/ 11 September 2020

Leadership themes for building an inclusive South African workplace culture

(Graphic: John McCann)
(Graphic: John McCann)


Leadership is paramount to develop and foster an inclusive culture for any organisation and broader society. Some important aspects are the character of the leader, their level of self- and social awareness, social skills and their personal beliefs and values, which affect their willingness and ability to create and fully embody true inclusion. Leading others in a diverse context requires willingness, understanding and the ability to integrate diverse points of view to reach collective goals. 

A leader needs to create a safe space, an environment where all members feel they belong, are treated equally and fairly, their needs are met and they feel wanted and valued. Having formal diversity and inclusion regulations and policies in place is important, but it can be futile if these elements are not embedded or reflected in core practices and attitudes. 

How you lead your members beyond just following policies is the essence of being an inclusive leader.

The iceberg and other models of inclusion

When thinking about inclusion, the iceberg model is relevant. What you observe on the surface (such as colour of skin, accent or age) usually assists human beings in making quick judgments about others. But what lies beneath is often overlooked or ignored (including factors such as family dynamics, cultural values or sexual preferences). Numerous courses are available for leaders and teams to combat stereotypes, ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, and other forms of explicit and implicit bias, to assist them in acquiring cultural sensitivity and understanding.

Many embrace multicultural leadership to build inclusion and numerous such leadership theories are available or are being developed, a number of which are very insightful. However, the relevance of those theories to South Africa needs to be explored more deeply. 

South Africa is anything but only multicultural and multilingual. Its history is more profound than that. As a result, new and alternative leadership perspectives need to emerge, but it is critical that they embed sustainability and longevity. 

Joey Mongalo has developed a continuous model for leadership within a diverse context such as South Africa and proposes four ideas to build an inclusive South African culture. 


The first element involves everyone longing to know and to be known. Inclusion assumes a certain level of vulnerability by allowing others to know who one truly is; a sense of being authentic with those around you. Likewise, one should seek to know those by whom one is surrounded, to understand them beyond the superficial. This is essential in South Africa, where our racial and cultural identities and groups are central to our being and identification. The sense is developed that “if you care enough to want to know this set of cultural background and beliefs about me and take it into consideration in our interactions, it means that you really do care.” When we care, we are willing to hear, understand and even inconvenience ourselves for the greater good if called upon to do so.


Embracing continuous engagement with the above is at the core of the second element. Events such as once-off seminars, workshops and camps are good for sensitising people to different cultural groups, the strengths and limitations of each, as well as their similarities and differences. However, these events alone are insufficient to facilitate and sustain true change. The conversations and agreed-upon actions need to be woven into the fabric of our existence, because creating common culture is not an isolated event, but something we continuously work towards achieving.


Everyone involved in this process will be challenged to work through the tension of being authentic to themselves and their culture, yet being sufficiently open and vulnerable to adapting certain elements that may not be constructively contributing to a more inclusive South African culture. This ability to adapt is key to creating a common culture, as each culture will be challenged to give and take if we are going to be successful and get the intricate puzzle pieces to fit together. If there is no adaptation, there is no chance of a common culture.


Lastly, creating a common culture will take continuous engagement and commitment if we are to achieve anything other than paying lip service to knowing others and seeking common ground in building an inclusive common culture. This stance calls for dedication to the process. Dedication, because change is not easy, especially when it relates to something that people hold dear, such as their cultural identity. The process requires all involved to persevere through misunderstandings, tough conversations, hurts, confusion, confessions, disagreements. We are going to have to thrash things out as we get to truly know each other. We’ll need to continuously engage each other on these matters, while maintaining an authentic, yet adaptable disposition.

In summary, longing for inclusion, embracing diversity, adapting and being open-minded, and continuous dedication to making it part of the culture, are  essential for authentic, servant and effective leadership in a diverse context.

Prof Alewyn Nel is the head of the department  of human resources management at the University of Pretoria and Joey Mongalo is the Vodacom Bulls defence coach and an industrial psychology master’s degree candidate at UP

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.