Why should others follow you, asks former UCT and Stanford graduate Zipho Sikhakhane?


Why should others follow you? This is a question every leader needs to be able to answer in order to be effective in their position.

This question was at the heart of the Masters in Business Administration programme that I completed a few years ago at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in the United States. The institution is well respected for its unique approach towards developing leaders. Being the first black South African to attend the programme, I focused on obtaining as many leadership insights as I could so that I would be able to share them with fellow leaders in South Africa.

What I learned at Stanford is that there is not one leadership approach that is more or less effective than another. What sets good leaders apart is their level of self-awareness. How well they know and understand the traits that make them exceptional and how they consistently develop these throughout their lifetime. Such an approach towards leadership is congruent with the idea of strengths-based leadership, which is a philosophy I have always lived by and applied to how I approach my career. This approach hypothesises that people choose to follow leaders who are good at developing their own strengths while, at the same time, encouraging others to achieve the same. Author Tom Rath wrote a number of best-selling books on the topic, referring to various business leaders from recent history that did this effectively.

Based on my own experiences of working with leaders in different countries, the strength-based leaders get an edge over their counterparts by focussing as much attention to their strengths as the rest of the world does to their own weaknesses. Most people tend to focus far more attention on the areas constantly called out for improvement and, in so doing, completely ignore the wisdom that comes with understanding their strengths better. It is through the process of developing your strengths that you eventually become exceptional at the things that make you great, rather than battling to improve on the areas in which you constantly struggle. During the early stages of my career, I was lucky to come across a mentor who shared a great wisdom with me: “People will remember you for what makes you exceptional, not the things that you struggled with.”

There are numerous paths to follow on the journey towards understanding your strengths better. The easiest is to actually start taking note of the strengths identified through various psychometric tests and evaluations completed in the past.

Many leaders have completed countless such personal tests and analyses, but they have possibly not reviewed their strengths in detail because they have focussed so much on analysing their identified weaknesses.

Another brilliant source of input is feedback received in the workplace from peers, bosses and subordinates, as well as from outside the workplace from our friends and family. Good leaders are always open to asking for and receiving feedback. Great leaders, however, make sure that, when they receive feedback, they listen as attentively to the feedback on their strengths as they do to that on their weaknesses.

Whenever I receive positive feedback from someone, I always ask for more depth on the traits that they believe helped me stand out. What usually comes out of these discussions is the kind of insights that are the most important, but that are hardly ever discussed in detail because we brush over them way too quickly. These discussions help you to build a better insight into the leadership qualities that could make you truly unique, and they are the reasons why others would choose to follow you over anyone else.

Once identified, your strengths need to be continually developed to the point that you strive to become one of the best people in the world with that ability—not the best in your company, region or continent, but the world. Setting this kind of aspiration is key in ensuring that you become a globally relevant leader—one who is exceptional within and beyond their environment. If this means getting coaching from leading experts or completing relevant courses, then do it. The long-term results will justify the time invested.

The idea of investing significant amounts of time on building what you want to stand out for is consistent with the 10 000 Hours Rule that Malcolm Gladwell referred to in his best-selling book on success, Outliers. Gladwell identified that the people who had the most exceptional skills in the world had all invested close to 10 000 hours on that skill before they became world-class experts. He proved that this held true for the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs,
J. Robert Oppenheimer and even The Beatles.

If you are in a leadership position today then you probably do not have the option of revisiting your childhood to make up for lost time, but this should not stop anyone from investing sufficient time on their strengths going forward. However, starting to work on your strengths today will help to give you the edge over those who are yet to begin doing so.

Another important consideration is the environments that we were brought up in. People take it for granted that, merely by having lived in South Africa over the last couple of decades, they have been exposed to a unique environment of change, struggle and hope. Instead of viewing our complicated past as something best left behind, it is worth looking into the good qualities we ended up developing indirectly due to our own context. One example could be our unique ability to lead in a multi-cultural context.

I was fortunate to travel to almost 30 countries in the last 10 years, and with each new country I learned more about the qualities that each society entrenches as early as childhood and how these qualities tend to be similar to the ones that make each country’s leaders exceptional. Asian countries such as Japan, for example, develop the kind of leaders who stand out globally for their effectiveness in employing the collective and participative leadership traits. We should similarly be asking ourselves the question: What are South African born leaders going to be respected for globally?

It goes without saying that leaders should not completely ignore their weaknesses, especially when doing so is detrimental to their success. I believe that it is important to improve on your weaknesses, but only up to the point that you become as good as the average person in that area. Rather invest the additional time working on the traits that could make you exceptional. As leaders we also need to be vulnerable enough to be honest about the areas that are not our strengths and where we need the most support. We must surround ourselves with people who complement our skills, but there is absolutely no need to be fearful of such people, because complementary skills are a key ingredient in high-performing teams. This is how you can build an exceptional group of leaders.

We need to be led by self-aware leaders who are unique and exceptional. I encourage everyone to unpack for themselves the answer to the question of why others should follow you as a leader. Answering this question is the true path to becoming a successful leader.

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