We were by the extraordinarily beautiful Lake Malawi, it was November 2015, the auditorium was silent and thoughtful, as all 40 attendees reflected on the 90 minutes they had just spent examining what is meant by Authentic Leadership. Here was a gathering of some of the most progressive leaders in Malawi, with an appetite and ambition for continuous development.
I had just shared some emotionally charged stories of the greatest Leader of our generation, Nelson Mandela. It was high-octane stuff; video clips, recordings of his early speeches, and many moving insights of the times when I was so privileged to have been in the presence of this unique and special Son of Africa.
The intention was not to have just an intellectually stimulating and theoretical workshop, but to demonstrate that Leadership at its best is much more than just intellect—it is an emotional and visceral connection. Having explained earlier in the day that, whilst being vital for all organisations, management could (when left unchecked) be quite a blunt instrument.
The science of Management has not changed much since its inception over a century ago. It was invented and designed to get more productivity out of the organisation’s workforce. It is necessarily fixated on efficiency and, when boiled down to its core essence, is based on ensuring that employees do exactly what they have been told to do.
Management is about control and therefore demands ‘policing’, to ensure that everyone is doing what they said they would do. It lends itself to an ‘auditing’ approach and, consequently, is rarely a ‘bag of laughs’. It is no fun at all to receive nothing but a strict diet of ‘management’, and be checked up on all day.
There tends to be only one way to do Management, and as an experienced visiting Professor at Cass Business School in London, lecturing on the MSc in Management course, we deliver many first-class Managers.
If organisations didn’t practice Management, they would go out of business tomorrow. For many, especially (and sadly) in the Public Sector, it is only ever Management. This tends to be the case because they are far too cautious and inward looking. In many respects, their fear of failure is greater than their desire for success.
Prior to 2007/8, when the Global Financial Crisis hit all of us very hard indeed, the world was a much more consistent place and, therefore, many organisations got away with just practicing Management. Now that the world has changed so radically, that we now live in VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) times, we are having to learn to cope with eternal uncertainty. This means Management alone will not get us there.
Extraordinary times demand extraordinary leadership
If Management is all about IQ, then Leadership is all about EQ. We call Management the ‘hardware’, as it has become commoditised and everybody practices it now. We call Leadership the ‘software’, as it has seriously become the biggest differentiator between the winners and the losers. And when we say Leadership, we mean Vision, People, Teams and Culture. And when we say Management, we mean Strategy, Task, Plan and Activity.
Management is “doing things right”, and Leadership is “doing the right things”.
So, back to my friends in Malawi. I had just shared with them during the summary of the Mandela session, the great quote from Maya Angelou; “Not many will remember exactly what you said, but everyone will remember how you made them feel.”
We had just seen the clip of Nelson Mandela’s special appearance at the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final in South Africa. He was, to the surprise of the millions watching, wearing the green Springbok shirt and the green Springbok cap. The whole stadium (which was nearly all white) was spontaneously chanting “Nelson, Nelson, Nelson!” He shook hands with and had warm words for each of the South African Team. He was their 16th (extra) man as, against the odds, they memorably went on to win the World Cup.
The room was still silent and hugely reflective. The attendees now, without a doubt, had understood and felt what it was like to be in the presence of such a powerful Authentic Leader, despite it only being on screen, and that he was sadly no longer with us.
Leadership is not Management—it is how we energise our people towards our vision. Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible.
We magically felt this intangible jolt of inspiration charge through all of us simultaneously. My audience had been moved to discover a new language, a new mindset and a new belief system. They had fully bought into the fact that, for far too long, Africa has been besotted and obsessed by academic qualifications and status. They were now beginning to see the world a little differently—that if you are capable, you are qualified.
I challenged them to hire for attitude and train for skills. This took a few moments to sink in, but they all had examples of a person with a PhD or a Masters, but who was impossible to work with. They also all had examples of the team player who always got things done, and was a joy to work with, but had never been to University.
By now, they were really getting the power of the inspiration of Nelson, and were hungry for more. They wanted to smash the silos, break down the inherent bureaucracy, and flatten the hierarchy. We talked about high-performing cultures tending to ‘challenge up and support down’. They all to a person realised that in their environments, it was much more ‘support up and challenge down’.
We closed off a fabulous couple of days by them challenging me on what they could actually do differently. We talked about mentoring, and the power of close-proximity role-models. Each and every one in the room could find someone somewhere, who didn’t quite believe in themselves, but had talent to burn.
Everyone can be a Leader if they choose to be, and the best organisations have Leaders everywhere. One of the huge misconceptions playing itself out across the African continent is that Leaders are only at the top of an organisation. In the most progressive companies in the world, Leaders are everywhere; pump attendants, cashiers, till operators all in the vital frontline could all be Leaders. Whoever has the most Leaders wins.
Leadership is not about rank, and in Africa we have some of the most tangible and local Leadership role models, in our mothers leading at home every minute of every day. They always know that those they are looking after are all very different and require different approaches and different boundaries. They are the original ‘always on’ 24x7 Leadership role, perhaps not always the best paid but the most vital and the most rewarding.
My 40 attendees left as inspired Leaders, and their mission was to go where many Malawians had not gone before—in search of more Leaders.
And I can guarantee you they will find them—as Leaders are not born or made—they are found.
After all, good leaders create followers and great leaders create Leaders. “A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle”.