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Article by: Dr Lisa Kinnear

You don’t need to have read the news, social media or have an MBA to know the distress experienced in this beautiful region of KwaZulu-Natal over the past few years. Sitting on the east coast of Southern Africa, we have joined the world in wearing masks, staying home to protect ourselves and others and suffering the far-reaching consequences of the global pandemic. While we were doing this an operator at a pharmaceutical plant in Mobeni, Durban was doing the same; but also showed up every week of his rotation on-site to ramp up production of critical care respiratory medication to meet the increase in demand as Covid waves spiked.

In July 2021 we collectively galvanized our energy, shattered in the days after the shock and trauma of civil unrest. We worked at rebuilding businesses and trust in our communities. A supply chain manager at the Pinetown head office of a large food retailer was doing the same, while communicating with local food suppliers throughout the province to ensure that their livelihoods were uninterrupted by the chaos, and that shelves could be safely stocked with basic goods to feed our families.

When the unabating rain was falling in April 2022, the major routes in our city were closed and we baled water through the night to prevent our homes from flooding, a shop steward at an automotive plant in Prospecton was facing the same challenge but managed to get to the plant that day having missed the WhatsApp message telling employees that the shift had been cancelled. He was greeted by a deserted plant slowly disappearing under rising levels of mud. Risking his own safety, he managed to drive 20 vehicles fresh off the line to higher ground. All he could think about was protecting the 8000 employees who livelihoods depended on making and selling those cars.

For every story I have told during these unfathomable periods of our recent history, you will have a myriad more. Stories of individuals working to provide a life for their family, but in so doing caring for their community by making a contribution; whether it is providing something essential like medicine or food supplies; or products which sustain economic investment, thousands of direct jobs and networks of retailers, suppliers and associated businesses in our country. These stories recount acts of courage of ordinary people that benefit us, the collective. They remind us that we are profoundly connected as human beings, businesses and communities, industry and service providers, provinces and country, the continent and indeed the planet.

As leaders of business starting up manufacturing operations in 2023 with spirits dampened by a grueling load shedding schedule, it is difficult to motivate yourself and your teams to focus on critical strategic issues, while delivering on operational demands. Our students understand the importance of rising to the strategic challenges and opportunities for businesses of the future. The wrestle is how to get there when reeling from one crisis to another. Until recently, I thought that providing hope and inspiration was the way to do it. But I have changed my view…

Watching leaders emerge from the most unlikely places over the last few years, I believe we need to let go of hope and pay attention to what “is”. Hope and fear are two sides of the same coin. Waiting for something to happen, to be delivered from something and for someone else to inspire us, leaves us paralysed to act in the now. A world leading author and specialist in organisational change, Margaret Wheatley recommends that leaders ground themselves in the present, in these times of immense vulnerability throughout the world. She believes we need to notice what is in front of us, deal with it and build from it.

So what do we notice, what do we see around us – what “is” in the present tense? Yes, it is load shedding, ethical scandals in both the private and public sector, volatile economic conditions to name a few. But having spent a week in the UK with our MBA students last year, visiting the Institute for Manufacturing Studies at the prestigious Cambridge University, and touring impressive world class manufacturing facilities, I am seeing things a little differently. There is nothing quite like spending time outside of your own environment to improve your perspective.

On our trip, some of the class commented that their operations in South Africa had far more advanced technologies, sustainability initiatives or diversity and inclusion programmes than those they were observing in the UK, while others acknowledged that their organisations were lagging. What all the students noticed were the UK organisations grappling with three key questions:

· How do we build resilience in the present to respond strategically to any unpredictable crisis in the future?

· How do we include our communities when we forge ahead with digitization and sustainability strategies

· How do we continue to do business despite the loss of faith in leadership of the country?

(To highlight the point, we arrived in the UK under one new prime minister and left a week later under another!)

Our class of South African students had the humility to know that we did not have all the answers to these questions being posed by our hosts, but we certainly have had practice in dealing with them. We had plenty of experiences to share with our UK colleagues and they were ironically as eager to learn from us as we were from them. And this was a moment of revelation for our group – what is in front of us – is us. It is this group of MBA students, the collective leadership talent that resides amongst us, with its particular brand of South African courage and sense of community. But let’s always remember that it is built on the hard work of those who contribute to our essential needs in society.

So, let’s stop waiting for hope. Rather let’s ask, what do you see? And then let’s reach out to one another and roll up our sleeves because there is work to be done….

Dr Lisa Kinnear reflections on leadership

Reflections on leadership: What do you see as you enter 2023?