Discovering leadership Presentation by Tokyo Sexwale, Minister of Human Settlements, at the 2010 Discovery Leadership Summit, Sandton
11 Aug 2010
The genesis of the art or science of leadership is located not in committee meetings company boardrooms, or government Cabinets but in the open university of real life.
Such origins of the discipline have, by and large, always been about the societal quest to search for, and identify, solutions to human problems in the world of the natural or social sciences in the economy, in politics, in philosophy, in medicine, in law or even during the most extreme form of social conflict: the conduct of warfare.
In a word, the history of leadership has and still is invariably associated with discovery that is, primarily a journey from ignorance to knowledge, seeking out and pinpointing answers towards the resolution of challenges confronting humankind.
Every human being each one of us has an account to state, a story to tell, on the subject matter of leadership; experiences regarding leadership success; or leadership failure.
My own views are essentially premised upon and informed by one’s own journey of life – family, community, church and life in the dusty townships of South Africa.
Furthermore, my thinking on the subject has been influenced by other experiences including student protests, clandestine politics, life in exile, military and warfare activity, capture and arrest by the enemy, detention without trial, torture, “treason” charges, a stint in the death cells, and a lengthy period of imprisonment.
Last but not least, my own views derive from experiences in party politics, government, the corporate sector as well as in philanthropy.
At different times during all these experiences, as an onlooker or activist, as a follower or as a protagonist for there is a time to follow, and a time to lead one has been exposed to various leadership styles. Some with tremendous success, others as spectacular failures.
It is not far-fetched to make an assumption that this summit is not a workshop whose main function would be to dwell upon miniscule details of day-to-day existence about the topic of leadership. This is evidenced by the calibre of personalities who shall be making various important interventions at this summit.
I believe, therefore, that our input should be regarded as a contribution from a global strategic view; at a conceptual and philosophical level, if you like, avoiding day to day examples.
The standpoint of leadership
From the onset, it is necessary to dispel and dismiss what leadership is not about.
Firstly, when confronted with a situation where decision-making is required, leadership is definitely not about languishing behind the people, pushing from the rear and seeing nothing ahead, with a glimmer of hope that somehow the masses will find their own way. This style of activity can only be described as tailism. The end result is often tragic.
Secondly, most certainly leadership is far from the actions of someone walking in the middle of a crowd or the team, hiding amongst people. When such a person is confronted with the question: “What’s your view?” he or she quickly gazes around to check the mood and then retorts: “The people say.”
This is opportunism. Such conduct would be ludicrous were it not for the heavy price normally paid by society due to such people being placed in leadership positions.
Leadership is far from running too far ahead of people. That type of leader, whilst mostly sounding brilliant, is so distant as to be unheard, unseen or not understood by potential followers. Too futuristic and drifting away. Out of touch with reality, lost in cloud cuckoo land.
This often prompts people, disappointed in such a distant leader, to opt for the nearest person as an alternative, who may turn out to be a demagogue.
The art of leadership, the science of this calling, is not about pushing people forward from the back, not hiding among them, or being so far ahead as to lose touch. Indeed, it is about leading from the front, walking sufficiently ahead, within sight and hearing, to enable constant contact and communication.
Yet it is also about keeping the critical distance away from the main body in order to clearly see the opportunities and threats before the main body does thus enabling the leader to advocate for a decisive change of course if needs be.
Leadership is not about walking ahead of the people on a broad road or highway in broad daylight, pretending to show the way. This is deceptive leadership.
Leadership is about confronting jungles, swamps and gorges in poor light or pitch darkness. It is about weighing risks, understanding options, of course being consultative, seeking consensus, while at the same time preparing to take hard, calculated decisions.
When the strategy falters owing to unforeseen tactical changes, when the situation goes haywire, leadership is about associating with the drawbacks or with failure.
As one American President, during a moment of reflection after a catastrophe, said: Victory is a child of many fathers. Yet failure is an orphan.
Thus leading from the front means that the leader takes the first criticism and the first bullet – the last accolade and a few praises, if any.
A word on the Mandela style of leadership
When all is said and done, everything stated thus far can apply to most forms of leadership. But what distinguishes the leadership content of a Mandela, and many similar to him, are certain basic values, ethics, morality, integrity and responsibility.
At this level, the Mandela level, the bar is raised extremely high and many pretenders fall short.
Striving for and assuming a lead in the totality of these exacting principles distinguishes iconic leaders from charlatans.
A few days ago, on 18 July, the world celebrated the first anniversary of Mandela Day as proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly the first time the world has taken a decision to celebrate such a day every year.
What is the plinth of the principles upon which Nelson Mandela stands?
Let’s tabulate a few, in no particular order:
- A culture of human rights
- Justice and the rule of law
- Equality before the law
- Freedom of expression and the media
- Non-racialism and anti-discrimination
- Non-sexism and gender equality
- Respect for the rights of children
- Fighting against hunger and poverty
- Taking a stand and blowing the whistle against corruption, whether corporate or public
- Wealth accumulation based on honesty and integrity
- Respect for the dignity of labour
- And most importantly, the culture of an open society a democratic one. Free debates, discourse, discussion – the dialogue, the dialectic – and the ability to reconcile.
As indicated at the beginning, my views on leadership are premised upon my own journey of life throughout our struggle for national emancipation to establish a democratic society.
One came to realise that there are certain essential ingredients that together make up the DNA of leadership.
These ingredients are found in different quantities and proportions in various leaders: intellect, academic, streetwise, scholarly, wisdom, conviction and so on.
Many leaders, equipped with all these ingredients, still fall.
Individuals have faltered, families have disintegrated, companies have collapsed, states have failed.
When all is said and done, each one of these attributes, and all of them combined, can never win the day, let alone the battle of life, without the critical dimension of courage. That and that alone, is the litmus test of leadership the bottom line.
Many an idea is born and withers in the desert sun without nourishment from courage.
That’s why we may all have wisdom, we may all have ideas and we may all have convictions but it is the courage of our convictions that defines leadership.
How often do the wise quiver in the face of opposition and become onlookers to the destruction of their very own ideas because courage has failed them? The company chairman, varsity rector, chief editor, main engineer, country’s Prime Minister, the national leader – or even a school principal, for that matter.
How often have we seen such powerful people retreat in the face of opposition because of a lack of courage?
Again, as we said, leadership is about discovery.
It is about finding answers to resolve humankind’s problems so that we can live a continuously improving life in a better world.
Yet in doing so it is ever so important to search for and discover one’s courage.
Thank you for inviting me. I wish this summit success and God bless.
Source: Department of Human Settlements
Issued by: Department of Human Settlements
11 Aug 2010
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