A bold, firm, and unambiguous affirmation of the foundations of our democratic state – this is what the Constitutional Court’s judgment on the Public Protector’s report on Nkandla represents. The judgment has ramifications that stretch far beyond the political crisis it has evoked – it has underscored the urgent need for us to revisit leadership thinking and practice in all sectors of public and private life in our country. Not only does the judgment serve as a mirror to reflect on current leadership practice, it also lays the foundation for what it could and should be in South Africa.  We are all be affected by it. The crises in many sectors of society, from education to health and sport, are also crises of leadership – whether by cause or effect.

Effective leadership is central to the functioning of institutions and organizations, and leadership practice cannot be divorced from how organizations function and the goals they seek to achieve. In many cases, we tend to think of the crises and the changes required to address it as being solely “out there” or systemic, and being inseparable from “in here” – the personal aspects of our individual and collective leadership thoughts and actions. As the judgment shows us, disconnecting leadership responsibility (that includes accountability) from institutional mission and goals is a dangerous leadership path to go down – and it comes with negative consequences.

So, the key question that should be asked is: “For what purpose do we lead?” The judgment makes it clear – we lead for a purpose much higher, bigger and bolder than ourselves as individuals. Our leadership work has aspirational value – it is about advancing the interests of society; it is about contributing to the common good; and it is about building our collective humanity. Leading effectively thus not only contributes to the achievement of an organization’s goals, it is also leads to the gradual realization of that organization’s vision and affirms the rationale for its existence. Inspirational vision and mission statements always look beyond the present and paint a picture of the desired future that goes beyond that of the individual organization. It In many cases, these connect to the broader societal themes mentioned above.

So what does the Constitutional Court judgment says about leadership? Judge Mogoeng Mogoeng clearly described the role of political leadership in the country, especially for that of the President:

“The President is the Head of State and Head of the National Executive. His is indeed the highest calling to the highest office in the land. He is the first citizen of this country and occupies a position indispensable for the effective governance of our democratic country… He is a constitutional being by design‚ a national pathfinder‚ the quintessential commander-in-chief of State affairs and the personification of this nation’s constitutional project.”

This is a profound statement. Its beauty lays both in circumscribing the parameters of leadership, as well as in realizing the leadership potential for greatness. The subtext of the judgment is even more powerful. It speaks to the “in here” aspects of leadership that are connected to our personal lives.

The mental models that we have about the world and ourselves are informed by our beliefs, values, and motivations. These in turn give rise to our actions and behaviors.  The mental models are implicit because they are built up over time and can act as “blind spots” – where leaders are not even aware of the degree to which their mental models shape their leadership behaviors and actions, and may have contributed to the problems in the organization. When this happens, the leader’s response to crises is likely to be defensive. In other words, rather than engaging in critical self-reflection and learning about assumptions and beliefs that are personal and “in here,” and may have contributed to the crises, blame gets apportioned almost exclusively to things and people “out there.” The deflection of blame serves to protect the leader, absolving him or her from taking responsibility for the crises. This protection is not only positional, it is also psychological, as reflecting on and changing one’s mental models and behaviors opens the leader up to stressful feelings of fear, loss, insecurity, anxiety, and discomfort. This is one of the key barriers that we have to overcome in order to re-establish authentic and transformative leadership in South Africa.

The Constitutional Court judgment thus serves as a defining moment for leadership in our country. It not only places the spotlight on the President and Parliament, but on all of us. After all, leadership is not only a function of those elected to office or appointed to formal positions of authority. We all take the lead for one thing or another at some time in our homes and families, communities and organizations. We are all leaders just as we are all followers.  As one scholar says, “You don’t have to be in a leadership position to be in a position to provide leadership.”