If Covid-19 has a silver lining, it may be this: it is making humans around the world realise how much we all share, how much we all stand to lose, how much we need to work together, and how we lead each other without physical contact. This involves all of us who are leaders, no matter how small the group we are leading, or how new we are to leadership. Lockdown is forcing us to move our human connections online, and this is changing how we lead, who we lead and how others respond to our leadership.
Leaders – including young leaders with few resources and little experience – are grasping this opportunity to get their messages out on a scale that was unheard-of just last year. Online communication has been advancing at a fast pace for the last two decades. But the acceleration we have witnessed in the past few months of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders is unprecedented. At a time of such momentous change, it is worth reflecting on some of the key implications of this move from the physical to the digital.
Under the old paradigm, political rallies, seminars in lecture halls and picket lines were the norm for getting messages across. They reached a limited number of people at a time. Online communication has made these messages accessible around the world, on a par with the kinds of celebrities who command airtime on traditional media networks. The acceleration of digitalisation brought about by Covid-19 is changing how democracy works by enlarging the platform where we can speak and extend our reach to anyone online.
Online communication needs few resources when compared with traditional forms. A student movement with no finances can organise a gathering of people around the globe, sitting in front of their computers. The group can invite a high-calibre speaker to address this gathering and record the podcast for circulation afterwards. Before lockdown, such an event would mean renting a venue, arranging security, accessing sound equipment and technicians and other costs, as well as transport, accommodation and other expenses for the guest speaker.
While these organisations are increasing their reach through online platforms, they are also sharing online space and audience attention with other organisations, speakers and ideologies. Such a climate creates opportunities to collaborate, as well as to compete with other groups. This raises the standard for every group to aim for excellence, for instance by securing the best available speakers. One example could be a grassroots political movement that presents a lecture series featuring an international academic speaking on the history of Pan-Africanism. In this way, the group is not just promoting an ideology, but building an academic case for that ideology.
Another advantage of online communication is that these groups no longer need to rely on personal or formal introductions to high-calibre speakers; they can connect through email, Twitter and Instagram. So the network of speakers and their respective messages grows not just by word of mouth, but also by the click of a button: re-tweets and forwarded messages.
Online platforms allow for engagement with ideas on a much greater scale than was possible before. People in the audience can submit questions online and get an immediate response, comment on a Twitter-feed and generate their own chat groups afterwards. Lectures are no longer just one expert speaking, but a community interacting.
It takes strong leadership to guide these evolving engagements into meaningful change. Such leadership needs to adhere to a strong standard of excellence to build change that is sustainable. And it needs to exercise empathy and compassion, if change is to benefit the whole world.
Many people are talking about using the Covid-19 crisis to change the unsustainable, abusive economic and political relationships that harm society and the environment. This means dismantling systems that have developed and evolved over centuries of human history. We have resources to do this, but we need strong leadership to guide the new ideas and to measure their effectiveness, to impart a shared vision as well as a commitment to excellence and good governance.
Successful entrepreneurs, for instance, build new businesses based on identifying and meeting a need. They are not just driven by profit, but often seek to improve the world through their enterprise. They deliver a product or service that is structured to address the need they have identified. They apply knowledge and skill to achieve quality.
Higher education can help build good leadership, by providing the discipline and knowledge that leads to sound decisions. Otherwise, we risk creating new problems as we try to solve the old ones. Across the world, the old image of the university as an “ivory tower”, inhabited by academics, researchers and students from the privileged, homogenous strata of society, is gone.
Instead, South African campuses like the University of Cape Town (UCT), which I have the honour to lead, have become microcosms of the communities they serve. Today’s students and new academics come from across the economic spectrum, including impoverished communities, and families that have been affected by disease, early death, gender-based violence, addiction, hunger, mental illness or other causes. They represent all of South Africa’s languages, religions, cultures, sexual identities and educational and professional levels.
To make education and research relevant in such a community, our leadership needs to be guided by the principles of social responsiveness, where solutions need to respond to real problems on the ground, applying academic rigour as well as sensitive engagement with the people whose lives we hope to improve. This is the underlying principle for UCT’s research and teaching, and something we seek to instil in our graduates.
This kind of leadership can have a profound effect on a small scale as well as a large one. In 2016, a youth group called Studio Light partnered with UCT in a photography project that involved young people in Macassar, a traditionally coloured township outside Cape Town that had a reputation for crime, poverty and other social ills.
The project was simple: the young participants photographed street scenes of their neighbours going about their daily routine. At the end of the project, all the residents of Macassar were invited to view the photographs in a local exhibit. The images gave so much hope that the people of Macassar built a common space to permanently house the collection and provide a community centre. The project succeeded in giving members of the community a different perception of themselves.
Activists can use online tools to help us see ourselves and our world on a much wider scale. They can use their mobile phones and laptops to show people in the global north how the global south lives. This kind of access across our geographical and economic boundaries can form the basis for a global movement that begins with awareness of our fellow humans and how most of us struggle to live.
But it is not enough to sensitise people about an ideology, or even to encourage discussions around change. We need to build common purpose across the different communities that make up our world: the spectrum of backgrounds, languages and cultures. We need to build collaboration among the experts who have the skills and knowledge to help us spur liveable change.
We need leadership, excellence and care to define our relationship to each other and to the world, so that we can create a sustainable future for all.