Leadership is a verb Stellenbosch Business School Skip to main content
A business meeting in a boardroom

By Prof Mias de Klerk


After the riots and looting that happened a few weeks prior, the call for leadership from our State President, Mr Cyril Ramaphosa, reached a new crescendo. This is not without reason. Active and visible leadership would never have had the events to happen and play out as they did. Indeed, research has confirmed that active and visible leadership is the number one contributor to how people experience disruptive situations. Active and compassionate leadership would have shown emotion by condemning the violence and looting, but also in the condolences offered to those who lost family members in the process. Visible and compassionate leadership would have been convincing in their concern for the drivers underlying the riots and looting, as well as in their commitment to resolve it. On top of this, there are also the devastations of COVID-19 to deal with simultaneously. The result is an invasive feeling of hopelessness that is consuming many South Africans.

Yes, these are all things that we would have liked to see, psychological needs that many feel have not been met by leadership. The quote “leaders are dealers in hope” was accredited to Napoleon. More than ever, we look to our leaders to be dealers of hope in these turbulent and challenging times.

It is easy to join the crusade of critics of our president and other highly placed politicians, but there are enough critics and people who are telling the leadership of South Africa what to do. Let them continue to critique and provide guidance to the politicians, but that is not enough to take us to a new future. Indeed, it has almost become a new national sport to blame the politicians for not providing the right leadership or getting this thing called ‘leadership’ right. South Africans have become obsessed with political leadership as if our future lies only in the hands of political leaders. Although political leadership has a huge impact on our future, too often this obsession and blaming are used as an excuse to not take up one’s own leadership role to create hope, until those on top get it right. However, I want to bring in a different perspective: leadership is a verb, not a position. In other words, we all are leaders.

During the riots and looting, we saw so many inspiring events and heard the stories of people who took up active leadership roles. Some stood guard to protect businesses and communities; others provided food to those in need; a young teacher played Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika on a piano damaged in the riots … These are small, but powerful acts of leadership by everyday people, which inspired hope in all of us. These profound acts of leadership were choices that individuals decided to make, none of which were expected from them. We all have the potential to provide equally significant acts of leadership. One does not have to be the President to take up one’s responsibility to provide leadership and hope, but it is a responsibility we all carry in our interactions with others.

In the opening sentence of the book ‘The road less travelled’, M. Scott Peck noted: “life is difficult”. Life is difficult, it always has been and always will be. No world leader or organisational CEO will rescue us from this fact or from future riots. They have their role to play, but so do all of us in our respective spheres of influence. Our future success and the success of our country lie in each of us taking up the liability to deal with what we are accountable for, in a respectful and dignified way, and the hope that we give to others. Accountability to provide leadership is a verb, the one thing in the world that develops us if we take it up and exercise it. When you blame others, you give up your power to change. Perhaps you may not want the burden of taking up your own responsibility to change South Africa for the better, but rather keep complaining about the top leadership and criticizing them. However, we are not at liberty to shy away from this responsibility. We have to act, and we have to act now, and every day that follows. Even if one does not feel like it, that is what one has to do.