/ 24 May 2024

Can we stretch our imaginations towards leadership optimism this election?

The IEC says the number of people on the voters' roll has risen by 21.3% since it was first compiled in 1998.
In 2024, 64 countries will head to the polls for national elections (Gallo)

This is a pivotal year for the global village. In 2024, 64 countries will head to the polls for national elections, meaning 49% of the global population will be thinking about (and putting in place) the kind of leaders they want to steward them into the promise of a better future. 

South Africa is no different, with the 29 May election widely considered the most significant since 1994, making now a good time to interrogate the nation’s leadership culture.

Is it a positive culture? Is it an effective one? Is it, in its essence, nation-building? 

If the daily headlines are anything to go by, there’s much room for improvement — perhaps even an opportunity to begin to work towards a leadership framework of optimism that can inspire young people to not only show up to vote on May 29, but be part of solutions that move South Africa forward.

Why good leadership matters

Elections have a unique way of shining a spotlight on the value of sound leadership. Research by Afrobarometer has found that young South Africans are less likely than their elders to vote, contact local government councillors or attend community meetings. Yet only 28% of South African youths believe the country is going in the right direction, according to the 2022 African Youth Survey by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation.

Why is the youth so pessimistic — and yet apparently not willing to act to change the situation? The youth survey suggests it is a combination of sweeping dissatisfaction with, and declining trust in, leaders who have not been able to address critical issues including equality of rights and job creation. This leaves young people with little room for optimism for the future.

Ironically, of course, their participation is critical to functioning, progressive nations, as Karabo Mokgonyana writes in a recent article titled Why young people must vote in the 2024 national elections. “When low voter turnout rates are unequally distributed, election results are not representative of society and important voices are left behind.”

If disappointing leaders are at the root of this disaffection, it stands to reason that changing the narrative around leadership could help galvanise young people. 

Research from Henley Business School on leadership shows that optimism can be a defining feature of an organisation’s survival and success. The same can be true at the country level. Even when challenges overwhelm at every turn, there have always been leaders who can create a positive and ethical mindset that can motivate people to keep moving forward with purpose.

Towards a blueprint for effective leadership

The Henley research explored the positive contributions, leadership and energy dynamics of senior management teams in seven successful South African organisations in a variety of sectors to unearth common behaviours that could be contributing to their success.

What was striking is that underpinning these teams is an aversion to pessimism; strong and deep negativity is not a defining element of success. 

While the interactions in executive committees and leadership bodies are certainly intense and demanding, and robust conversation and conflict are not uncommon, these teams manage to stay optimistic and pull together to move forward because they share emotions and thinking patterns that drive positive behaviours.

For instance, shared emotions included a strong sense of passion and pride; a desire for success and high levels of mutual trust and respect, while shared thinking patterns included a development and learning orientation and a strong solutions focus under pressure. These translate into positive behaviours, including a commitment to high-paced, high-effort and collaborative activities to achieve shared goals and agendas.

Key to driving these positive dynamics and energy is alignment, clarity and a strong sense of organisational direction. This means having a deeply embedded purpose and vision and focusing on short-term operational pressures and risks. It also helps to have strong coordination, administration and processes across the organisation.

A lasting leadership legacy

Optimism has the potential to lead cultural change within organisations and society. We know this because research repeatedly shows that pessimism and negativity have harmful effects on not only the physical body but society at large. 

In a recent paper, assistant professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University in the US, David Thorstad, challenges us to be optimistic about our risks so that we can better tackle them. He writes: “Pessimism is a hindrance rather than a support to the case for existential risk mitigation. The case for existential risk mitigation is strongest under more optimistic assumptions about existential risk.”

South Africans would be best served by looking for, celebrating and, yes — electing — leaders who have an optimistic agenda to help us tackle the many risks this nation faces. 

If we can focus on what really works, and stretch our imagination toward leadership optimism when deciding where to place that ‘X’ on May 29, the youth of this vibrant nation may be inspired to step forward to build a better future for all. 

Professor Bernd Vogel is director of the Centre for Leadership at Henley Business School and the founding director of the Henley Centre for Leadership Africa. He is the lead author of the research report, Positive contributions, leadership, and energy dynamics of senior management teams (Henley Business School Africa, 2024).