Leadership in a Disruptive Era: a summary of the WEF opening plenary session

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The rapid advancement of technology is changing the world, disrupting every facet of commerce, industry and government. As a result, the question for every leader is no longer whether to adopt a disruptive approach in order to keep up, but where to begin. This was also clearly the question at the forefront of everyone’s minds at the opening plenary session of the World Economic Forum on Africa, held in Durban earlier this month.

Global CEO of Boston Consulting Group, Rich Lesser, concisely summed up the challenges facing leadership and inclusive growth in Africa with the vowels of the English alphabet, “AEIOU”. Each vowel represents a different challenge, namely the lack of agriculture, education, infrastructure, opportunities, and understanding. The rest of the panellists including Oxfam’s Winnie Byanyima, United Bank for Africa’s Tony Elumelu and Lindiwe Mazibuko agreed. However, the exchange between them that followed offered some insight into one further obstacle: grappling with how to prioritise these challenges within the disruptive African environment.

Byanyima gave the precedence to agriculture, which she feels should be driven by the public sector. Large scale agricultural projects may aid job creation to an extent, but she argues it won’t touch the lives of small-scale and subsistence farmers, which make up a fairly large portion of the population and who are more vulnerable to the changing climates we’ve been seeing in recent years. Byanyima believes investment in this area of the agricultural sector can reduce poverty infinitely more than any other economic sector.

Elumelu, on the other hand, vied for poverty elevation through the provision of opportunities for entrepreneurs. He emphasised the importance of improving the enabling environment for SME’s, as the backbone of economic growth. For instance, access to electricity on the continent is still very poor, with less than 2% accessibility. Hence, infrastructure which will aid entrepreneurs is also vitally important.

Lesser conceded there is a huge need to take on adaptation in African agriculture, but then shifted the spotlight over to education. In his opinion, disruption to the old systems of education needs to occur if our youth are to remain competitive in this global economy. At the basic level, our youth should have a primary and secondary education, but Lesser posits that this is no longer sufficient, as the rate of change is now faster than it has ever been in human history.

He went on to explain that while 50-100 years ago, people could succeed and thrive in their chosen profession with their initial skills gained through apprenticeship, this is no longer possible. In the 21st century, skills can become obsolete within a period of 5 years. Thus, the need for a continuous education that reinforces life-long learning and adaption is essential in this era. 

Lesser also reiterated the need for infrastructure, opportunities, and empathy from leadership. In fact, one point every panellist seemed to touch on was a concern regarding the responsibility, accountability and understanding of the leadership implementing the policies to combat these challenges. So, to conclude the session, each panellist was asked what they think leaders can implement over the next 6 months in order to encourage responsible and reactive leadership that is value driven.

Elumelu led the response to this question with a focus on legacy leadership. Leaders focused on a legacy impact are more structured in their planning. The first 6 months become the preliminary steps required as part of a long-term strategy, thus enabling a sustainable solution and impact. Mazibuko extended on Elumelu’s lead, adding mentorship to legacy leadership. People with leadership authority or responsibility should bring the next cohorts of leadership “with them”, so to speak, and provide them with the necessary nurturing and support.

Lesser stood firmly on his stance on education. The clock is ticking when it comes to education, and each year that we fail to make an impact, millions of children are affected. He suggests starting with a greater effort to implement education best practices, as the most important thing to do over the next 6 months.

Increasing accountability of political leadership was Byanyima’s focus. She also put the responsibility squarely on the public sector, stating that the government should adopt a practical approach based on an economic scorecard of KPIs. She suggested that government should begin to measure the impact of their projects by tracking, for instance, the number of jobs being created for young people each month, or year, thanks to certain initiatives. This accountability and transparency will go a long way in building public confidence and support.