Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Can a new generation of leaders inspire a global recovery?

As a writer for almost a decade on business in general, and management and leadership in particular, I have met several remarkable individuals who have that unique ability to change the way people think about life and business. 

One of the more charismatic is professor Walter Baets, the current  Director of the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB) in South Africa – Baets was Professor of Complexity, Knowledge and Innovation, Associate Dean for Research and MBA Director at Euromed Marseille Ecole de Management before joining the UCT GSB.

Years ago, he declared "business as usual" is no longer the way to achieve sustainable success. “The classical approach to business that we have seen over the last few decades does not appear to work.” This I thought was quite a bold statement at a time when business schools were hunkering down in the trenches as they came under fire from all quarters for creating 'a generation of morally defunct leaders'. 

As the past few years unfolded, Baets has made tremendous progress towards his goal of creating a new kind of leader. In a recent piece titled “A new business school curriculum is on the table” he has fleshed out some of these ideas and how these have resulted in new centres of excellence at the business school.

He writes: “The world (and Africa and South Africa) have to take a long-term perspective and should not be tempted into going for the liberal capitalist short-term view of business, performance, and reward that has shown its weaknesses. We have to train our managers instead in certainly thinking (good enough in the short-term) to emergence thinking, necessary to be able to operate in longer term perspectives, uncertainty, complexity, etc.”

“Values should be the drivers for business, profit and/or shareholder value an outcome. That is what made Allan Gray decide to create the Allan Gray Centre for Values Based Leadership at the GSB.”

“Classical European (and US) models do not work for emerging markets, and arguable even no longer for Europe itself. All this strengthened by a disconnection between the financial (and often highly virtual) world and the real economy. Wealth creation cannot continue to go to a limited group of people... We have to give hope to the young, and we do not do it with our classical models.”

Interestingly, this is now being echoed in developed markets like the US – changes are indeed afoot in business schools – tradition it would appear is beginning to count for less. Harvard Business Review recently ran an issue special feature on The Good Company

In it, Rosabeth Moss Kanter gives her perspective on the matter by arguing that:

“It’s time that beliefs and theories about business catch up with the way great companies operate and how they see their role in the world today. Traditionally, economists and financiers have argued that the sole purpose of business is to make money – the more the better. That conveniently narrow image, deeply embedded in the American capitalist system, moulds the actions of most corporations, constraining them to focus on maximising short-term profits and delivering returns to shareholders. Their decisions are expressed in financial terms.”

“I say convenient because this lopsided logic forces companies to blank out the fact that they command enormous resources that influence the world for better or worse and that their strategies shape the lives of the employees, partners, and consumers on whom they depend. Above all, the traditional view of business doesn’t capture the way great companies think their way to success. Those firms believe that business is an intrinsic part of society, and they acknowledge that, like family, government, and religion, it has been one of society’s pillars since the dawn of the industrial era. Great companies work to make money, of course, but in their choices of how to do so, they think about building enduring institutions. They invest in the future while being aware of the need to build people and society.”

“Rather than viewing organisational processes as ways of extracting more economic value, great companies create frameworks that use societal value and human values as decision-making criteria.”

Baets points out that business schools have a vital role to play in this, and need to change what they teach:

“Business schools should contribute to training managers with a different value set, with a different set of skills and a different kind of motivation. And I think it is the responsibility of business schools to contribute to this.”

The question remains though if this will be enough to make a significant dent in what has been described as a global polycrisis – which includes increasing urbanisation, unequal development, fossil fuel dependency, climate change, ecosystem exploitation and financial insecurity. 

Perhaps only time will tell if the next generation of leaders can mend the mistakes of our past.


  1. Which companies, corporations or specific ideologies best represent what you are referring to? If industries, companies and corporations view their profit margins as the measure of their success how likely is a real paradigm shift in approach?