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Time to put leadership where it’s needed most
Posted Thu, 03 Mar 2005

Enough talk. No more new organisations and focus groups. What Africa needs most from the leadership debate right now is to raise the issues which are critical and focus on arriving at conclusions around those issues, says Thulani S Gcabashe, the CEO of electricity giant Eskom.

This attitude is not entirely unexpected. Mr Gcabashe has made something of a name for himself at Eskom as a man who likes to get things done. So to him it’s vital that Africa’s leaders continue to improve the level of dialogue around leadership, and use fora like the upcoming Leadership Conference to share the lessons learnt along the way.

“Nepad is still at the visioning level,” says Mr Gcabashe. “It’s just an expanded concept. What is needed is those structures which actually give practical implementation to that vision. That’s where intervention is needed at the leadership level – the goal is not to have the workshop and produce the documents, but to actually get it onto the ground.”

There’s no doubt that the African style of leadership needs to change, says Mr Gcabashe. The growing role of technology in our everyday lives has meant the issues that confront us are numerous. People sit in continents far from us making decisions which affect us, making it crucial for today’s leaders to be globally wise, understanding what’s going on in China and Chile at the same time as they deal with domestic issues.

Do we have to wait for these new leaders to be born? Mr Gcabashe thinks not.

“It’s the age-old debate, but I’ve always believed leaders can be made. The issue of exposure to world issues is one way to develop leaders, and then to identify what is at the core of African values, and how those values shape and change the parameters of what these leaders can do or not.”

It’s becoming a common refrain among heads of business: Africans need to go back to their roots to rediscover the core values of Africans, those commonly shared values more likely to resonate with the people.

“Leadership has always been an important element in moving society forward,” says Mr Gcabashe. “In the past 10 years we’ve enjoyed Nelson Mandela. 30 years earlier we had Kwame Nkrumah. These were leaders who moved us a step forward. The challenges that Africa faces are moving forward on a number of fronts.

“What we need initially is someone to provide the vision – to give an idea of what can be done – and then, importantly, create the means to get there.”

Talking of means, Mr Gcabashe bridles at the suggestion that poverty seems to be getting very little attention from an energy perspective. He points to the ways in which Eskom is making a difference in helping South Africa and Africa compete in the global economy - first through a broad electrification programme, by providing from the most basic 2,5 amp supply for a household’s basic needs all the way to 90 amp supplies to run a small industry.

Secondly, he says, Eskom’s school of African leadership is slowly starting to bear fruit in its objectives of launching a new breed of African leaders. The project will provide Eskom with specially designed leadership programmes that will develop its managers into people who go beyond being just managers.

Though the project focuses on African leadership, it draws on the experiences of other groups, such as the West, Jews, Indians and Afrikaners, and asks the central question: what are the factors that have made these collective identities a success?

“I believe there is a lot that Africans can learn from these different experiences for us to move forward. We need to borrow from other experiences to enhance that which is African,” says Mr Gcabashe.

Eskom’s near-obsession with good leadership has its roots in the strong links between leadership and change – of which the organisation has been through vast amounts in the past decade. It has entirely transformed itself from a racial and gender perspective, and grown from being a technocratic organisation gives service on a “take it or leave it” basis to one that innovates and looks at creating solutions for its customers in the provision of power.

The point of this, says Mr Gcabashe, is that Eskom’s change has been almost wholly driven by leadership. There has been consultation, for sure, but once decisions have been taken, they have been implemented.

The company’s leading black economic empowerment (BEE) policies are one example of what can be achieved through resolute leadership. Eskom’s Leadership Development project will ultimately form the basis for an Institution of African Leadership which triggers processes that will produce implementable strategies. This exercise will seek to practically influence leadership both positively and effectively, building an edifice that will guide and shape the future.

“Clearly, this is work in progress,” says Mr Gcabashe. “It is not a project that can be completed quickly or easily. The tradition of African leadership has been growing over centuries, and will no doubt continue to develop far beyond our children.”

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