With power comes great responsibility – something leaders forget

Cyril Ramaphosa takes the oath. Picture Cindy Waxa/African News Agency (ANA)

The 2018 State of the Nation speech left many of us with mixed feelings. There was a sense of hope and excitement but there was also a sense of weariness and cynicism. The same sentiments continue as many of us wait for the outcomes of the 2018 budget speech. While we welcome the new plans and priorities expressed by the new President of the country, given past SONA and Budget Speech experiences we cannot but postulate that some of these goals may not necessarily translate into real change.

President Ramaphosa’s emphasis on youth empowerment through skills development and job creation sparked an inner debate on institutional leadership whether corporate, government, public and other sectors. It generated critical thoughts on leadership and the responsibility leaders within these structures have toward not only youth but staff in general.  

In my view, organisational leadership has been traditionally understood as a concept and within the confines of learning institutions for e.g. when pursuing degrees or diplomas. For many leaders, it would appear that approaches to leadership have been acquired through on the job training or via textbook learning, workshops, haphazard training sessions or leadership courses. These have not necessarily equipped leaders with the skills and etiquette particularly when it comes to dealing with youth development and staff members. Organisational leadership in the context of not only youth empowerment but co-workers in general should extend to more than a concept.

Effective organisational leadership should be about an attitude and work ethic that does not only grow the organisation but also places the empowerment of individuals at the forefront whether from the top, middle, or bottom of an organisation. However, this is often not practiced in reality.

The President’s emphasis on youth internships, job opportunities and the job summit needs to be carefully conceptualised and must be approached holistically where the culture of an organization together with its leadership is re-evaluated. Empowering youth, effective skills development and job creation as a whole are ultimately dependent on the organisational structure and leadership in which young people will work.

While technology continues to evolve daily, very little has shifted when it comes to individuals who occupy leadership positions across disciplines and institutions. They seem to have missed the brief on ‘’with power comes great responsibility” and instead, have adopted their own brief which says “with power comes greater power”. This approach and behavior has not changed. In my view, leaders have failed to model a form of leadership that sets an example to youth who occupy junior positions within their respective institutions.

As a youth empowerment practitioner and research consultant who has occupied different work contexts, I am often struck at the manner which leaders conduct themselves within work spaces particularly toward their colleagues and teams. The manner in which some approach their team members and peers suggest they are still stuck within a paradigm that is fraught with misplaced notions of grandeur. This is highly problematic to youth development or any form of empowerment that is meant to groom future leaders.

The common approach to leadership has been evident in the manner in which authority has been displayed. For e.g. some leaders ensure individuals know they are working FOR them rather than WITH them. This approach to leadership is grounded in a framework that places ego at the forefront of managing people. To operate from ego means that emphasis is placed on ensuring that people know who is in charge as opposed to empowering individuals or teams to work towards the greater goals of the organisation. 

This age-old culture of ego-centred leadership has negatively impacted organisations where you have leaders abusing their positions power which has been highly destructive to all levels of staff within the organisation. Often, staff are too fearful to report misconduct on the part of high level staff and end up accepting this kind of behaviour. Anyone that has worked in different settings will know that this ego-centred approach to leadership is very much alive. It has been normalised and accepted much like the violence and many other injustices in this country.

If we are saying that young people need to conduct themselves with respect, integrity and good conduct, it means those in positions in power have a responsibility to ensure they their first exposure to seniority is based on the very same values and principles we are saying youth should embody.

If we are talking youth empowerment and skill development then we need to start looking inward and re-evaluate ourselves as leaders across institutions. It demands an interrogation of the self in a way that refrains from placing ego as the vehicle in which to lead people. Institutions have done very little to interrogate institutional leadership and the example they set for youth. If President Ramaphosa is serious about youth empowerment and is committed to groom youth into becoming leaders of this nation, then rethinking the culture of leadership in organisations is essential. 

As a nation we need skills development, job creation and an empowering form of leadership that starts with the President. Leadership styles in society tend to replicate the styles modeled by national leaders in government, business, education and other societal institutions. If these issues are not critically addressed, youth will aspire to be leaders that dictates rather than empowers people and the organisation as a whole.

So, the new President along with other political parties and leaders has more to do than legislate policy change or roll out job summits. There is a critical need to eliminate disempowering leadership that is rife, endorsed and alive across all sectors and all levels of management. President Ramaphosa together with opposition parties and other sectors has to model the new.

Sultana Mapker is the Editor of Voices 360 and a youth development practitioner. She is also a research consultant who focuses on politics, youth empowerment, gender and monitoring & evaluation