Are you almost on your way to South Africa as part of your next career step and eager to prove the trust your company has given to you? Or, have you worked for a while in South Africa and discovered that reality is slightly different from what they have told you in the intercultural training beforehand? – Then we would like to share our expertise with you on how to be an effective business leader in South Africa and make this engagement a memorable stay for you, your staff, and your family.


German business leaders need a Diplomatic Leadership style

German business leaders, according to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Michael Sanger in their Harvard Business Review article, What Leadership Looks Like in Different Cultures, are described as Opportunistic Leaders who are characterised as self-initiating and flexible about how to reach goals. They are described as individualistic leaders who thrive in ambiguity and tend to be ambitious risk takers.

South African leadership requirements in order to respond to the diversity, culture, values and history are for the Diplomatic Leader. Employees prefer working for bosses who are able to keep business conversations pleasant and friendly.


Constructive confrontation needs to be handled with empathy.

Leaders are expected to gauge audience reactions during negotiations and meetings. They should adjust their messaging to keep the discussion affable. Direct communication is seen as unnecessarily harsh. Diplomatic leaders are polite and agreeable. Naturally the culture of each organisation requires a more granular level of analysis to identify the qualities that promote or inhibit success but showing up in a humane and connecting fashion rather than being hard-driving and demanding will undoubtedly get a better response in all African countries.


Never underestimate trade unions influence

Due to the powerful position of trade unions and the power of labour legislation intended to protect the rights of the employed, it’s critical for expats working in South Africa to have a thorough grasp of what is and is not acceptable from a labour perspective. This is a potential minefield for those who are ignorant of how things are done here.


Understand South African history

It will also go a long way to building understanding of the South African context if expats learned about the history of the country. This not only builds understanding but creates platforms for conversation. This kind of knowledge and understanding will enable those coming to work in South Africa to show up in a way which is appropriate to the local environment. It would be impressive also to learn the local greetings. We explored this further in our article “How to make your way in South Africa as a German Expat” (link to article).


Expats need to visit the African continent to start to understand the requirements of business in each country.

Many Europeans fail to appreciate the sheer size of the African continent. Flying from Johannesburg to Cairo takes 9 hours – the same as flying from Europe to Dubai. Never lump African countries together culturally. Each is very different and has a distinct culture. One needs to visit them to start to understand the requirements of business in each. The opportunities offered by Africa are enormous but also risky. Just think about the potential of the fact that the average age in Nigeria is 19 years. Catering for the needs and desires of these emerging adults could be a huge opportunity.


Be prepared to work with Generation Y

Likewise, South Africa also has a young population. They are restless for opportunity and feel that their parents have ‘sold-out’ in the transition to democracy. Dealing with this challenge is one of the factors that will define the immediate future of the South African economy.

In the 18- to 29- year age group, 43% of South Africans are not in employment, education or training. This makes youth unemployment the most critical component of South Africa’s overall unemployment challenge. Not only is employment important for helping young people move out of poverty and hopelessness but it is needed for the economy as a whole to translate the currently wasted human capital into faster growth. There is an urgent need for business to take advantage of the incentives offered in order to stimulate youth employment and give people an opportunity to gain business experience. The South African Government currently offers a Youth Wage Subsidy as well as a learnership programme as part of its commitment to addressing this challenge.

Having sketched the challenges to be faced at a high level, the final warning is,
“If you get the dust of Africa on your shoes, it will never go away.”

We are specialists in coaching German Expats in South Africa. Reach out to our Country Manager, Ms. Pat Roberts in Johannesburg ( or our Managing Director Brigitta Wurnig in Hamburg ( We are at your side and look forward to your call.