

Last time, we discussed the importance of education in empowering communities, achieving inclusivity, and giving people invaluable tools for the future. Today, our subject is leadership.

Alexander Pond: The established idea is that leadership is driven by influence, but a lot of the influence in those scenarios is not on the ground where it’s required and where they’d have the visibility to make good, conscious, decisions, but in corporation boardrooms that are thousands of miles away and have no real connection to the historical relevance of the information. Leadership is very much data-driven now and, unfortunately, that data doesn’t provide much in the way of the empathy required to be able to make sustainable decisions.

A lot of your work at MTS tries to build empathy into the solutions you provide. That, to me, is the fundamentally missing ingredient in this; too many companies around the world are increasingly operating without the empathetic view. Unfortunately, a lot of Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG’s) are still being driven through an unempathetic view of how data should be used, and data is only a fundamentally useful tool so long as it is used in tandem with all the other components which make the vision effective.

While you’re creating targets and working towards more sustainable objectives on one hand, you can’t be lobbying governments to make changes in areas that don’t correlate with those ideals on the other. From my point of view, social-related risk is one of those elements that’s often lobbied differently and then targeted differently within an organisation. What’s your opinion?

Maritha Erasmus: I have to agree with you. I’m not against targets. I think you need goals, and you need objectives. But the danger I always see is when hard targets become the driver to meet goals that seem to encourage diversity and representation in an organisation, but there is no real inclusivity or impact.

You can look at your workforce and see lots of people who are different because of their race, their gender, their appearance, or even their religious orientation, but even though there seems to be representation, they might still be excluded. Their voices might not be heard as they have no decision-making power. That’s called ‘green washing’, the idea that something looks okay on the surface but in truth it’s actually rotten to the core. In my view, that is extremely harmful, both for the person, and also for the organisation they’re a part of.

It’s the same with procurement. On the surface, your organisation might look like it is inclusive but if you really examine where the money is going or the benefits are flowing, nothing has ever changed hands. There’s just a cosmetic layer that makes it appear as if things have changed, but the real benefits, monetary or otherwise, are still going to exactly the same people who were receiving them before.

Unless that is addressed, I think it is ultimately going to lead to more social unrest. People are going to say, “You can’t pretend to be inclusive just because you’re chasing targets, we have to feel the benefit too.” And, to me, that is the fundamental difference between your target and whatever you’re lobbying for. People might be lobbying for inclusivity, but that finds its expression in targets.

Alex: Absolutely, and I think there’s something to be said for another shared interest we have, which is the value of systemic design. Systemic design, as an emerging practice in the early 2000s, was, for me, a really fundamental shift; especially in respect of how Arup delivered the idea of total design, taking in all of the different exponentials to create a beautiful web of interconnectedness, which is what systemic design has really evolved into.

Now I think it’s used a lot more to describe some of these really interconnected complex issues, or what I suppose is often referred to as VUCA. One of the things I recognise in the work you do - certainly in some of the social aspects we’ve discussed - is that those interconnected issues not only have a relationship between very important social aspects and cultural aspects, they’re related to environmental aspects as well. You touched on that when we talked about education, and how conservation can have an impact on communities that isn’t often considered.

Maritha: Within the mining industry in particular there are many ways in which you can link the environment with social sustainability, from rehabilitation through to access to land that has been neutralised because the mines or minerals underneath prevent you from building on it. But even in that scenario, you could still definitely farm on it or grow biofuel. There may be a lot of things you could do on the surface that will be regenerative both for the land, and also for the community. Take carbon credits, for example. There are incredible opportunities around carbon credits, access to land, social sustainability, and the environment.

Alex: And that creates the feedback loops which are so important in systemic design. One of the cornerstones of good systemic practice is being able to get balanced, unbiased feedback to your actions – whether that feedback is positive or negative – and having the ability to react to it. And one of the things we’re blessed with now is our capacity to access information that enables us to interpret those feedback loops. We’re not just creating feedback loops via our data, we’re also creating feedback loops in other augmentative ways, such as through people’s actual experiences.

