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Change the world


This article appeared in The Conversation on 18 Febraury 2016, written by NMMU's Prof Heather Nel.


There has been an academic revolution in higher education over the past 50 years. It’s been marked by disruptive innovation – think of how rapid technological advances have widened access, such as through Massive Open Online Courses.

These changes have brought universities to the edge of an epoch in which they will only survive if they are able to innovate and produce knowledge fast. For this to happen, the higher education sector will have to change its ideas about leadership.

It must move beyond traditional paradigms and mindsets. It must look for and develop transformational leaders. These are leaders who emerge in the face of adaptive challenges that require exploration, learning and new patterns of behaviour.

In South Africa, this need has been brought into sharp focus by the #FeesMustFall student movement. Students successfully pushed President Jacob Zuma into conceding to a 0% university fee increase for 2016.

The movement has placed several issues firmly on the national agenda. These include: access to affordable, quality higher education; the insourcing of vulnerable workers; and the need to fundamentally transform university curricula. Students also want higher education to be made free for all. Addressing these demands, particularly during an economic downturn, calls for a bold response that draws on all stakeholders' collective creativity.

It will also require truly transformational leaders. What do I mean by this?

The characteristics of such leaders

Transformational leaders are able to cope with uncertainty and contradiction. They do this by proactively engaging with divergent views in articulating a compelling vision for the future. This is an important leadership trait, since behavioural research has shown that people do their best thinking when they feel included and their views are respected and appreciated.

Transformational leaders are also known for their empowering style. They build relationships of trust through authentic listening. Importantly, such 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.

Some transformation questions

South Africa’s apartheid history left a higher education system that is structured along highly stratified racial, gender, class, cultural and spatial lines. This led to the need for radical transformation to create a non-racial, non-sexist, more equal and socially just society.

In this context, it is necessary to think of “university transformation” in two ways. Internally, universities need to transform to better reflect the goals contained in national policies. Externally, they must reframe their contributions to the wider society.

Some pertinent questions need to be asked when reflecting on the pace and depth of transformation in higher education since the advent of democracy in 1994. These include the extent to which universities are:

·         creating inclusive institutional cultures where the historical legacies of systemic oppression are reversed and diversity is embraced;

·         transforming the curriculum so that graduates are equipped to contribute meaningfully to society as enlightened and responsible citizens; and

·         enhancing the diversity of student and staff profiles to better reflect the country’s demographics.

Addressing such questions will enrich the transformation discourse. It will also create the conditions for university stakeholders to openly grapple with, and share, more effective ways of ensuring that universities better reflect democratic ideals.

So is this possible in South Africa right now? Yes, more than ever: because, paradoxically, systems are most likely to change when they experience what’s known as bounded instability.

Some instability can support innovation

Under conditions of bounded instability, complex systems are constantly poised between order and chaos. They are able to spontaneously self-organise and transform themselves in order to survive. The laws of cause and effect no longer appear to apply.

Our instinct is to restore equilibrium as quickly as possible. But transformational university leaders will recognise that “surfing the edge of chaos” provides a platform for innovation to emerge. This makes bounded instability more conducive to the sort of change that’s required than either stable equilibrium or explosive instability. If systems become too stable, they ossify and die. If they become too unstable, they may descend into chaos and destroy themselves.

A system is far easier to change when it’s at the edge of instability. That’s because small actions of agents within the system can escalate into major outcomes. South Africa has witnessed this principle with the #FeesMustFall movement. The disorderly dynamics of contradiction, conflict and tension provide the driving force for adaptability and responsiveness.

The lesson to be learnt

The dominant paradigms in leadership theory are premised on seeking stability and avoiding uncertainty.

But the lesson which emerges in the midst of complexity is that leadership does not merely comprise the influential acts of university leaders. Rather, it is embedded in interpersonal relationships and an array of interacting organisational processes.

These facilitate organisational learning and intelligent adaptation. The task of transformational university leaders is to mindfully engage with diverse stakeholders, harness their creative energies and courageously co-create the conditions for deep transformation.

South Africa’s universities have tinkered at the edges for too long. This has heightened the frustrations of marginalised students and workers who experience the harsh realities of poverty, inequality and exclusion on a daily basis. The time is ripe for transformational leadership.

Author’s note: Acknowledgement is given to Kumaree Moodley, whose MBA treatise explored the role of transformational leaders within a selected higher education institution in South Africa.

Contact information
Prof Heather Nel
Senior Director: Institutional Strategy
Tel: 27 41 504 4511