South African perspectives on Leadership Print
Written by Corina Mihaela Paraschiv   
Sunday, 09 March 2008 19:12
On March 4th 2008, while in Capetown, I organized a conference onboard the Scholar Ship with EDUCO to learn about their South African experience of leadership. Until now I had never realized how the “ideal leader” is something that changes depending on different countries. The ideas presented here are meant to contrast the American vision of leadership with the perspective I've been presented with from my trip to South Africa, with interactions with locals, EDUCO and the Western Cape Business Opportunities Forum.

North American leadership is built around the concept of teams. Different activities we play in group stress the importance of trust and communication. We are taught about our responsability towards our community (corporate responsibility in the business world), and accountability as members of a team.


African leadership takes on a completely different approach. It starts with the individual himself, and “from the heart, not from the head”. That is because it is not enough to know how to lead others if you don't know how to lead yourself. The Western Cape Business Opportunities Forum would probably agree, as they also described the “ideal leader” as someone with hands-on abilities rather than just conceptual thinking. In addition, they added a leader should be strong and follow his own conviction – even if that may be unpopular.


I believe this difference may stream from the past of South Africa; many ideas that may have made sense economically and intellectually have destroyed the lives of many people. Education has, until recently, been accessible largely to the white population, more than to the black one. This may be why what we call hidden leadership may exist in people who have no education. Leadership is therefore more about having the right morals and will, as the Western Cape Business Opportunities Forum puts it, than to have a lot of knowledge.

 Healing, Empowering and Training

The way Educo operates is through healing, empowering and training youth. The training stage, which we get in North America too, is only at the end of the process. Unlike North America, the entire training is built around the individual and not around the team. This may be because in North America, a society that is predominantly individualist, members of the society must learn to take common interests into consideration. In South Africa however, with the peer pressure in the townships and the collectivism, it becomes imperative to act as an individual, sometimes, and go against the current, to do the right thing; one of the Educo guest speakers was explaining that when he grew up in the township, he was taught that the whites had taken everything away from them and that they had to give them back everything. His friends and him stole from the white and considered they were only retrieving what should have been theirs. In a context like that, it took a lot of courage to step up for his own belief and change the attitudes he held.


Basic South African Leadership Concepts

African leadership is therefore centered on the individual, and considers the man to be of 4 folds. If they are not lived out thoroughly, there will be an imbalance in the life of the leader. Those folds are : belonging (where is my place in the world?), generosity (both receiving and giving), being independent (reliable and knowing that your inner voice is worth something) and mastery (because when you cannot master anything you constantly feel disoriented and you are strained). In a sense, then, leadership is about finding who you are and what you are meant to accomplish with your life. It is a vocation – a similar idea to the Christian's view on professional life and marriage. One of the implications of the vocation is that you are often a leader by circumstance, and not by choice. This means that sometimes, people will be placed in situations, like Mandela, in which they did not necessarily envision themselves to lead anyone. But they will be forced to do so, and by such, become leaders.


The concept of independence was very interesting, because it led to another concept; being independent comes at a certain age. With the AIDS wiping out grown-ups massively in the country, the eldest child of many families is robbed of his childhood upon loosing his parents; he has to work and care for his younger siblings, and with that comes an imbalance in him, because for each age, there are different occupations. To mark the transition between ages, there are several rites of passages (which differ depending on which group you belong to in South Africa), and more so than in North America. Those rites help one realize he has to learn new skills and bear new responsibilities. The greatest leader is actually the one who can speak with a person from any of these stages and be able to relate; to interact and communicate with them without judgement and without a frame of reference, regardless of which stage he is at. That, in a sense, can find its echo in the North American view of inter-cultural communication, where we make our best to live harmoniously with people who hold different views of the world. Yet it is different because it requires of one to go beyond simply living with people who are different, and, instead, to truly engage with him at his level.


The Story-Telling Function

Age also brings in the idea of guidance; elderly should provide guidance and orientation to the next generations, because of their life experiences. That is something that also came out as a corporate value with the Western Cape Business Opportunities Forum, where it was discussed that guidance and influence was a big asset for a leader. In addition, they said, a leader should engage in mentorship to share his experience. This can often occur through story-telling, exchanging experiences in a meaningful way, while leaving the choice to the youth to follow the lessons learned or to experience the world for themselves.


There is another use in story-telling however; EDUCO often uses analogies to teach their participants. One of them is the climbing of a mountain, where they combine both the physical challenges with metaphors : climbing a mountain means struggling in the hope of getting somewhere beautiful at the end of the trip. Often, we carry heavy backpacks that are full the first day. As the days go by and we unload our bags and share the contents with our fellow travelers, the load gets lighter and lighter and we have more energy to do things. In the same way, when we share our stories, burdens and joys with others, we unload our mind and soul and can truly be more present for our community.


The Western Cape Business Opportunity Forum brought in the idea of leaving a legacy, which ties in with EDUCO's concept of story-telling. Stories, EDUCO guest speaker explained to me, are a part of history. The Western Cape Business Opportunities Forum highlights how leaders need others to come along with them; one simply cannot work alone. Often that can be done through sharing stories. When I am told a story, I am not just told an anecdote. Rather, I am offered a piece of living history, and when I share my stories or choose to engage in someone's story, then I am becoming part of the history-in-making.


Environmental Impact

A last point to consider is that South Africa has an extraordinary landscape and wildlife. This enables leaders who are often too caught into their own community to step back and take the time to figure things out. Rotaractors in port mentioned the rate of depressions and burnouts are surprisingly low because whenever they become very stressed, Capetonians have the option of hitting the beach or the parks to escape and breath a little. It also helps to reflect; it is very difficult to change someone when he is in a familiar environment with familiar people – often times, young adults must be removed of their communities and put into a “safe place” - like nature - where they can take the time to reflect and meet challenges as they discover themselves.



This all goes to show that there is no such thing as “the ideal leader”, hence there is no way to teach someone how to be the perfect leader. This can explain why leadership development can be so different – and why the things that are expected of you can be so different – when comparing South Africa with North America. The ideal leader is simply the leader who can best respond to a given situation. The skill to develop in future leaders across nations, then, might be to adapt in a variety of different settings and contexts.