Prof Lindiwe Msengana-Ndlela has recently been appointed as Adjunct Professor at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Prof Msengana-Ndlela has had a long professional association with UCT’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice (GSDPP) and she spoke to us about the challenges of fostering exemplary leadership in public institutions.
1. What does your appointment as Adjunct Professor at UCT mean for you personally, and also as part of your wider career goals?
The appointment provides an opportunity for me to work with scholars, students and communities of practice in contributing towards new knowledge production and effective development policy. My main goal is to engage in research and teaching initiatives which draw on local and international scholarly collaborations to tackle some of the pertinent development problems that humanity faces, more so in South Africa and the African continent. It is good to see that in courses in which I am involved, such as the Leadership in the Public Life in March 2016, we have leaders from six countries in the continent.
As you know, some of the most complex and wicked problems that face us include relatively high levels of socio-economic exclusion, inequality, unemployment, poverty, environmental degeneration, social fragmentation, crime, patronage and corruption. Yet our development stands to benefit from our rich resources in human, natural and indigenous knowledge systems; in our relatively youthful society; in our production systems and technologies that hold great potential for the future; in our diversity, creativity, resilient human spirit and Ubuntu.
I believe that we can, individually and collectively, contribute in the restoration of human dignity and improving the quality of life, particularly the lives of the poor and the marginalised communities in our society. It is within this context that I hope my academic involvement with UCT will have a positive impact on development policy curriculum design and its delivery, taking into consideration local practice and global intellectual perspectives.
2. Does your formal appointment in academia signal a departure for you from daily management and policy work with government?
No, not at all. Instead it signals a mode of teaching, learning and research in universities such as UCT that seeks to engage and benefit from real-time knowledge and experience of professionals involved in development policy. If well conceptualized and executed, such engagements between academia and those involved in policy work can help identify the interconnected and interdependent lines of inquiry that must be pursued, bridging the gaps between theory and practice and stimulating innovation.
3. One of the Graduate School’s key projects is the Leading in Public Life portfolio. How would you define “leadership” and its role in public life?
In thinking about Leading in Public Life, it is useful to understand the various approaches to the broad concept of ‘leadership’. These approaches range from the study of personal and behavioural models of ‘leaders’ to the recognition of context and viewing leader ‘ship’ as a multi-faceted social process. All of these aspects of these approaches can help deepen our understanding and debates about leadership. It is useful to define ‘leadership’ as a process of influencing and mobilising individuals, groups and institutions to build on strengths and resources, tackle complex problems, take informed decisions and develop the capacity to act in order to address such problems effectively. There are two aspects of this definition that I would like to emphasise:
Firstly, this definition provides an avenue of highlighting structure-agency relations in a discussion about leadership. It brings to the fore an optimistic view on the possibilities of human agency and the role of leadership in addressing development challenges. The point here is that it is not enough to ascribe the perpetuation of complex problems only to structural conditions, such as the institutional combination of capitalism, colonialism and apartheid and its continuing effect on post-apartheid South Africa.
So, are there reasons for us to be optimistic about the agency of leaders in addressing the most pressing development challenges of our time? There is value in drawing from agency theoretical perspectives to bear in relation to leadership capacities for projectivity (goal formulation), iteration (habit centred) and practical evaluation (judgement at the point of action). Whether leaders realise this or not, they can (and do) actively re-construct and shape context positively or negatively. This reconstruction of context can be the result of leadership capacities, choices, decisions, actions and contextual leverage. When exercised effectively, leadership processes seek to recognise and positively build on development progress, strengths and resources. This means that, in seeking to understand the exercise of leadership, we have to maximise our strengths and interrogate the consequences of leadership in society. This understanding about the meaning of leadership recognises impediments that are imposed by structural considerations but highlights the agency of leadership in development. Leadership processes in public life are expected to benefit society as a whole and in a developmental context like ours, effective leadership can contribute to the lived reality of the poor as they experience an improved quality of life.
Secondly, in the definition of leadership we refer to notions of ‘capabilities’ and ‘capacity’ which can be developed, nurtured and embedded in organisations, groups and informal community spaces. Amongst the most urgent tasks of leadership today is the expansion of human resource capabilities, innovation, enduring partnerships and collaborative action that can help obtain developmental goals. Creating spaces for intellectual engagement, critical thought, growth and finding innovative solutions to problems are some of the distinct features of effective leadership. We have to take a qualitative leap forward and take practical steps in harnessing our continental resources with a solution-oriented focus to our developmental challenges. This means that leadership can be developed and learning interventions can expose participants to theory, practice and lessons on capacity and capabilities for development in various contexts, spaces and time periods.
4. What are some of the values that you think leaders in public life should uphold?
The personal characteristics of leaders, the values and principles which guide them are important and cannot be overemphasised. Leadership is not value-free, it is value-critical. This means that leaders in public life must endeavour to uphold, amongst other things, the highest levels of integrity and ethical agency as they perform public duties and manage public resources. In my experience, the policy and legislative frameworks of the public service are a useful basis and guide in empowering both political leaders and managers to promote the values of accountability and service to the people.
5. In all, how would you summarise this discussion and your views on leadership in Africa?
We have rich resource endowments, have registered good progress and, despite the global and domestic challenges that we face, we have reason to be optimistic about the agency of leaders in addressing some of the most pressing development challenges of our time.