Taking leadership to a higher level

Inyathelo Programme Coordinator Khairoonisa Foflonker reflects on Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge’s recent ‘Get Resourceful’ session on Leadership in Civil Society, providing this edited version of her engagement at the Inyathelo Civil Society Sustainability Centre in Cape Town.  

Taking leadership to a higher level

We often think of leadership only in terms of those holding political power, the government and political parties. While indeed these sectors hold immense power, they constitute only a small fraction of those who ensure our society works, despite politics.

Inyathelo's new executive director, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge discussed the crucial role that leadership plays in positioning an organisation and in ensuring high performance. During the Get Resourceful Session on 14 July, she asserted that organisations will stand or fall, based on the kind of leadership they have.

In February 2015, Inyathelo together with Tshikululu Social Investments, jointly hosted a dialogue bringing together Business and University leaders to discuss leadership for South Africa. Eusebius McKaiser, who facilitated the dialogue, concluded that South Africa is experiencing neither a chronic nor systemic lack of leadership. Many areas of civil society, business, religion, education and some government sectors operate under guidance of experienced and successful leaders who accomplish both the necessary and the exceptional with vision and resolve. You can read a full account of the dialogue in our latest publication, Business and Higher Education Dialogue: Leadership for South Africa. 

While the National Development Plan offers cohesive plans for the future, it does not bring South African together in a shared vision. Universities and Business have a role to assist Government. Our universities produce excellent academic skills for our country, and continue to yield world standard research and attract top academics. This can be tapped and directed at helping to solve our problems. Our infrastructure is developed even though it is sometimes challenged by an ever growing demand. 

A key area of concern is the need for leadership that will unite us and provide a common vision. We are a country of acute differences and have emerged from a history of conflict and deep division, mainly based on race, class and gender. To overcome this we need to create an environment that encourages all sectors of our society; including universities, business and government, to find a workable eco-system that dramatically improves the current status quo. The different sectors in society must play a role in creating that long-term vision and to grow and shepherd the competencies that will achieve it. 

Civil society organisations play an essential role in democracy; providing community services, advocating for changes in government policy and improved delivery, promoting and defending human rights, monitoring government, developing responses to environmental concerns, innovating and piloting innovations and undertaking critical research to provide creative and alternative solutions to the pressing problems faced by South Africans. We come from a past with a rich legacy of mobilisation. We created a massive resistance to apartheid and won.

This legacy must remind us of our power. We need to rebuild our movements and "encourage the development of a range of organisations, not only political parties that contest elections. Operating in the civil society sphere, is as important as being in the political parties."

What are the examples of leadership and action by civil society?

Trevor Manuel, former Minister of Finance, identified two questions he asked the Secretary General of the SACP after he was struck by the strident speeches at the special congress last week: What does the SACP stand for? And from where does it derive its legitimacy?  As CSOs, we also need to ask ourselves if we are enabling our organisation’s vision. We ask these questions and various stages, in order to mission drift, and also to remain relevant in responding to needs presented by society.

We can find many examples of good leadership in the media. Roegchanda Pascoe has been a persistent example of a leader who has been addressing the violence in Manenberg. Thuli Madonsela has provided resilient leadership as Public Protector. In the media, thought leaders such as Redi Tlhabi, Jacob Dlamini, and Mondli Makhanya always provide the nation with stimulating arguments and questions. 

What is leadership and what kind of leadership do we want to nurture in the world? 

Ken Blanchard defines leadership as “the capacity to influence others by unleashing their power and potential to impact the greater good." When dealing with leadership at a higher level, merely focusing on goal accomplishment is not enough. The key phrase in “the greater good” – what is best for all involved. Leadership is a higher calling. 

Leadership should not be done purely for personal gain. The higher calling is a compelling vision - outwardly focused, requiring sacrifice, taking precedence over any short-term goal and is intrinsically honourable. It would be interesting to ask if our members of parliament would say they have earned the right to be called “honourable”.

