Twelve years ago the Make A Difference Leadership Foundation (MAD) was founded while I was having lunch with a group of friends. Our family had just returned from the UK and at some point the conversation turned to South Africa and how we, as a group of friends, wanted to do something to help build a bright future for this beautiful country of ours. We decided to each make a financial contribution which would be used to provide financial support to a young person with potential, but who didn’t have the financial means to afford a good education.
Through the years our organisation saw a few name changes, but our tagline stayed the same: “The leaders of tomorrow need our leadership today”, because that is why we started the organisation and that’s what kept us going throughout the years—the belief that South Africa needs a next generation of leaders who had the opportunity to get a good education, who were mentored and whose leadership is based on a solid foundation of values and beliefs.
I’ve recently had the privilege to address 105 of our scholars at their Leadership Summit during the June holidays where I shared with them my thoughts on leadership. Leadership magazine asked me to pen down some of what I shared at the summit. At the outset it is important to note that I definitely do not have all the answers and there is no perfect formula as to how to be an inspiring leader who significantly impacts his or her environment. Please also note that this was written for 13-20 year old young leaders. I believe that we learn to be better leaders by listening to other peoples’ views on leadership, reflecting on it, and deciding for ourselves what makes sense and what works for us—what would make us better leaders.
Over the last ten years we have been growing and evolving as an organisation and we’re now clearer than ever about what we are trying to do, how we are trying to do it and, most importantly, why we are doing it.
Developing tomorrow’s leaders
So why start The Make A Difference Leadership Foundation? We believe that leadership can make the difference in creating the South Africa we all want. One leader changed our nation, just think what we can achieve with a growing army of leaders, leaders across all walks of life. So we’re striving to develop the leaders of tomorrow, by selecting scholars with high potential who just need the opporunity and the support to develop their leadership potential. Through education, mentoring and specific leadership coaching we want to unlock that potential.
Why, the focus on leadership, and what do I mean when I talk about the leadership characteristics we want to develop in our scholars?
Our focus is on A leader, not necessarily the boss, the Head, the captain, the President. We believe that anyone can be a leader if they are prepared to step forward when they see the need for positive change. Leadership, the way I define it, means a quality, not always a job title.
There are lots of people who see the need for change. But only a leader has an idea or a vision for the future, and feels a personal responsibility to do something about it. They don’t just complain or hope someone else will do what’s necessary, they accept their responsibility, and they act on it. It’s not about what’s in your job description, it’s what’s in your psyche, your DNA, your soul.
Leaders are needed in all walks of life, business, public service, sport and it is our goal at MAD to develop our scholars to be leaders in their chosen field.
Some will progress to formal leadership roles at the top of their profession but all are expected to be leaders in the sense of stepping forward when needed to drive positive change. The foundation of this is their personal integrity plus the values we seek to instill in our scholars. These kind of leaders do what is right not just what is popular, they inspire others and they make a difference, whatever their job title.
What are the things that are common to leaders in any field? My view on this is based on my personal experiences in leading teams in sport and in business. The most important lessons I‘ve learnt came from the opportunities I’ve had to meet, talk and work with leaders, in all walks of life, sport, business and public service.
No simple formula
Three of the most important things I’ve learnt I’ll share with you upfront:
First, as mentioned earlier, there is no one simple formula to leadership. There are values that help drive leaders and there are characteristics and reflexes that can be developed. I’ll expand on this a little further.
Secondly, there are no perfect leaders, they are all human and they are all flawed. It is not about having no weaknesses, it is about understanding your weaknesses and correcting them.
Thirdly, leadership is a journey not a destination. The day you stop being self-critical, stop being hungry and curious, the day you start to think you’ve cracked it, is the day you stop being an effective leader. Solving one problem creates fresh challenges, every success can be improved on, there’s always more to do and more to learn.
