Morne Mostert is the Director at the Institute for Futures Research, Stellenbosch University. His knowledge areas of expertise are innovation, leadership, systems thinking and strategy. He presents systems thinking on our EDP and customised EDP and SMDP. He shares the following with us:
What has been your toughest leadership challenge?
I work in the thought leadership space as well as having leadership responsibility for the IFR. To my mind, in thought leadership the challenge is to continuously produce new knowledge that is globally competitive – a fresh perspective, a novel insight, a creative way of expanding anticipatory competence. Many people claim to want to learn, but the reality of learning is that it must (by definition) fracture and advance current levels of understanding. This means that, as thought leaders, we must simultaneously fracture and mend. The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti described the creative process as 'constantly risking absurdity'. This means that the creative mind perpetually attempts to make a humble submission of a contributively novel idea to an audience, but the value lies in the eye (or mind) of that audience, who have the luxury of pointing out the inconsistencies or limitations of the idea without having to produce new ideas. So innovative thought leadership has to be sufficiently creative to offer new avenues (in my case on foresight), while it presents a real and viable opportunity for the tough decisions senior leaders have to make.
In my leadership role at the IFR, the challenge was taking over leadership responsibility for a renowned institute during an economic downturn. The legacy of the IFR is significant, and I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to respect this legacy while advancing the IFR through real innovation. The move towards international recognition of the IFR as a leading thinking hub on Africa is what keeps me awake (and drives me!).
What is the toughest leadership challenge businesses face today?
Leaders face several complex challenges, but meaningful foresight (the main responsibility of senior leaders in my view) is extremely challenging in an epoch of radical foreshortening of horizons for decision-making. Businesses have to balance an increasingly strenuous global legal environment, the relentless demands of anxious investors and the imperative to somehow produce social value while being stable but also disruptively innovative – all at the same time. The intellectual process of insightful strategic decision-making in a highly competitive business environment characterised by VUCASSU (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous, Self-interested, Simultaneous and Utilitarian) is placing enormous strain on leadership energy.
Who inspires you and why?
I am inspired by business people who learn; by the willingness of some of the senior leaders who engage with us to explore new futures in a humble way. This creative search for alternative futures is what will drive society forward. The word 'inspiration' is derived from Latin and means 'to breathe into'. It refers to the power of the gods to breathe life into mere mortals. Leaders who advance new options for alternative futures breathe new life into me.
What is the most valuable teaching you have received from a 'student' to date?
Business leaders who are able to don a research cap are enormously enlightening. Senior people, responsible for growth targets, who exhibit the capacity to behave with inquiring minds during the learning process while advancing organisational and societal objectives demonstrate the remarkable span of the human mind.
One of the best 'lessons' an executive ever taught me happened quite early in my career. I was going on and on ( as only a green consultant can) about getting outside your comfort zone, when a senior person in the back of the room got up and said, "With respect young man, I have spent the last 25 years trying to GET INTO my comfort zone. Why would I now work actively to GET OUT OF my comfort zone?" This taught me a great deal about how executives think, and about the importance of courageous but humble contribution in the board room. I have a deep respect for senior people who have the responsibility (and privilege) of complex decisions.
What about USB-ED attracted you to become one of our hand-picked faculty members?
Through its focus on executive development, USB-ED straddles the world of the academia and business. The opportunity for growing the leaders of Africa while those leaders simultaneously grow their organisations and economies is very attractive. USB-ED also allows for novel and experimental ways of advancing learning.
Do you have a mantra/slogan that you live by and if so, what is it?
Paula Poundstone, the American stand-up comedian and commentator once said, "Adults are always asking children what they want to be when they grow up because they're looking for ideas." I love the idea that the next generation is not only viewed as students, but can also show us some of the ways ahead. I am also inspired by the words of the comedian George Burns: "I look to the future, because that is where I am going to spend the rest of my life."
What career advice would you give yourself looking back to when you started out?
Fail fast, often and respectfully. Don't wait for perfection. There is always a better way, although there is no real ideal way. Apply your creativity to a meaningful opportunity.
What book are you currently reading/have just read?
I have just finished 'Plato and a platypus walk into a bar" and it was reviewed at the USB-ED We Read For You. I absolutely love this exploration of the relationship between philosophy and humour – both desperately lacking in the current business environment.