Global leadership: We need skillful, dexterous, humble leaders to create a world order with sustainable solutions

It is traditional at the start of any year to seek lessons from the prior year and use them to plan for the 12 months ahead. As we set out to do so, the world was confronted with the implications of the storming of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, by people intent on overturning the results of a democratic election.

The breach of the Capitol, and the subsequent and ongoing revelations that suggest insurrection through the heavy-handed hubris among protesters, signify yet another example of a rise in intolerance across the world, and the diminishing sense of unity and purpose for just and open societies.

Wherever we live, we may disagree. That is part and parcel of human society. But we should never lose sight of the values of democracy. Integral to democracy is a solemn pact to abide by the will of the majority. This is not what we are witnessing in the US. Yet, we are clearly seeing deeply politicised and localised responses to other global challenges, including Covid-19 and climate change.

It is time for a new kind of leadership to emerge in the world and we all have a personal responsibility to ensure this happens. We call for leadership that thinks globally and locally, tenaciously guided by both a pragmatic and visionary modus operandi, leadership that blends strength with humility, leadership that does not seek to amass power for the sake of power.

In short, leadership that creates a world order in which solutions are generated, as advocated by founder of the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In his own words, “do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world”.

To overcome the many challenges we face, collectively and individually, we need skilful, dexterous leadership. Without humility, leaders can embody none of these attributes. Humble leaders listen more effectively, appreciating and welcoming others’ informed opinions and contributions.

Leadership with humility acknowledges that the world is too complex for any one person to know everything, and is open to new ideas and learning from mistakes. Humility requires a strong sense of self and results in a focus on a goal outside one’s own success. Without the attributes that humility brings, leaders often revert to authoritarianism and fearmongering, neither of which will enable us to overcome complex adversaries such as pandemics and climate change.

We must urge our leaders to think nimbly, act selflessly and find sustainable solutions to current challenges.

When social and political systems are unjust, deep fractures will always surface starkly. They are showing again, in our responses to Covid-19, in our responses to injustice, in our responses to climate change. We exhort humility, guided by selfless action and purposeful solutions to address public good in this perilous phase of our lifetime.

The year 2020 revealed deep chasms in all our societies globally. However, we have never been in a better position to work together to ensure that tomorrow is a better place.

We have had our collective vulnerability emphatically demonstrated to us. We have no choice. We can no longer continue doing the same things we have always done.

We call for a peaceful transition of power and an end to violence in the US. We call on the leaders of that country to overcome division, selfishness, discontent and arrogance. We call for truth, justice and meaningful reconciliation.

We, again, urge the world to heed the words of Archbishop Tutu: “Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones is not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong.

“True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking, but in the end, it is worthwhile, because only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”

The formal process of truth and reconciliation we went through in South Africa, as well as our ongoing societal processes, mean that we know the importance of uncovering the truth before we can be reconciled and that a process of restorative justice must be undertaken to heal the rift in a divided society.

Leaders and civil society should not continue to foster division — we must uncover the ugly excesses driven by selfish arrogance, root them out and ensure that we make reparation to those affected. Those responsible for division, greed and injustice must be held accountable.

We must all heed the lessons from both South Africa and the US. A society that is divided profoundly will fracture. In August last year, we wrote about the shame of Covid-19 corruption in South Africa and warned then that “it is incumbent on all of us to drag the corrupt from the dark corners they hide in, into the light”. We reiterate this warning and call for our leaders to act fearlessly and swiftly in creating a South Africa in which the voiceless are given voices and the divided are united.

We call upon the leaders of the world to heed the lessons from the US and to act with integrity and courage, humbly acknowledging the great faith we have put in them when we elected them and entrusted them with power