In leading people, sometimes we forget that what we stand for and how we behave directly influences the people in the system. If you lead people and they don’t trust one another (or worse still, they behave in a way that’s detrimental to individuals and the team), you have no one to blame but yourself.
We have often heard that culture is a collection of believes, values and behaviors that make the way the organization behaves on an aggregated level (if you will). As such, it’s all fun and games for leaders to intellectualize about “how we do things around here” until suddenly it dawns on them that the the sum total of the organisational personality and ways of doing things (or culture if you prefer that) is directly influenced by the quality of leaders that hold the all important responsibility of steering the organisation.
You often find leaders who proudly rephrase and reclassify toxic elements in the system in an effort to legitimize illegitimate outcomes. Just because you call it ability to network, it doesn’t mean gossips are assets for your organisational. Similarly, if your people find it acceptable to create divisions and sow destructive hatred between individuals, you have no one to blame but yourself. You enable this either through your actions (by actively participating in the behaviours) or omission (by allowing the cancer to fester under your watch).
Great leaders understand that technical ability can never replace the ability to work with others. Interestingly, this ability is also the basis for serving customers (both internal and external) and therefore good for business all round.
So, instead of being passive recipients of cultural outcomes, leaders need to study their organizational make up, identify the good elements therein and ensure the good is rewarded and recognized while making it extremely uncomfortable for bad elements. Those terrorizing the organisation through their negative behaviours need to be clear that they are not welcome in the culture. Slowly but surely, organisational culture improves positively for the better in the long term.
Haunted by death during his long anti-apartheid struggle, Nelson Mandela looked toward his own “eternal sleep” as a man who fulfilled his duty to his people.
He was willing to die for democracy, the young black activist said during the 1963-64 trial that would send him to prison for 27 years.
“It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die,” he told judges of the apartheid regime.
The country’s presidency had prepared people for the icon’s passing after his fourth hospitalisation this year.
“He never gave death a great deal of thought but he never wanted anything fancy,” a family friend told the weekly Mail & Guardian.
‘When a man has done his duty, he can rest in peace’
A simple A4-page testament quoted in the paper asks a modest last resting place, true to the unpretentious image he cultivated from his presidency from 1994 to 1999.
He allowed himself one fantasy 10 years ago: fellow anti-apartheid fighter and political mentor Walter Sisulu welcoming him to paradise with mobilisation chants and an ANC enrolment form.
After leading South Africa to a peaceful transition and the first all-race elections in 1994, the Nobel peace laureate regarded his life task complete.
“When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace,” he said in 1996.
“I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for the eternity.”
Throughout his long imprisonment Mandela lost friends and family, often unable to say goodbye in person.
Already refused permission to attend his mother’s funeral, he mourned his firstborn son Thembekile’s death alone in his Robben Island cell in 1969.
“He was called to the office. We were all in the courtyard, but instead of coming back to us he went straight to his cell and got on his mattress,” his old cellmate Ahmed Kathrada remembered years later.
“It was similar when his mother died. He just kept very quiet and mourned alone.”
‘It seems as if the world is dying’
By 1987, feeling increasingly alone, Mandela became despondent.
“So many relatives and friends have died over these last twenty years, that it seems the world itself is dying,” he wrote in a letter.
Today thousands of bouquets and get well cards at his Johannesburg house and hospital echo his eulogy at the burial of communist leader Joe Slovo in 1995.
“Men and women of rare qualities are few and hard to come by. And when they depart, the sense of loss is made the more profound and the more difficult to manage,” he said.
Wants to be buried in Qunu
Mandela will eventually rest surrounded by his family’s remains, according to the Xhosa tradition.
“My family’s here and I’d like to be buried here at home,” he said at the Mandela cemetery in a 2003 documentary in his childhood village Qunu.
A row of trees surround the graveyard off the N2 highway in the rolling Eastern Cape province hills, around 500 metres from his house.
Simple headstones bearing the family name stand out from the yellowed grass.
In a 2006 documentary he was clear on how he wanted to be remembered.
“I would like it to be said that, ‘Here lies a man who has done his duty on earth.’ That is all.”
Leadership focuses on an envisioned tomorrow while enlisting others towards it through conviction and commitment. The art of leading others therefore also means if I forget the ultimate, I will be enslaved by the immediate. The old adage of focusing on important things in order to avoid being driven by urgent ones holds true in leading people.