Leadership is a journey with no destination. Leaders are not always driven by a desire to succeed, well, at least not entirely. Leaders are motivated just as much, often more, by a fear of failing, a fear of letting themselves and others down, rather than by just the desire for success. As I’ve mentioned earlier, leaders feel a personal sense of responsibility, it is innate, a call you know you have to answer. If you fail to take responsibility, if you try but fall short, knowing there is more that you could have done, you have not just let other people down, you have let down the one person who will hold you to account and judge you most harshly—you. Maybe people will not blame you. At least you tried. Maybe they won’t even notice, but you will know.
Personal integrity starts with you—your sense of responsibility, your personal integrity, your honesty with yourself and what you believe in. Yes you want to win, to succeed, to make a difference, but that is not what drives you—you know what needs to be done and you don’t want to let yourself down.
I don’t believe that a good leader should necessarily be loud and strong. We have all seen the tough leaders in the movies, the guys shouting the orders. Yes there are times when you need to be tough, when you need to make the tough call, but the best leaders are more often the ones who have a high degree of what is called emotional intelligence, the appreciation of the individuals around them,their motivations and individual personalities. Leaders know that to succeed they need to engage other people, to create a sense of a team with one purpose and that to do that you need to appreciate and respect the people in the team as individuals.
Often leaders are thought to have big egos and ego is often seen as a bad thing, but if I described it as a personality and a sense of your own worth it sounds better. We all have egos, we all have personalities and to be an effective leader we do need confidence and self-esteem— we need an ego. But leaders do not let their egos get in the way of what the team needs to achieve. You will make mistakes but people will forgive you if they know you did it for the right reasons and not for your own ego.
We are often told it is OK to make mistakes, to accept failure if we learn from it. Well that is true I suppose but here is something I have learned about leaders—they prefer to learn from success than failure. If they fail, they will take lessons from it, and if they have failed having done everything in their power, they will accept defeat with some grace. But it comes back to motivations—they are highly motivated to succeed, they want to create a success culture with a momentum for progress.
How do you create this culture of success? Certain characteristics associated with leaders, their strengths, values and what I like to call reflexes—the way you naturally respond to any given situation—help them create the culture of success. A sense of purpose is one—leaders keep everyone focused on why we are doing this, the dream, the higher goal. Leaders drive themselves but most importantly they can inspire others by keeping the vision and the sense of mission at the centre of everything—it is not about them or their egos it is about the mission, the ‘why’? Leaders take failure personally but they pass success to the team, always the team. They make the calls and they own those decisions, but if things don’t work out they take full responsibility themselves. People don’t always do that, often they will look around for others to blame, but good leaders always do. Success is ‘we’—failure is ‘me’.
Dreams can change the world as Madiba said, people who just act with no purpose are just passing time, if they dream but with no actions they just waste time, but with a dream and actions you can change the world.
Dream big, yes, but plan well and execute with discipline and determination. There are visionary leaders in business I know who are engineers—so their natural reflex is to take the vision, the challenge or problem, and then break it down into a clear plan of action.
It never goes smoothly, there will always be setbacks among the successes. So you need to celebrate success on the way and good leaders do that. It is much easier for people to think about what can be improved on if they start by feeling good about what has been achieved. Different people have different styles of com- munication but whatever their style, effective leaders are always effective communicators.
And what is the foundation of great communication? To listen. Leaders ask good questions and they listen to the answers—not everyone’s opinions can be acted on because they won’t all be the same, but they are more inspired to work for the common cause if the leader makes the call having listened to everyone’s views.
To be able to speak well is certainly an advantage. But great communication is also about being emotionally aware of the individual you’re communicating with, tailoring your approach to what works for that person, the right word at the right time. Sometimes the communication is not even verbal—you can achieve a lot with the right look, just the eye contact, or a hand on the shoulder. However they do it, the one thing all leaders have in common is that they are great communicators and motivators. Leaders trust themselves and they inspire the trust of others through what they do not just what they say. People may be interested in what you say, especially if you communicate it well and you can explain the purpose in an inspiring way.
