Leadership is an indispensable ingredient in innovative success & excellence

by Prof Mthunzi Mdwaba.

When I was asked to write an article for the up-coming South African Innovation Summit (“SAIS”) for which I shall be moderating the opening panel on the 27th September in Cape Town, I was transported back to the SAIS 2022, which was a magnificent event. It made me so proud that I was eager to participate in being a small part of shaping the direction of its journey this year – any excuse to be surrounded and inspired by youthful exuberance!

Having spent about 13 years or so, mostly in Geneva, Switzerland, from around 2008 till 2021, where I led the global employers as Vice President of the International Organisation of Employers (“IOE”) and consequently, led same within the International Labour Organisation (“ILO”), means I have a fairly good idea for what the landscape provides in the form of conferences that provide a good platform for the exchange of ideas and dialogue on human capital, technology, productivity, innovation and the Future of Work (“FoW”) causes, amongst others.


The latter, born in 1919, a special agency of the United Nations (“UN”), family, with 187 member countries, including South Africa, is what I refer to as the Mother of the World of Work, and the former representing over 140 business/employer organisations in 150 countries, as a voice for over 50 million companies, born in 1920 is the secreatariat for employers within the ILO.


It was refreshing, having returned home permanently recently, attending SAIS and being exposed to such great organisation, coordination and most importantly, young aspiring and inspirational innovators, displaying the abundance of available talent. This brings me to the question of whether we can have excellence in innovation without leadership.


Is it possible to talk of innovation and have innovative adventurism and success, without a conscious and sustained initiative?


Can we have excellence in innovation without deliberatism, incubation, ready-funding and the creation of an environment that allows for guided mistakes, without punishing experimentation?


How do we ensure there is sustained funding as a first resort by the State in being truly developmental in its approach? How do we incentivise the private sector and labour as the social partners with government and the State to work together, for innovation-rich environments that are well funded?


What we need is leadership, a conscientisation that resilience and sustainability cannot be achieved through egotistical, ideological and traditionalist thinking. Behavioural and attitudinal change is urgently required by all.


We need a developmental State with its Developmental Finance Institutions (“DFI’s”) not steeped in bureaucracy and red tape, waiting for someone else to fund first, akin to “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett, and creating hurdles, rather than facilitate and enable, when the funds are there and all that is required is nurturing the cocoons, so we can have a multiplicity of butterflies. You will be aware that in the play, Godot never arrives. For those of you who never read the book or watched the play, it is about the absurdity of existence, the purposelessness of life and the increasing of suffering with the passage of time. The waiting MUST end and be replaced by action and implementation. Funding by the State as a First Resort is urgently required. No more excuses, and passing the buck or kicking the can down the road, as well as having endless access to finance (more the lack thereof) discussions and rhetoric!


We need a focus on liberating our youth and embracing freshness of thought, understanding that Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy “As You Like It, in which a monologue starts with “All the world’s a stage” or his cataloguing of what is referred to as the seven stages of man, sometimes called the “Seven ages of man”, is all about making entrances and exits…”And all the men and women, merely Player, recognises that we are all transient in this world. As we go through it, we must play our respective responsible roles to prepare for those who shall be making their entrances as we exit, preparing for the next scene/s as it were. This requires selflessness, devoid of ego and a consciousness that we can only have sustained prosperity via sustained productivity ecosystems that ensure a competitive spirit, competitive economies, that are fed by constant creativity, innovation, collaboration, and more collaboration, and the creation of an abundance of employment of any kind, as long as dignity is the order of the day. We MUST work together!


Leadership recognises that without team work, the dream is never realised. To quote Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China at the 15th BRICS Summit, “… One flower alone cannot make a beautiful spring: only blossoming of a rich variety of flowers can bring spring to the global garden…


Leadership always focuses on impact. The creation of value is a defining characteristic of innovation. Incremental innovation or continuous innovation, which as productivity scholars, we also refer to as “kaizen”: coined by the Japanese, adjacent innovation which involves successful expansion, disruptive and lastly radical innovation which is explanatory, are what we need to unleash change and impact.


Social justice follows naturally this way. “And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” Nelson Mandela

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