Leading through a crisis Stellenbosch Business School Skip to main content
Business leaders, including MTN South Africa CEO Godfrey Motsa, shared their advice to lead effectively during these unprecedented times

at the online 2020 USB Business Breakfast event that was hosted by the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB).

Business leaders, including MTN South Africa CEO Godfrey Motsa, shared their advice to lead effectively during these unprecedented times at the online 2020 USB Business Breakfast event that was hosted by the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB).

Motsa said he is a big believer in never wasting a good crisis. “Every cloud has a silver lining so even though things are tough today, I do believe if we keep our heads down and do the right things, we will emerge stronger as a company, as a country, as humanity.”

He said leaders are faced with rising infection rates among staff and customers, economic recession and job losses, the lockdown impact on business operations, and the impact on society’s anxiety and stress levels.

“These are really difficult times but the more we learn about the coronavirus, the more we encourage each other, and it’s become much easier for me to lead the organisation and to keep our teams excited and motivated,” he said.

Guidelines for leaders during the pandemic

Motsa shared five guidelines on business leadership that he is using during the Covid-19 pandemic and which he plans on using going forward. “These guidelines are not complicated but it requires a lot of work, a lot of focus and a lot of honest leadership,” he said. They are:

  • Empathy: Show love and compassionate leadership for employees. Listen with curiosity and purpose.
  • Focus on financial sustainability: As much as businesses exist to not only make money, if they do not make money, they are no longer sustainable. Keep your eyes on the main prize – making sure you satisfy your main financial stakeholders.
  • Accelerate strategic engagements: During this period and moving forward, strategic engagement would be key for business models to be sustainable as an entity, and even as a country.
  • Invest in yourself: Equally important is to look after yourself because a positive mindset also begets positive actions. When you are in the forefront leading people it’s really important to inspire them with positivity.
  • Cherish South Africa: This is the only place we can call home. For this country to go forward we all need to do our bit. Look after yourself, look after your people, and look after your country and you will be able to have a future that you always wanted to see.

Key competencies required during a crisis 

Prof Piet Naudé, Director of USB, said leadership matters during a crisis and listed social, sympathetic, interpretative and futuring competencies as key abilities to have. “What happens in a crisis is that people draw back into safe spaces of their environment because the crisis threatens us and our natural intonation.

“What happens on an organisational level is you get what we call atomism, which means instead of being a culture of cooperation and social cohesion, you get an atomistic culture where all people are extremely busy but the links between them are very weak if existing at all because you’re busy with your own survival,” he said.

“This creates a dramatic drop in the social capital of an organisation. This is an absolutely crucial element in a crisis to try as best as you can to restore and maintain an adequate level of social capital,” he said.

Naudé added that a disruptive phase disorientates leaders. “I’ve noticed in times of crisis you get a very interesting mix of emotions that are displayed by people and people respond differently. A leader must firstly be mature enough to demonstrate her or his vulnerability and communicate that as a form of sympathetic competency,” he said.

He added that decisiveness and interpretative competency is another key skill to have during a crisis. “A leader needs to do a critical assessment of the situation immediately. You have to interpret your own environment, but you also have to be sharp enough to interpret the context in which your business or organisation function. Then you must act quickly.

“Lastly, a crisis drops a curtain in front of the eyes of the organisation and it pushes you back into the immediacy of the now. What a leader need is an imaginative competency to look past this collapsed presence and see further. Leaders must keep their imaginative capabilities alive. If you have a very strong vision and mission it will probably, in most cases, withstand the crisis,” he said.

Leading with humanity

Khatija Saley, founder and director of Generative Conversations, said the Covid-19 pandemic is a humanitarian crisis. “When the crisis hit, we stumbled, and I think we all went into a place of vulnerability.

“There was a paradox through the conversations that I heard. People talked about being energised and seeing opportunity while others talked about feeling anxious and fearful. One of the deep insights I got from working with the team was this thing about being comfortable with discomfort; to embrace and understand uncertainty and recognising that we don’t have control over a lot of things,” she said.

A full recording of the event is available on USB’s YouTube channel here


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