We have heard the expression “Leaders are not born, they are made.“ Take Mandela for example. From his beginnings in rural Transkei, he became a towering figure in 20th century history, a Nobel Laureate who showed how wisdom and patience can triumph over bigotry and brute force. What made Mandela the exceptional and inspirational leader he became? Mandela would often tell us that he was not a leader, the real leader was Sisulu or Tambo or Luthuli. What did he mean?  It is likely that he meant that these people, including his father, Chief Henry Mandela of the Tembu Tribe, as well as Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Junior had shaped him and impacted on his own growth as a leader.

Mandela’s inspirational leadership provided an excellent role model. He acted in ways that encouraged us see the bigger picture. When he told the people of Kwazulu Natal to throw their weapons into the sea, he was spreading a message of peace and teaching his followers about the futility of war. When he told the oppressed to forgive their enemies, he was leading at a higher level. He made us realise that reconciliation and transformation were possible only if we worked to make them real. He was the role model that South Africans needed to build a better country than what we had inherited from apartheid. 

How do we correct the problem of self-serving leaders and develop emancipatory forms of leadership? 

According to Suttner, “A crucial feature of an emancipatory leadership is that of a connectedness between the leadership and the ground, the membership of an organisation and the grassroots more generally." This connectedness comes as a result of effective listening. Good leaders listen, he stresses. Good leaders allow those affected by a problem to be involved in resolving it, even if the solution is compromise, as long as they are to be satisfied that the solution takes significant cognisance of their own understandings. Suttner goes on to argue that the “principles of ethical government should be imbued in leadership.” Khozais in agreement with Suttner and argues that to “lead effectively, a leader has to be ethical and moral. To lead, you need to have a ‘feel’ for the people, you need to have empathy. The well-being of the people you lead must be your absolute priority."

This applies in all spheres. In terms of the political sphere, the role of an active citizen goes beyond that of participating in elections. It consists of building strong extra- parliamentary structures, actively organising and pushing both parliament and the Executive to be accountable. South Africans have effectively used the various mechanisms for this, including the Public Protector’s office and the courts.

A clear vision is crucial to ensuring that an organisation thrives; as it evolves. A strong, focused organisational culture is held together by a compelling vision. The vision is underpinned by the desire to support in empowerment. A workforce that is excited about their vision and motivated to serve at a higher level is an empowered workforce.  An empowered space is one in which people are encouraged to bring themselves to work and are encouraged to use their knowledge, experience, and motivation to create a successful and healthy organisation.

Change is important as part of renewal. Inyathelo’s former Executive Director Shelagh Gastrow reiterates this point as she  argues that a successful organisation regularly reinvents and reinvigorates itself as a response to the external environment in which it operates. Renewal is necessary for both its growth and success. An organisation that does not renew itself, dies.

When organisations seek greatness, they often find aspects of their organisational culture that need change. However, change needs to be managed properly, otherwise it results in instability. Change inevitably involves a risk. The leader needs to be willing to take risks in order to ensure that the organisation undergoes renewal in order to remain relevant to the environment in which it operates.  

In Conclusion

Leadership for Advancement is outward looking while at the same time ensuring internal oversight. It is about understanding the environment in which we operate and acting on it so that we become a catalyst for change. It is about communicating our value systems and being clear about what we stand for. As a leader moves out of the operational role of the organisation into championing its Advancement, the energy of engaging with the external world takes over. However, this requires the capacity to handover responsibility for the actual operation to other senior colleagues and to make hard decisions, often rapidly.

In addition, the leader has to know everything about the organisation; its history; its personnel, its vision, mission and objective; the details of all its programmes and their achievements; its values and philosophy; its financial situation; the reasons why donors should support it; and, the impact it is making on the ground. Empowered with this knowledge, leaders are in a position to affect an organisation’s advancement and to ensure its sustainability. 


_____ Blanchard K (2007): Leading at a Higher Level, Bell and Bain Ltd, Glasgow. 
_____ Gastrow, S: Leadership, Inyathelo.  
_____ Khoza, R (2012): Attuned Leadership, Penguin. p. xix.
_____ Suttner (2015) “What type of leadership do we need to reinforce democracy and build an emancipatory project?” in Polity.org.za.