Transformative leadership is about building relationships




The word “transformation” can inspire us or terrify us. A butterfly transforms inside a cocoon and we love the result. But transformation on a human level is a different matter. All too often, all we can think of is how painful transformation is; how hard it is to leave our comfort zone. Yet if we are among those who are advocating for transformation — for women to be allowed to vote, for instance; or for gay people to have basic human rights or for a paperless environment — we might be wondering why it is so difficult for people to understand the need for transformation.

In this address, I want us to discuss transformative leadership. What is transformative leadership and why do we need it?

The world is changing: there is no way around this fact when we consider global warming, global politics and the social and the technological disruptions we are experiencing right now. In my view, there are three great forces colliding.

#First, the fourth industrial Revolution, which brings automation, robotics, big data, artificial intelligence, fintech and digital together in the most dramatic change to humankind since the steam engine.

Second, the millennial generation, which brings a completely different set of attitudes, values and behaviour. Higher education institutions all over the world started experiencing this change sharply in the past four years.

At the University of Cape Town (UCT), between 2015 and 2017 we had to contend with several student protest movements: #RhodesMustFall, which led to the removal of the statue of the colonial leader Cecil John Rhodes from its prime position on our campus; #AfrikaansMustFall in the intellectual and symbolic space; #FeesMustFall in the material and admission space; and #OutsourcingMustFall in the employment space.

This mindset is characterised as putting people and the planet before profit, with trust in leadership —whether in government, big business or institutions of higher learning — being universally eroded.

Third, is the geopolitical change that threatens to throw the world of global trade upside down, with the very concept of globalisation now being called into question by those who elect our political leaders and consume our services.

Add to that the general collapse of public trust in leadership, which suggests that the majority of people do not believe presidents, chief executives or vice-chancellors are credible any more. Then introduce generation C — a powerful new force in consumer culture. Generation C is not an age group: it’s an attitude and mindset that describes people who care deeply about creation, curation, connection and community. They inhabit a world of videos, memes, mash-ups and social media networks. They are our students, alumni, employees, donors and collaborators. They eat, sleep and breathe the internet.

Now consider the skills and experience today’s leaders need to understand the opportunities of the world of driverless cars, drones, and call centres that answer millions of enquiries without the involvement of a human being.

Clearly, traditional leadership mindsets, styles and ways of working will simply not cope with the speed, volatility, complexity and ambiguity of this new operating environment.

This is the reason why we need transformational leadership.

There are some question leaders need to ask ourselves as we embark on a new course. Which skills and what mindset do we need to inspire, motivate and retain Generation C as interested and committed students, valued employees or law-abiding citizens? How can we adapt our strategies to a world in which those we lead give their loyalty to social responsibility ahead of profit? How equipped are those of us who sit in the council chambers of our universities to understand the challenges of this alien new world?

Using the mindset of the past to solve the problems of the future — or even the present — will not succeed. The consequences of a lack of understanding of some of these new challenges are dramatically manifested in the election of United States President Donald Trump and Brexit, as well as the failure of most society’s leaders to anticipate that.

Like everything else, leadership evolves and we are now at a moment where leadership itself needs to transform — not only who is leading but how we lead. The days of leaders having complete command over their organisations are gone. It is time for transformational leadership. Transformational leaders are inspirational yet calming, visionary yet down-to-earth, confident in what they know and yet not afraid to “not know”.

Transformative leaders must be figureheads but also human and able to navigate their institution through multiple, often paradoxical demands emanating from an increasing — and increasingly active — array of stakeholders. The key is moving from a single-minded “command and control” mentality to a more agile form of leadership that balances command with purpose, nimbleness, adaptability, and collaboration — all of which will be needed in the fourth industrial revolution.

Success in transforming contexts requires authentic leadership, building trust, and genuine transparency — all grounded in an abiding sense of purpose. Institutions need to answer the question: What do we stand for? It is not good enough for us as UCT to pride ourselves on being the best university in Africa: we have to be the best for Africa. Stakeholders expect institutions to have a greater purpose and a clear understanding of how to achieve good in the world in ways that extend beyond the academic project.

This creates another paradox for university leaders: how to find a balance between the greater good, a sense of mission, and the ability to ensure an exceptional student experience and deliver globally competitive graduates in a cost-effective, profitable way — and all of this in an increasingly polarised society. This paradox creates friction between meeting the expectations of all the stakeholders, satisfying the needs of annual reporting, and the longer-term, more purpose-driven values of the institution.

Leaders must invariably use their judgment to make critical decisions that others in their organisation cannot make. The paradox of the demands for leaders to be authentic and empathetic and to display their personalities, while at the same time playing the role of the bold figurehead who people will follow and admire, continues to be a tension.

