“Leadership is not for sissies”

So, it’s been a great week. Is it because I haven’t been in the classroom much? Rubbing shoulders with philanthropists and politicians? Hard to say.  On Thursday afternoon, I was thoroughly impressed by the humble demeanor  and playfulness of F.W. de Klerk. Moxie gets a little star-struck at times, not by A-list actors or musicians (well maybe a little), but face-to-face with a former head of state? I melted.

My question: “When did your ideology change about blacks and whites in South Africa? When did you come to realize that all should be equal under the law?”

His Answer: “It wasn’t a road to Damascus moment, rather it was a gradual change over time. Ask me that in the Q&A, rush right up there, and I will give you a fuller answer.”


Below is a blurry shot I took while I listened to a rather ignorant undergrad ask the President his thoughts on a federalized Africa. OBVIOUSLY, de Klerk debunked the idea by praising Africa for its love of multi-culturalism. He reminded this young man of how difficult it has been for the relatively homogeneous EU to become federalized, a tremendous continent with varied regions would not benefit from such a system.

While I wasn’t talking to the guest of honor, I snooped around a little and learned that he had flown in that morning on his private plane from Naples, Florida (we have so much in common), and now that he is retired, he spends much of his time on a yacht in the Mediterranean. Must be nice.


Before the speech we had about an hour to kill, and since it feels like spring in Atlanta these days, my professor, another former student, and I basked in the sun and discussed black nationalism. (glorious) Our question: Can you be a black nationalist and believe that race is socially constructed?” In other words, if race is a created concept, how can one promote black unity?

My initial response: I thought all educated people believe that race is a social construct, certainly it is not biological, is there something beyond the obvious binary?

Dr. R: Saying that race is socially constructed says something about power. It means that it is something created by human choice. In the case of race, if white people created an oppressive system, then they created the social construct, which undermines black nationalism…

To introduce his speech, Bridging the Gap: Globalization without Isolation,” he told the audience that after talking to us “students” beforehand, he realized that we wanted to hear about South Africa’s radical transformation over the past 20 years. He was right, and what an incredible formative assessment! He proceeded to discuss the role of leadership in a time of dramatic change. He gave eight qualities leaders need to possess to be successful. I’ve c&ped some of my notes below…

  1. Impartial, dispassionate assessment of reality: relentless self-assessment

South African context: The Nationalist Party could have held on, they could have endured sanctions and international isolation, but they decided  to admit and confront the fear that they had failed to bring justice to South Africa, that their policies had led to manifest injustice, and they had to change course. In history, we know that the prospect of imminent disaster has not always caused leaders to change; this is a hard decision since resistance to change is deeply seeded in all of us. We naturally fear unknown, unchartered territory.

2. Take calculated risks.

It is riskiest to do nothing

3. Avoid temptation of pretending to change

Ex: Gorbachev’s perestroika—didn’t want to admit that there was something deeply wrong with communism, tried to simply alter it to make it better, but that didn’t work

Ex: white South Africa fooled themselves into thinking they could reform softly to avoid dramatic decisions and risks.

They had to abandon separateness and embrace inclusivity. Only then could they initiate real change.

4. Real and achievable vision that gives direction and purpose

You need to be able to measure your progress and convince others to come along with you.

5. Outstanding communication skills

6. Good timing

Even if you are right, if you have the wrong timing, it can be ineffective

You can’t move so far ahead that your followers can’t hear or see you

7. Leaders must persevere until they achieve their objectives

There will be far reaching and unforeseen consequences to decisions, and you will feel like you are steering a canoe in a storm. Many crises will cause or almost cause the canoe to capsize, must learn to endure and react

8. Plan for his/her own departure, leadership is not for sissies!

Accept that change is a never-ending business

Biggest take away: De Klerk’s greatest achievement and legacy is his surrender of control

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2 responses to ““Leadership is not for sissies”

  1. Pingback: Dialogue is good (and hard sometimes, too) | Moxie

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