If we accept that the art of leading others is about them rather than us, therefore it follows that leadership also means we lose our right to be selfish. A selfish leader is a misnomer indeed! When we abandon our highest priority, we lose our way and people suffer.
As such those of us that are entrusted with the custody of the leadership office need to always:
- Consider our actions and take care to avoid contradiction with the vision we champion
- That we work smart to ensure results in key areas of the business/organisation
- Spend funds wisely and in areas that bring the best return
- Always feel dissatisfied in our production and thereby constantly challenge ourselves to do better at all times
When leaders and people fail to maintain proper priorities, disappointment always results. Remember the paretto principle which says 80% of all output come from 20% of input. With the right priorities, 20% of our efforts will get 80% of the desired results. But with the wrong priorities, 80% of our effort will get 20% of the desired results.Priorities in leading people are not about working harder, but smarter. Getting the best out of your people and getting the best out of investment that has gone into the business, leading to happy stakeholders (colleagues, community and shareholders) is a very smart undertaking. In fact if anything, this is a responsibility that ought to be approached as a calling, the very purpose for leaders’ existence.
Andre Malraux one said, to command is to serve, nothing more and nothing less. I am often perplexed at how much those of us in positions of influence (structurally speaking) miss the mark in terms of what the art of leadership is especially in direct comparison to those without the formal positions of influence.
As often mentioned, I am firm a believer in leadership being a state of being rather than what we do. In other words who we are comes before what we do. It is in the moments when the formal power layers have been taken off that we see the real person. Sometimes the titles we are formally given make us not be who we are and thus rob the world of an opportunity to experience the greatness we are.
One thing I have come to appreciate is that leadership begins with the heart. A heart that is consistent in allowing the leader to live steadily while moving among the team. A heart that is contrite enough to allow humility and willingness to show humanity regardless of who witnesses it. A type of heart that is courageous enough to chart the right path without shrinking from doing the right thing.
A leader should be able to communicate his/her convictions regardless of what the implications. We have many great examples of those who led with conviction (our very own Madiba, Ghandi, Marcus Garvey, Patrice Lumumba, Martin Luther King and others are often referred to in this context).
They are committed to a course regardless of how unpopular that may be. And finally they are totally captivated by what they believe in so much so that it matters not if that survives them (being ready to die for an idea that will live than live for an idea that will die).
This makes the task of leading people quite risky as we can never really tell how we are perceived by others and therefore in a manner of speaking, “putting ourselves out there” could be in actual fact providing evidence that we cannot be trusted. For instance, a politician goes on a podium and declares that they care nothing about themselves, and all they do (including running for office) is driven by a deep sense of care for the people (something we hear all the time). They maybe saying that with the hope that they are convincing beyond shadow of a doubt. Furthermore, they maybe also hope that the audience does not include individuals who know facts that prove to the contrary.
No matter how upright a leader may strive to live their life, if they are genuine, there will always be self conscious: “did anyone see me last night?” “Does anyone in this audience recognize me from university days?” “Did people really believe that I meant everything I said?” “Will they support this new direction given the track record of the leadership team?” This constant struggle on the inside is the harsh reality that most leaders have to live with everyday: And so the wondering continues, day after day.
Beyond managing people’s perceptions, leaders (and people generally) often struggle with themselves as they attempt to manage what’s inside (thoughts, values, believes) against what’s coming out (words and deeds). Sometimes the internal world of thoughts is just not palatable for general consumption. This is because often what we think is uninhibited and uncensored as “no one will know”. Being ourselves in deed and in word, unleashing the inner voice will often times compromise us publicly. In other words, in our constant struggle for self preservation and being truthful, we justify the discord that results between who we are and who we say (and or act) we are. If we are to go with Gandhi ‘s line of thought in one of his most referred to sayings, “happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony” then most leaders (and indeed people) are not happy with their lot in life.
We do however; know that most great leaders were regarded as such because of the courage they displayed in standing for their convictions. So we go on admirably quoting and attempting to walk in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and so forth often without due regard for the risks they took in standing for what society frowned upon. It is the clarity and complete mental resolute to stand by their convictions that made it easy for those in power to single them out and at times not only threaten their physical safety but often negotiate them out of their convictions.
Leadership therefore is about taking risks, by making oneself available for public scrutiny, assessment of congruence between who we say we are and who we really are. Those who choose to lead with deep understanding and appreciation of this perilous reality; knowing that leadership is never about the leader, but those they lead, are a rare breed indeed and society will continue to build monuments around their persons. What will society say about you when all is said and done?