Increased pressure on institutions to do the right thing in the world only compounds this challenge. A transformative leader must have a heightened awareness of their social responsibility and the effect they have on society’s well-being and the environment. Leaders are expected not only to be “real people” but also to infuse a sense of direction, purpose, and meaning into the organisation. Employees, students and other stakeholders want to understand what institutions stand for. If the institution’s behaviour is not coherent and beneficial to society, strident and opposing voices are galvanised more effectively than in the past, thanks to social media. The message for all of us leaders is simple: “It is not what you say, but what you do.”

Leaders will always need to be strong in the traditional sense. Now, however, they must also be students, continuously acquiring experiences that are outside their traditional career trajectory, and they must remain open and attentive to insights from an increasingly broad set of information sources.

Often the missing skills are the “soft” skills. How can you handle the dramatic increase in demand for your time? How can you hear the signals in the noise amid the often conflicting stakeholder voices now aimed your way? How do you manage your own doubt and that of others? How do you balance being “commander” with the expectation you will remain “human”? The key is to become a student of the role and turn your curiosity into a discipline — and a way of life.

I have been vice-chancellor of UCT for just more than a year. When I began my tenure in July 2018, I had to think about where higher education was going: in South Africa, and internationally, and at UCT. I had to think about the office of the vice-chancellor, and what leadership means in the context of the crisis we were in after the previous years of protest that threatened to shut down the academic project. And I had to think about the destination we wanted to reach, as an institution and as a key stakeholder in developing solutions to global problems such as climate change and inequality.

Leadership in times of crisis is very different from leadership in times of peace. There are many examples around the world, in business and government and education, where a leader who is successful in one context flounders when that changes.

When I took leadership of UCT, I recognised that our challenge was going to be about how we build peace. This is something we need to do even when there’s no conflict, so that when conflict comes there’s a possibility of resolving it because of the relationships we have been building. Building peace when I came into office meant fixing the relationships that had broken down since protests began in 2015, whether it was with the students, with our workers, our academics, or even building new relationships that did not exist yet, particularly with impoverished communities in our city.

I came into office very aware that a transformative leader cannot just call for change. Change was happening already, at great cost to the academic project, because of the violence of many of the protest actions on campus. Artwork, facilities and vehicles were burnt. We lost many days of teaching because a few hundred protesters were shut down our campuses by setting off fire alarms, throwing sewage into buildings and intimidating or recruiting others.

I took up office with the realisation that, to steer change in a positive direction, a transformative leader needs to be the change. A transformative leader must be prepared to let their life and their decisions be part of the message of change.

Leading an institution in times of transformation does not automatically make one a transformational leader. Institutions do not transform: it is people in the institutions who actually transform. When making transformation efforts, we often overlook the vital component of transformation: the individuals involved in the process, starting with the leader.

It is people who craft policies of the university. It is people who have conversations and interactions in faculties and departments. It is also people who deliver lectures in a university. If you want better results, you have to get those results not from the institution but from the people in the institution. It is people who create an institutional culture. Think of a soccer team. If a soccer team is losing games, and you want them to be a better team, what advice would you give them? You would not build a better stadium or buy different soccer balls or new uniforms. You would try to improve each soccer player’s skill and desire to become a better player. And you would find a coach who can embody and bring about the change — and, most importantly, listen and learn.

Yet, often, in institutions, it seems as if we do everything but address the deep concerns and desires of our students and employees. Of course, it is true that sometimes tools, technologies, and methodologies are needed for transformation, however, when used alone, they are insufficient and often move the organisation backwards.

Here is an example: at UCT we offer the best student financial aid support in the country, and yet our university became the centre of the #FeesMustFall protest, calling for free tuition for everybody. So, while providing financial aid to students from low socioeconomic backgrounds is important, it is not sufficient for transformation.

In fact, it created more of a problem because although the support gave access to more students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, the same students argued that the university culture continued to marginalise them, treating them as if they were receiving a favour and so they must be grateful, assimilate and graduate. That is what created the resentment and anger and, thus, violent protests. So although the financial support is important, it is not sufficient for transformation. It is how people are treated and made to feel that matters.

There is still a strong tradition of “schoolmaster” or even “police” style leadership in South Africa. But we are not teaching children or delinquents. They are young adults. They need to know we see them, hear them and respect them. So I have made a practice of showing up at student functions and residences without advance notice. They don’t have to prepare to receive me. Instead, it is informal and perhaps as close as it can get to being equal: I sit down, eat a meal with them, and listen to what they have to say.

