Tales from the Lockdown #14: Nicola Kleyn, former Dean of GIBS, South Africa

21 July 2020

In this series of conversations, our guests talk to Senior Consultant Claudia Monteiro about what they're learning during the pandemic and what future they're imagining.


Nicola Kleyn is former Dean of GIBS (South Africa) and Dean: Executive Education RSM (The Netherlands) from August 2020.  


What’s been surprising about this pandemic? 

You’ve got to remember South Africa has seen so much social and economic change, and that’s intimately tied to our history. It’s unusual for this country to go through a crisis that’s happening simultaneously elsewhere in the world – take the Second World War or the 2008 financial crash. Those events didn’t have as much of an impact in this country as they had in the West. This pandemic threw us into the middle of a global crisis.  

There’s been so much deep-seated change in our country, it’s almost like it’s prepared us for moments like this. And what that does is it forces us to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable - it’s made people more comfortable with trying new things, or delve into something they don’t know about. 

What aren’t we talking enough about? 

I think we’re not talking enough about the type of leadership we require for this new world. Business schools have sprung into gear across the world to bring their programmes online and that gets a lot of airtime. But the bigger question is where does this crisis leaves us now, as a community of leaders? And not just in business schools, but in organisations around the world.  
How do we ask questions about our roles, our power to support each other? How do we strike the balance required between inspiring and giving hope and bring up authentic conversations that tackle the unthinkable? How do we as leaders place ourselves in the debates about big issues? In South Africa youth unemployment sits at 50% so the question for us becomes how we as a School think through job losses?  

This moment in history is making us reflect on what kind of leadership serves our institutions right now. We need inclusion and authenticity.  It’s incredibly hard to become someone you’re not through a crisis, and so you need to ask what’s the best version of yourself you can bring to the table and work towards that. 

Tell us about how your school had to change to adapt to the new reality 

This pandemic is like a race with no finishing line and one of the things we’ve all had to adjust to is a sort of grieving process, with all the sadness, loss and anger that comes with it. Take our MBAs; they’d signed up for a face-to-face experience that’s exciting and engaging. When the State of Disaster was declared in South Africa there wasn’t a lot of time for consultation, we simply had to respond to this new environment. It was only later we could start co-creating with students on what this new experience could be like. We’re still going through this process of recalibrating. 

What’s changing for business schools – and business itself? 

Covid has the potential to transform our leadership and business itself, as it forces us into a place of dynamic capability. There’s a famous quote by Eric Hoffer that says that in times of change the learners inherit the earth while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.  

The reality is we’re all coming into a system where the faults are showing, the ground has been shaking and not everyone knows the answers. We need to sharpen our ability to ask the right questions, to come in with a set of fresh eyes as we recalibrate to this new economy. What changes must we make? Business needs to learn on steroids from now on, and have the courage to let go of the things that are redundant in our world. We need rapid learners.  

The other area for business schools that I’d like to see debated is internationalisation. How are we going to articulate that now? If organisations like EQUIS see quality as related to internationalisation how do we define that in the light of this new world? Is it about the number of nationalities in place or are we going to be more nuanced about it?  
Any other reflections? 

The hidden parts of our society have come to the fore and I think that’s important. There’s a new appreciation of the value of professionals in health, in care and in education, and that’s critical. In highly gendered societies like South Africa, men have developed a deeper insight on the complexity of roles women play in the household, from caring for others to schooling, cooking and cleaning. Now is the time to be having those conversations.  

Photo: Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels.


Read more Tales of the Lockdown with

Kai Peters, Coventry University, UK

Molly Ihlbrock, ESMT Berlin, Germany

Dil Sidhu, Coursera, USA

Sarah Lethbridge, Cardiff Business School, UK 

Ivan Bofarull, ESADE, Spain

Rob Angell, Southampton University Business School, UK

Antonio Batista, Fundação Dom Cabral, Brazil

Yusra Mouzughi, Muscat University, Oman

Kate Kearins, Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand

Daniel Traça, Nova School of Business and Economics (Nova SBE), Portugal

Saul Klein, Gustavson School of Business, Canada

Stephen Back, King's Business School, UK

Wendy Loretto, University of Edinburgh Business School, UK


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