Daunting, exciting times

By Professor Owen Skae, President of the South African Business Schools Association (SABSA), Director of Rhodes Business School & Global Opportunity Panelist in Johannesburg 2015. @Owenskae   

“Piecemeal approaches that are assumed to be the answer are as dangerous as no response at all.”

This is what two of my favourite business analysis pioneers, Geary Rummler and Alan Brache, have to say about strategic leadership today. Their viewpoint is that if leaders in either the public or private sector wish to resolve problems in a comprehensive manner, they cannot pursue the quick fixes and superficial responses that have become the trademark of improvement efforts.

How many times do we hear that a company, organisation or government sector is busy with strategic leadership ‘re-visioning’, ‘re-engineering’ or ‘re-training’?

In the midst of this, we are all too frequently left wondering whatever happened to good management? Rummler and Brache’s response is that it has been downgraded over the years “to the domain of uninspiring, dime-a-dozen technocrats”. And herein lies the problem. We have conveniently forgotten that good management is the turnkey of performance at both the individual and organisational level. And performance, as Rummler and Brache emphasise, needs to be addressed, not just within departments, organisations and sectors, but also between them.

If you take what is happening in a number of parastatals, municipalities and high profile corporate failures … it is readily apparent that good management within and between the organisational boxes is challenged. In its place we have selective stakeholder engagement where the so-called leadership choose to whom they wish to listen, instead of comprehensively addressing the daunting future South Africa is facing. Trying to resolve the electricity issue within the existing structures of Eskom, for example, is a dead-end, piecemeal approach that has generated considerable pessimism in- and about South Africa.

Fortunately there is also a glass half full side to this story. The current hitting of the wall presents the perfect opportunity to get our national priorities right and do things differently. I rank renewable energy as a high priority for South Africa because it goes to the heart of our future. We need to expand our energy sector horizons and significantly invest in the megaprojects that the renewable energy sector can provide.

Renewable energy isn’t some untested fad; it is widely and highly successfully implemented on an industrial and domestic scale worldwide.
In our own country, last year Anglo Platinum invested in a massive solar energy pilot project at Mogalakwena Mine in Limpopo Province, developed in partnership with mining engineer and Wits University graduate, Dr Mike Seeger.

Seeger has used his personal finances, earned through his participation in the coalmining sector, to pioneer large-scale renewable energy projects for South Africa. In 2010, in partnership with Wits University, he hosted South Africa’s first 3-day implementation-focused renewable energy seminar called ‘Implementing Green Energy Projects in Southern Africa’. We need more people like him. It generates a new sense of optimism and opportunity. This was highlighted in a worldwide ‘challenges and opportunities’ process in which I participated late last year that led to the creation of the Global Opportunity Report 2015. The survey for the report includes more than 6000 public and private sector leaders/managers from nine different regions worldwide.

The report focuses on what we can do in a local and global context where ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option and where the cost of inaction is rising by the day. The premise is that countries worldwide are facing significant risks – from failed governance and deepening inequality to rising global temperatures, diminishing natural resources including fresh water, unsustainable urbanisation, a pandemic of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) and a highly concerning lock-in to fossil fuels.

We are living in daunting times; there is no doubt about it. But at the same time, as the report emphasises, these are also truly exciting times because we may be the first generation that is able to understand the complex and systemic challenges surrounding us and to do something about it. We may be the first generation to stop repeating the failed piecemeal approach and take a grand calculated risk that can make a huge difference to our country and world. The under 30s are certainly up for it. The report states that the respondent group under 30 years of age (including those in Sub-Saharan Africa) regard a regulated energy transition away from fossil fuels and energy autonomy as the opportunity with the greatest potential to positively impact on society. Considering that people under the age of 25 currently make up around 43 percent of the global population, rising to 60 percent in the least developed countries, I suggest that we need to start listening to young people because it is their future that is at stake.

We repeatedly hear that renewables energy is not cost-competitive, but as the report points out, fossil fuels are still amongst the most heavily subsidised commodities. In many cases the subsidy is so significant that renewables would most certainly be cost-competitive with fossil-fuel-based energy in an unsubsidised market. There is also growing interest in energy autonomy or decentralised energy. In Germany, for example, households and farmers are now the major players in renewable energy generation, with state-owned utilities owning only 12 percent of the country’s renewable energy assets. Energy transformation is at the heart of a smarter, greener, more sustainable future. It is at the heart of the smart city movement, which is another opportunity discussed in the report, and which is the top choice of the participants from China and also high on India’s list.

India has declared its ambition to develop 100 smart cities by 2022, with the government allocating 1.2 bn USD to the Smart Cities Strategy in the 2014/15 fiscal year. Making cities smart includes a new green emphasis on structural and planning elements, including energy efficient buildings and transport systems, sustainable water management and new technologies such as smart grids and big data to better manage cities, with competent managers behind them, of course.They can drive new strategic campaigns, such as transforming the mass of fossil fuel-driven motorcars in cities to electric ones in a relatively short period of time.

As the report states: “In an increasing number of markets, like Norway, sales are growing in part because of governmental interventions that make buying an electric car an attractive choice for consumers. This can be achieved through tax incentives or initiatives like privileged parking status or access to restricted lanes. Public procurement policies that favour ‘green’ products and services can directly increase demand for these options.”So much is possible if we are prepared to seize the innovative opportunities available to us and manage them with well.

This Global Opportunity Report 2015 is available at

Note: Professor Skae writes in his individual capacity and hence the views expressed are not necessarily those of SABSA or the member schools. For more information on SABSA and its members, visit its website The article originally appeared in the May 2015 column for Leadership Magazine.

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