/ 8 July 2021

Visualising the future

Uct Gbs
The UCT Graduate School of Business

Leadership in a changed world involves changing how leaders view that world – and themselves

Every moment is a contestation between our memories of the past, current perceptions and assumptions of the future. Henri Bergson, the renowned process philosopher, will remind us that it is out of this contestation that novelty and creative evolution occurs. Human beings are hard-wired to naturally care about the future and are restless about this by incessantly envisioning possibilities about ways in which it can unfold. So, envisioning is not a brand-new idea for individuals and organisations. Have we however unraveled our assumptions about how this ongoing present becomes the future? Is it an already-existing place we need to orient toward?

Our post-pandemic imaginations invoke rallying calls that often include narratives about “bouncing back”, or “building back better”. While these are comforting to listen to and hear, since they conjure familiarity — are they correct? Do they invoke pragmatic desire? These are important questions for us all, but fundamentally important for executives and those in leadership roles, as the post-pandemic world is significantly more difficult to imagine. There are few test cases or data whose lessons can be simplistically applied in our current context. Executives and those in leadership have to find orientation for themselves, help their teams find orientation and jointly produce strategic desire.

It’s for this reason that the Executive MBA programme at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB) is less about knowledge acquisition and more about finding orientation with problems of will or desire since it is fundamental to finding one’s own place in an organisation, an industry and the world. This is the basis for an authentic and excellent performance. This differentiating fact is what separates UCT GSB’s MBA — geared mainly towards younger managers who would like to acquire specific practical abilities to improve their skill as managers — from the EMBA, which is targeted at senior managers and executive leaders. For executives enrolled in the EMBA, an important foundation to unravel their leadership abilities involves an understanding of why, and to what end, those skills are deployed. Channeling Aristotle, this narrative has to invoke the desire to be a specific kind of person searching for excellence and a good life in the pursuit of specific intrinsic and public good.

Kosheek Sewchurran, Associate Professor and Director of the Executive MBA programme at UCT GSB

For Kosheek Sewchurran, Associate Professor and Director of the Executive MBA programme at UCT GSB, it’s these practices that enable leaders to not only lead effectively, but also to lead in a manner that is sustainable through changing circumstances. A concept that Sewchurran highlights in conversation about the EMBA’s purpose is “authentic desire”. For the executives in the programme, it is important not only to understand the desires of their team members in order to lead them more effectively, but also to understand which of their own core desires drive them as leaders. Part of this process is helping executives figure out the puzzle of character development to refine their own narratives and self-define virtues and excellences on an ongoing basis. In this way, they can establish a style of leadership that’s resilient not only in the sense of weathering storms and withstanding challenges, but also of having the type of purpose that lets them envisage orientational goals through those challenges — so that difficult circumstances and setbacks might be educational, formative and even enjoyable.

The philosophical underpinnings of the programme encourage its executives to reframe their thinking as viewing themselves as entities separate from the world. While leaders often have this common worldview reinforced as they learn how to be the individual who provides guidance to others, Sewchurran believes that they should instead conceptualise themselves as emerging from the world with others. The tenet of ubuntu — best explained as “a person is a person through other people” — becomes relevant here. Sewchurran points out that for many leaders, this will involve exposing a level of personal vulnerability to which they are not accustomed, and with which they may not immediately feel comfortable. Situating oneself as a part of the same whole as those being led can feel like a weakness, but it’s important that it’s understood as a great strength and asset when an essential part of one’s role is holding space with others and creating the conditions that can bring forth their best thinking.

Sewchurran speaks of executives who often highlight that they are called upon to provide “strategy in a space where there had been quite a lot of stability, and now there is none”. For these executives, the pressure is on to recapitalise and make up for lost time — and income — for products and services that fell victim to a pandemic, the resulting lockdown, and consumer habits that shifted for good. But in this changed world, Sewchurran says, the goal should and must be aspirational of value and an emerging new world. “There’s no future that’s ready-made,” he says. While the statement in its broadest sense has always been true, he refers now to the fact that there are no givens as we plan for a post-lockdown, “new normal” life. In this there are great opportunities for changing how we think, and rather than focusing on “bouncing back” or “building back”, he advises leaders to “play a role of finding orientation” in a world that needs to be “disclosed and recreated, moment-by-moment” in a forever emerging present.