Brian Khumalo literally makes it his business to keep up to the minute with the changing face of leadership. Leaders Unlimited, the company in which he is one of two senior partners, is involved in executive search, leadership and human capital consulting.
Khumalo has been on the judging panel of the Transnet Boss of the Year Competition for the past two years and has a fascinating take on the evolution of leadership and what is required of an ideal leader today.
He starts by outlining the changes that have taken place in the world that have made it necessary for leaders to adopt different characteristics. During the height of the industrial era, bosses were revered for having specialised technical knowledge, but with a move to what Khumalo terms “the era of customer solutions”, people skills became a key component of good leadership.
“Leaders still needed to have good technical knowledge, but it wasn’t enough on its own – soft skills were also needed,” he explains. Leaders who could motivate staff to go the extra mile for customers enjoyed success.
“We have moved beyond that era now to a new information era where the playing fields have been levelled,” he continues. Two critical changes have taken place: people now have instant access to knowledge and the work environment is different.
A company is no longer the individual’s source of security, and Khumalo argues that instead, a respect for individuality and human rights is where people now place value. “In this information era, I would argue that what people are looking for is someone with emotional intelligence who respects their human rights, because it is from this that people now derive a sense of security.”
However, Khumalo is quick to point out that emotional intelligence is also not enough on its own. Some basic leadership qualities remain. Among these are the ability to streamline operations, to accomplish more with less, to create new and profitable ideas and to generate quality products and services by working together as a team.
“This means that if you want to succeed as a leader in today’s business environment, it is still essential that you possess leadership traits that bring out the best in the people around you,” he says.
“Having said this, there is also a saying that every executive should have on their minds at all times: ‘Executives are hired for their skills but fired for their behaviour and habits’.”
To illustrate the point, Khumalo highlights leaders who have failed in recent years, citing the examples of Enron and WorldCom. “It was not for want of technical knowledge or people skills that these leaders failed, but rather because of bad corporate governance and unethical business behaviour,” he explains.
“Leadership is undergoing a fascinating period of transition and people are demanding that leaders have this third dimension in addition to the first two elements.”
The demand for the third dimension has changed the playing field not only for individual leaders, but for companies as well. It is no longer enough for organisations to make money for shareholders and treat their employees well. They are now required to have a moral conscience and make meaningful corporate social investments.
As Khumalo points out: “Companies have always had the capacity to make a difference in a social context, but never before have they been expected and required to do so, or to report on their triple bottom line. This is because the world is calling for moral business behaviour and sustainability.”
Time will tell if South African business has caught up with the changing face of leadership. Khumalo hopes that the 2006 Transnet Boss of the Year Awards will attract nominations of leaders who possess all three of the ideal characteristics – excellent technical ability, good people skills and ethical behaviour. It’s an issue that will shape the future face of business in South Africa and the true test will be the level to which all stakeholders – bosses, politicians, employees and entrepreneurs –become mindful of their own ethics in business.