Leadership is a disposition and skill set that needs to be carefully cultivated and continually maintained, as Dr Gerhard van Rensburg, the Director at Future Leaders Africa, knows only too well


What have you found to be the greatest challenges of working with leaders?

It’s always a challenge to help leaders to think and act with greater freedom and creativity. Our creativity can only flourish when we are authentic but it is unfortunate that the prevailing belief (still!) is that position reflects leadership. The higher the position and, therefore, the more power a person has, the more people feel intimidated by it but that comes at the cost of the belief in both the leader’s and the led’s ability to influence, change and create.

If the above scenario is our conditioning, it is possible for us to reach the highest levels of leadership but, even so, to still be more dependent on the power of the position rather than trusting in our ability to influence rather than manipulate. If leadership is directly linked to the power of a position then we end up with all kinds of tactics to manipulate to create results rather than relying on authentic influence, creativity and innovation. We only get to real leadership when we go beyond our expertise, functional ability and positional power.

Is there a common area where leaders aren’t able to diagnose or recognise a specific problem or issue that might be holding them back?

At a personal level, the common blind spot for many leaders is that their strengths can make them complacent and blind to the need to remain open for new learning and growth. It is the classic ego trap. Linked to that is the general false belief that, once we have reached a certain age and feel we have sufficient evidence of our competence and success, we believe we don’t need others and we don’t need help. What gets us to a certain point in our lives, however, will not necessarily get us to where we think or hope to be in the future. Leaders can only become good mentors and coaches when they start seeing the limitations of ego-driven success and start appreciating the unique potential of others to contribute to a collective success story.

At an organisational level, leaders tend to pay lip-service in terms of building relationships. They totally underestimate how critical it is to build a community of trust and integrity.

What has been your own greatest learning curve on your journey?

Mostly it will be the repeated message of remaining true to myself and to always continue with the task at hand, irrespective of how high or how low my emotions are at any given point in time.

Are there any specific case studies of clients you have helped that give you the most pride?

My most satisfying memory is not having coached any high-flying executive but, rather, the coaching and facilitation I did for a newly-appointed team of managers at an engineering business. After many years of technical work, they had to learn how to set an example of leadership behaviour and to manage and communicate effectively and to build teams. Many of them testified to the positive impact it had on their lives. One of them wrote that “these sessions with you should have started 20 years ago. You coached me to see everything in a different way, for which I am truly grateful.” The credit should, of course, go to their CEO who believed in the value and the process, even in very tough economic times.

What do you remember as being one of your most challenging cases?

I was appointed as coach of the senior- and middle-management levels by the MD of a company and, when I gave one of the senior managers feedback on his 360 feedback (which highlighted some critical areas for development) he shrugged his shoulders and told me that he believes he is a successful and well-rounded person.

He didn’t see any value in the coaching process. I succeeded in making him commit to a number of sessions despite his negative feelings and, in the sessions, I asked him to tell me about his childhood. It soon became clear that his father was very cold and demanding. As I remember, he told me he was, in fact, like a ‘Hitler’. Sadly, as he was in his mid-forties, my coachee was still trying to convince himself of his worth and his focus was to protect and promote himself. He told me it is very difficult for him to trust people.

If we haven’t experienced love and trust as a child, it is very difficult to be anything else other than transactional in our interaction with others. Eventually, we found a way around his self-denial when the MD and myself had a full-day, off-site meeting with him.

The goal of that full-day session was to achieve two things:

  1. To create a safe and trusting environment and to convince him of our best intentions to support him by being honest;
  2. To help him to see the negative effects of his behaviour.

It did create a way forward with better understanding, although I would not regard it as a total breakthrough.

Are there any differences (strengths and weaknesses) that you have noticed among female and male leaders and CEOs?

In my experience, women are ‘hungrier’ or more eager than men to learn and grow in areas that they don’t feel competent in. The world of work in the past emphasised and favoured the typical masculine qualities. The 21st-century world, however, is shifting towards a balance and a more holistic way of approaching work challenges. Looking at the Future Leaders principles, I would say that women are generally more self-aware but less self-confident, more adaptable but less self-initiating, better in relationship building and teamwork but not as good in visionary and strategic thinking, better in communication but not as good in decision-making.

PDA Africa has been recognised for their role in gender mainstreaming and women development initiatives—it must be incredibly satisfying to receive such awards?

The credit for the award should go to my Future Leaders Africa partner, Wade Cooper. Wade identified, trained and mentored women in 18 different African countries as PDA partners to grow their own businesses. Through ongoing and intensive individual support, training events and conferences, PDA Africa was instrumental in giving women opportunities to develop both themselves and their businesses. A network of like-minded people now support each other, identify opportunities and work together to grow their businesses and offer Human Resource solutions to the African market.

Together with Business Engage, we have now positioned the Future Leaders Journey (Principle-based inside-out leadership) specifically to prepare women for their role as Board Directors. Using the Institute of Directors in Southern Africa’s (IoDSA) competency framework, we have matched the requirements to the principles we teach and coach in the Future Leader Development journey.

What do you see as the key for the leaders of tomorrow to do or target in terms of playing their part in developing the full potential of South Africa and all our citizens?

It is key for the leaders of tomorrow not to be misled by the countless messages of easy paths and five-point plans for success, wealth and happiness. The more they are willing to step out of the crowd to invest in themselves, learning what their natural tendencies and strengths are, knowing and growing their passion, crafting their vision and growing a strong foundation and character through hard work, the better.

  • Be patient and focus on living your values
  • Find a mentor in person or in books
  • Be your own person
  • Grow love in your heart
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