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Change the world


This article was written by NMMU's Professor Heather Nel and appeared in the University World News Global Edition Issue 412 of 6 May 2016

In an age of innovation and change, universities need transformative leadership, which is characterised by moral courage and activism. In Africa this means seizing the opportunities offered by protests like #FeesMustFall to drive change. Universities globally are increasingly challenged by disruptive innovation that is revolutionary, unpredictable and moving at an unprecedented pace. In this context, universities have to navigate demands for ever-increasing scrutiny from funders, regulatory bodies and societal stakeholders to be accountable for achieving public good purposes such as promoting social justice and equality.

We are seeing that in these dynamic and uncertain times, the demand for leadership shifts from mere operational effectiveness to an elevated role of primary 'meaning maker'. This requires that leaders inspire learning, stimulate change and articulate a bold future by aligning organisational purpose, mission and values.

For this to happen, universities will have to move beyond traditional leadership paradigms and mindsets to embrace the kind of transformational leadership exemplified in politics by figures such as Nelson Mandela.

The characteristics of transformative leaders

Transformative leaders are able to cope with complexity and flourish in the face of adaptive challenges that require exploration, learning and new patterns of behaviour. They do this by proactively engaging with divergent views in an effort to co-create a compelling vision for the future.

Transformative leadership focuses on collaboration so that change is a group effort and the leader builds relationships of trust through authentic listening.

In an African context, the concept of 'self in community' is the essential building block of shared or distributed leadership.

Importantly, transformative leaders construct possibilities for systemic resilience by cultivating safe spaces for difficult dialogues to take place. This encourages experimentation, stimulates the emergence of creativity and gives people the opportunity to question widely-held assumptions and beliefs.

The essence of this sort of leadership lies in developing and transforming people to reach their fullest potential. This results in the university itself becoming transformed. As such, transformative leadership is characterised by moral courage and activism in an effort to bring about social justice.

Transformative leadership therefore recognises the need to begin with critical reflection and to move, through enlightened understanding, to action that promotes harmony, sustainability, equity and a better quality of life for all.

Transformation in an African context

Africa's colonial history has resulted in educational systems that are designed to reproduce the inequities inherent in gender, race and class constructs and to legitimate certain dominant cultures, behaviours and structures.

In this context, it is necessary to think of ’university transformation’ in two ways. Internally, universities need to transform to give effect to the goals contained in national policies, such as diversifying their staff and student demographic profiles. Externally, they must reframe their contributions to wider society.

Transformative leadership inextricably links education and leadership to the wider social context within which the university is embedded.

It critiques inequitable practices and offers the promise of not only enhancing the individual potential of university staff and students, but also contributing to a better life for the poor and marginalised in the broader society through socially engaged scholarship and knowledge generation.

Some transformation questions

Some pertinent questions need to be posed when reflecting on the pace and depth of transformation within the African higher education landscape.

These include the extent to which universities are:

In South Africa, these questions have been brought into sharp focus through the #FeesMustFall student movement. The movement has placed several issues firmly on the policy-making agenda. Most notably, these include: broadening access to affordable, quality higher education; reintegrating the services of vulnerable, outsourced staff; and fundamentally transforming or decolonising university curricula.

Addressing these multi-faceted issues will enrich the transformation discourse and create the conditions for universities to become spaces where pedagogies of critique, hope and possibility are cultivated. This will empower citizens to take up their leadership roles in collectively responding to the perplexing and perennial challenges confronting Africa such as poverty, unemployment and inequality.

So is this possible? Yes, more than ever: because, paradoxically, living systems like universities are most likely to change when they experience disruption or disequilibrium.

'Never let a good crisis go to waste’

In the wake of widespread disruption, such as that which was catalysed by the #FeesMustFall student movement in South Africa, our instinct is to restore equilibrium and stability as quickly as possible. However, transformative leaders recognise that the disorderly dynamics of contradiction and complexity provide the driving force for adaptability and responsiveness.

Winston Churchill wisely advised that we should “never let a good crisis go to waste”. Rather than clinging to the comfort and certainty of the status quo, transformative leaders use moments of crisis to launch in-depth transformation processes that would otherwise be met with paralysing resistance.

The lesson to be learnt

The lesson that emerges is that transformative leadership does not merely comprise the influential or heroic acts of individual leaders. Rather, the task of transformational university leaders is to harness the creative energies of diverse stakeholders and boldly create the conditions for transformation – both within the university and broader society.

Transformative university leaders are ideally positioned to be the courageous voices for change that actively redress historical injustices. The question is: who will step up to this exciting role?

Professor Heather Nel is senior director of institutional planning at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, South Africa.