I think in some way that mimics the world of biology, and later in the conversation I’d like to talk in detail about your recent trip to the Kruger National Park and how that is a clear illustration of the impact short feedback loops have on behaviour.

Maritha: As well as underlying how the lack of short feedback loops, and continuing with behaviour in the long-term, can lead to possible extinction.

Maritha will tell us about her Kruger experience in pt.4. It was extremely enlightening, for many different reasons

For a species or environment to survive, it requires short feedback loops. For example, if a headquarters in the U.K. has no feedback loop on their decision-making in Africa, they can’t possibly understand the impact their organisation is having on the local community. I know you want to talk about it later but considering what we’re talking about right now – ‘leadership’ – I think it’s important to underline how my experience at the Kruger National Park was really about nature opening my eyes and enabling me to see better and with more detail.

Alex: That resonates perfectly with the experience I had, when I travelled around Europe writing a white paper about what leadership actually is. Even though people had described me as a leader, I knew on a gut level that I didn’t really understand what that meant so I decided to meet a lot of people who are considered leaders in their field and ask them the question, “What is leadership?”

I needed to find a way to articulate it in my own language, in my own original thought, and it sounds like the same sort of thing you experienced.

Maritha: I agree with that sentiment completely. Sometimes you have to immerse yourself in something to really understand what it is that you’re not comfortable with. My own sense was that I was looking too narrow, I wasn’t seeing the picture, and now I think I’ve got a better appreciation of the size of the picture and the small corner of it that I can see!

Alex: I know exactly how that feels. On a day-to-day basis it’s like looking back at the Earth from a spaceship. The Earth is so vast but it’s also so small that you can’t comprehend the scale. Leadership is not only about comprehending the scale but having awareness of all the details and actively addressing them instead of just talking about it.

Maritha: It’s also about leading and driving your organisation’s sustainability agenda from being solely shareholder-focused towards being more inclusively stakeholder-focused. A stakeholder approach to sustainability benefits society and the environment while simultaneously enabling better business practices and outcomes, and remaining aware of that Triple Bottom Line (TBL) impact of people, planet, and profit is a part of what leadership is all about.

People are dynamic elements who want solutions that benefit them, too, not just the business. Without people, there is no business. Successful leadership drives transformational change that effects impactful social sustainability and ensures that the strategies and initiative used are relevant, implementable and sustainable without compromising the bottom line.

“That’s how leaders create legacies”

Alex: And Legacy is what we’ll be talking about in the next article. I hope you’ll join us.

Key Takeaways

  • Use data sympathetically, intuition and empathy play vital roles in assessing and setting realistic, meaningful objectives.
  • Unlock the potential of diverse representation across the company for core improvements, not just cosemetic changes.
  • Investigate and implement systemic design practices throughout the organisation to design and adapt intelligently.
  • Create feedback loops that ensure decision makers are responsible for their actions and able to make valuable course corrections.
  • Consider the value of studing biomechanics to understand how nature designs for purpose.

What does the future look like?

  • People have access to tools to create technology, learn new skills and build audiences in faster and more influencial ways, businesses will recognise better ways to leverage these aspects.
  • Companies will begin to look at regenerative practices in a post-pandemic world as a redesign not a restart opportunity, to reinvent or will be overtaken by those who reimagine.
  • Data capture solutions such as IoT's will attempt to capture more behavioural and soft skill applications to provide more detailed dashboards.
  • With increasing automation, leaders who recognise, empower and promote diverse, design-led, practices will embolden high-productivity with continuous innovation.

Latest Updates

  1. Part 3. Legacy
    By AG

    The idea of being part of something bigger than yourself and leaving something behind that is a testament to your time on the planet.

  2. Part 4. The importance of stepping back and changing perspective
    By AG

    Underlining how crucial it is to take a step back and open our eyes to the natural world around us, so that we can find more organic, effective and sustainable ways to solve the problems.

  3. Part 1. Education
    By AG

    How can we address in equality? To empower people to take responsibility, embrace education, and grow themselves.