Sorbet Group founder Ian Fuhr believes South Africa has a political leadership crisis
Problems with poor leadership have revealed themselves in the recent local government elections. Voters largely shunned political parties and their leaders. Ian Fuhr is not surprised by this, saying there is an ‘overwhelming sense of hopelessness’ about the quality of leadership in politics.
Ian Fuhr, the man who founded the Sorbet chain of beauty salons, believes that South Africa has a serious leadership problem that revealed itself during the recent municipal elections.
The election saw a dismal voter turnout – probably the worst in recent memory – as South Africans gave politicians and their parties a big middle finger. Their faith in democracy seems to be on the decline.
Fuhr is not surprised by this, saying there is an “overwhelming sense of hopelessness” among people about the quality of leadership in politics.
“People didn’t vote because they believed their vote wouldn’t make any difference. They believed that nothing was going to change by voting. And that shows people don’t believe in the people in charge,” said Fuhr during a Daily Maverick webinar about his new book, Cultureneering; Culture, Diversity and Customer Service.
The book reflects on Fuhr’s work in coaching entrepreneurs and senior executives on becoming good leaders – those that have the moral authority to lead and can navigate SA’s complex sociopolitical landscape. Fuhr does this work through his business coaching school, the Hatch Institute. He launched the school after selling Sorbet in 2017 to Long4Life, the listed investment holding company run by former Bidvest CEO Brian Joffe.
Fuhr’s book is about the lessons from his more than 40-year journey as an entrepreneur – from being the founder of a supermarket chain called Kmart in 1976 (a volatile period of racial divisions in SA), launching a company in 1991 that advised other companies on how to improve race relations in the workplace, to founding Sorbet in 2005.
Although SA has made strides in helping black people access opportunities since the advent of democracy in 1994, Fuhr said there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to enable black people to participate fully in the economy. He argued that race matters and remains a determining factor for access to opportunities – SA cannot forget about its highly racial and divisive past.
“It is naive and irresponsible to forget the past. We do need to understand the impact of our 300-year history of systemic racism, polarisation and mind manipulation, in which there was a strong degree of white superiority and black inferiority that manipulated the minds of people. Those things have an impact on people’s lives. We need to have uncomfortable conversations and not sweep the issue of race under the carpet.”
Fuhr said SA lacks “culture-driven leadership” in which leaders earn the moral authority to lead instead of their senior positions automatically granting them the privilege to lead. This probably resulted in a society that has shunned political parties, as leaders have failed to improve the lives of ordinary people amid worsening unemployment, poverty and inequality.
“You cannot be a leader because you are at the top of the structure… you have the power to make decisions and tell people what to do. You must earn that right for people to trust and respect you. People want to generally feel that leaders are concerned about their wellbeing and respond to their needs.”
Fuhr added that culture-driven leadership is also about “servant leadership”, which is “about serving the people and putting their needs first over profits”.
The private sector problem
The problem of poor leadership is not only plaguing the public sector, but also the private sector. Where there are government failures on issues such as service delivery, Fuhr believes that it is the private sector’s responsibility to step in and uplift people.
“Business in SA can no longer be about short-term financial objectives. It is our responsibility in business to uplift this country and the people in it. If we cannot do this, we will never be able to lift the mindset of hopelessness and create a country with equal opportunities for everyone and help them to participate in the economy.”
Fuhr argued the purpose of business is not to make money, but to serve customers and the public at large. “If you are going into business to make money, it is never going to work because your service won’t be good. Service always comes first, before any financial reward.”
Asked about what a great culture entails, Fuhr said it is one in which leaders make people feel like they have a sense of belonging in an organisation.
“Everyone in a business, regardless of their race and background, must have a sense of belonging. A sense that makes people feel trusted and respected. A sense that their contributions are being valued. A sense of being treated with fairness, equality and dignity. Once you have this, it creates a platform for good service and a purpose to serve the broader community.” DM/BM