But that is interest—trust is earned through the actions and the choices you make.
When we say someone is a great leader we may mean a lot of things by that but in the final analysis the evidence of leadership is in the outcome and that outcome is based on the right choices. So to go back to my point about listening to people—by listening to people, by taking wise counsel from experienced people, that is not about making yourself look like a good guy, it is not about being popular—you do it because it helps you make better choices. Respect comes from being brave enough to make the choices but ultimately from the out- come of those choices and your willingness to accept responsibility for them.
Leaders seem to have a kind of calm energy —they seem to be able to energise others and yet still be calm and cool when the situation requires it. How do they do that? They do that by being selfaware. Through selfawareness leaders overcome their weaknesses, they do it by being aware of their weaknesses and gathering people around them who compensate for those weaknesses.
Great leaders often don’t sweat the detail; they stay focused on the big picture but, if so, then they make sure they have people who can sweat the detail, because details can nail you! It’s not how good you are but about knowing how good you are, being really honest about yourself, where you fall short and how others can support you.
While I am still on this journey of discovering leadership and what it means—this much I am sure of—at the heart of any leader are clear values and that is what I want to leave you with.
With a clear sense of both the importance of values-based leadership and the specific values we commend to our MAD Scholars, that we want to bring out in them, that we want them to feel responsible for. Because when the going gets tough, when choices need to be made these values can guide them, these values can be a compass.
So what are these values? I’ve paired them, because that shows the challenge captured in these values, the opposing forces that you need to appreciate.
Ambition with hard work. You need to base your leadership on a higher purpose, a clear sense of not just where you are going but Why? Yes, you need to dream big, to have bold ambitions, but that must come with hard work. The only place in the world where success comes before work is in the dictionary. And when I say work I mean very hard work, long hours, often unseen and unappreciated hard work.
Passion with discipline You need to have passion, real fire in your belly, an impatience to get on and change things, and you must inspire that in others, but you need to match that with discipline. The discipline of a plan, the discipline to do everything that needs to be done the right way, the discipline to act, learn and reapply what you have learned.
Courage with honesty. Leaders need more than just courage, they need guts, real bravery and the tenacity to keep going whatever the challenges and setbacks. But they also need honesty. People smell bullshit, they sense it, and they call you out on it. So you have to be honest with yourself, honest about what is working and what needs to change and honest with others. Honesty is more valuable than popularity.
Confidence with humility. You have to be confident, you have to make the call when needed, you have to make choices and trust yourself to make the right ones in the right way. But you need to have humility, the humility to admit when you are wrong, to acknowledge the help from others, to celebrate and share success with them.
With change comes pain, with leadership comes responsibility—there will be tough times. And when we go through these tough times— who will hold us accountable for staying true to these values?
There is only one person that counts, and this poem explains who that is:
The Man In The Glass
When you get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you king for a day
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself
And see what that man has to say.
For it isn’t your father, or mother, or wife
Whose judgment upon you must pass
The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life Is the one staring back from the glass.
He’s the fellow to please – never mind all the rest For he’s with you, clear to the end
And you’ve passed your most difficult, dangerous test
If the man in the glass is your friend.
You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years
And get pats on the back as you pass
But your final reward will be heartache and tears If you’ve cheated the man in the glass.
Peter Dale Wimbrow Sr.
When you stand in front of the mirror, the person staring back knows everything about you.
I am passionate about the Make A Difference Leadership Foundation as I have experienced the benefits first hand of a group of people who want to make society a better place. It is humbling to work with individuals who want to make South Africa a better place by unlocking the potential of the next generation of leaders by giving them the chance of a lifetime. I believe that everyone can be a leader—if you see something in society you don’t agree with step forward and do something about it, put your hand up and make a difference.
At MAD we would like to take hands to make this country a better a place because, just imagine if we could grow an army of young leaders that care about this country, that care about society, that care about their community. What a powerful force for change that would be.