I have climbed Table Mountain with students; attended the Dance Society and taken a turn around the dance floor with them. I engage with students on social media. They can ask me questions and I will respond. The key is, I go where the students are, online or in person.

Since I have taken office there have been times when we came close to having a building occupied or classes disrupted by angry students. But that didn’t happen because my team and I have developed a practice of sitting with the students and hearing them out. We don’t always agree with them. I let them know that when I make a decision they disagree with, it’s because I have their best interests at heart. But what they see is the vice-chancellor sitting with them, sometimes even on the floor, for hours, listening.

It’s not just students who need to feel heard. The members of our elderly and sometimes conservative, mostly white and male, College of Fellows were particularly bothered late in 2017 when one member of the executive invited a controversial speaker on campus to speak about decolonising science. This was before I became vice-chancellor, when I was deputy vice-chancellor for research and internationalisation at UCT.

To deal with the anger and discomfort we created a safe space and held a special programme of the College of Fellows, where two senior academics in the faculty of science delivered their views on the origins and workings of scientific knowledge. That simple process allowed the airing of different opinions, in an atmosphere where our academics could contribute to the decolonisation discussion. They knew they were seen and were an important part of the process.

Of course, an academic space must always be a place of debate, where people can weigh different points of view while respecting those with whom they disagree. This is something we are working very hard to restore to our academic space after the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests, because our young people need to know how to live with differences of opinion and how to find the middle ground.

Students cheer after the Cecil John Rhodes statue was removed from the University of Cape Town on April 9 2015. (Charlie Shoemaker/Getty Images)

Our history under apartheid did not allow debate on critical issues, so it is a skill we need to reintroduce. Too often, public opinion is swayed by the number of “likes” a statement receives on social media, rather than by rigorous investigation and argument.

As a transformative leader, when you are appointed to high office, you need to re-examine the office you are taking up: its history, precedent and tradition. Leadership cannot be transformative if you are constrained by the weight of being and doing as your predecessors have done.

One early question I asked myself was: What is colonial about the vice-chancellor’s office at UCT? As a result, I decided not to have a traditional inauguration ceremony to mark my appointment. Instead, my robing was part of a graduation ceremony in December 2018, and we used the money we were going to spend on an inauguration to clear the debt of 100 graduands who otherwise would not have been able to graduate because of fee debt. With so much student need, it did not make sense to pay for a separate, expensive celebration. Instead, we changed the celebration to allow more students to graduate.

Transformative leadership sets the example of giving back. We have a strong tradition at UCT of developing good citizenship, of advancing socially responsive research and providing opportunities for students to volunteer their service to the community.

I announced at the start of my appointment that 10% of my salary as vice-chancellor would go towards financial assistance for women postgraduate students. This is not a new thing: I set up a foundation called Adopt a Learner many years ago and I sponsor the Mamokgethi Phakeng Award for outstanding performance in mathematics education postgraduate studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, where I earned my PhD. I make this known because I want to set an example.

Transformative leadership is not comfortable; it involves breaking new ground and possibly failing. It comes with a cost. This is something I had to consider when I was asked to apply for the position. Becoming vice-chancellor was not my plan. A good friend and colleague approached me about applying. The argument he put to me was the need for transformative leadership at UCT. He knew what he was talking about because he was dean of the faculty of health sciences at the time, and he came under constant attack because of the leadership position he held during the protests.

This colleague was Professor Bongani Mayosi, and he paid the ultimate cost. He passed on just 27 days after I took office. Professor Mayosi’s death brought home how much the 2015 to 2018 protests had destroyed relationships across campus.

The late Professor Bongani Mayosi advised the UCT vice-chancellor to apply for her position. (Courtesy UCT)

So it is with sober reflection that I have had to consider not just what I might gain as a university leader, but also what I am willing to give up. I have certainly sacrificed my privacy. Personally, I decided I don’t want to lose who I am. I want to be authentic, because that authenticity makes your leadership more believable. That means bringing in my culture, my values. The office of vice-chancellor will certainly make its changes on me, but I am committed to also making my changes to the office.

Historically, leaders have not spent as much time challenging the way they do things — or themselves — as they now must. Transformative leadership is about challenging oneself to do what has not been done before and risking failure. But the reward that comes with success is great.

This is an edited version of the keynote address by University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, delivered at the Times Higher Education Leadership & Management Summit in Hong Kong earlier this month

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Mamokgethi Phakeng
Mamokgethi Phakeng works from South Africa. UCT VC. Professor of Maths education. Founder of @Adoptalearner, #Past3amSquad #MakeEducationFashionable Here to give hope. #BeInspired #Blessed #Grateful Mamokgethi Phakeng has over 117646 followers on Twitter.

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