True Leadership is behavioural and not positional


Two weeks ago, I saw this advert on a plane in Angola, “Obrigado, Madiba. As tuas ideias ficarao sempre conossco.” A simple translation “Thank you Madiba, your ideas will always be with us”. It goes further to say, “Há ideias que unem e ideias que dividem. As tuas uniram um povo, criaram uma nação, orgulharam um continente, conquistaram o mundo. Obrigado, Mabida. Ficarás sempre connosco ensinando-nos  sonhar o impossível”. Simply, but powerfully stated, “There are ideas that unite, and ideas that divide, yours created a nation, gave pride to a Continent, and conquered the world. Thank you Madiba, you will always be with us, teaching us to dream the impossible dream.” 

What drove this Angolan company to honour Madiba, what moved the British to celebrate his life at Westminster Abbey, what inspired the whole Continent to declare days of mourning for Madiba, what touched the world so much about this African giant?

What made Madiba unique, what made millions of South Africans to spontaneously break into song…. “Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela, Akakho ofana naye…Hao ya tswanang le yena… (There is no one like you…)

The answer lies in the true essence of leadership, which has more to do with the behaviours of a leader and less to do with the position he/she occupies. In Madiba’s case, it is consistent and principled behaviours that connected him to people, inspired millions and made him so loved and appreciated here at home and abroad until his death.

In the words of Kouzes & Posner:

… each leader, or potential leader has to place the people at the centre, be responsive to their needs, respectful of their wishes and accountable to them. This requires us as leaders to be selfless in our contribution, inclusive in our decisions, humble in our behaviour and inspiring in our actions. If we do this, our joy will not be in how exalted we may be; how elevated our positions are, how much wealth we can amass, and how much power we can have …it must come from a deeper and special place, where others benefit, grow, or prosper because our actions….that’s true leadership.

This simple yet profound description of true leadership clearly goes far beyond the leader’s position, and outlines a set of behaviours expected of a true leader and most importantly, the noble and pure motives that should propel such behaviour. In examining Madiba’s life, one can immediately see how his consistent and sincere behaviours connected him to all of us.

How Madiba connected with us

His last words before being imprisoned inspired our people, “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” His image as a courageous and principled leader was cemented by these now historic words. When in 1985 he was offered freedom in exchange for renouncing violence, Madiba endeared himself to the people as a selfless leader with these now famous words, “Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return”.

And return he did…to great expectations. Through his words as a free man, he moved from just a symbol or image, to become a loved leader of his people. The most significant words from his Cape Town release speech were to place the people at the centre of his release and future plans,  “ I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.

At the very outset Madiba set the tone of his leadership agenda, that is to achieve his vision articulated when facing the hangman in 1964. All his actions, from the day he left prison, to his inauguration, up to his last breath, he made all of us – young or old, black or white, men or women, gay or straight, rural or urban – feel empowered, listened to, understood, capable, and important.

He achieved all this by being open and caring, positive, humble, passionate and compassionate. These genuine and consistent behaviours made him connect with our hopes, fears, aspirations and desires. He understood the fears and anxieties of Whites; he championed the aspirations of Africans as the most oppressed; he empathised with the coloured community’s search for identity in the new South Africa, he recognised the unique position of the Indian community in our Rainbow nation. He went further, he ensured that his vision of a new South Africa resonated with different constituencies, this made him connect intimately with the military, sportspeople, the Afrikaner community, the traditional leaders, business executives, trade unions, and international leaders and celebrities. Each constituency or individual who came into contact with Madiba was treated uniquely and made to feel special.  

Although Mandela used words to articulate his vision, it is instructive to note that through numerous carefully thought through deeds, Madiba was able to use himself to paint a picture of a peaceful, caring, united, diverse, successful, progressive and world integrated society. Through gestures, activities, actions and symbolism, he was able to persuade, cajole and inspire South Africans to see themselves in the picture of the future he was leading us to create. He knew that this dream would be a hard sell, he appreciated the deep fears on the one side and the high levels of expectations on the other. Through his words and gestures, he started to connect with South Africans and peoples of the world.

How can we follow in his footsteps and connect with our constituencies?

Each one of us, leaders or aspirant leaders, would love to have the Mandela touch or Madiba magic, the harsh reality, however, is that we cannot become Madiba. What we can be or what we ought to strive for, is to emulate his example through our daily words and actions.

I have had the honour and privilege to lead thousands of people across different languages, cultures and geographies. I have grappled and continue to grapple with how to connect and continue to remain connected with this our staff in a real and meaningful manner. For any leader or aspirant leader in our Continent, who wants to journey on the path set by Madiba, I would humbly propose the following key changes behaviours:

Use every opportunity to connect

Every day presents countless opportunities to connect with people, emails, phone calls, meetings, presentations, greetings, meeting people in a lift etc.…. these are all golden opportunities to connect with people. Leaders tend to brush these interactions aside because they’re too busy trying to get the ‘real work’ done. Some leaders think that connecting with people is only necessary when there is a clear business purpose, for example during staff meetings.

These are missed opportunities…. This is indeed the real work of leaders, to constantly connect with others in an inspiring, supportive and engaging manner. Such connections, which may be a greeting, a compliment to a colleague, a kind word, gesture of support, responding to emails, recognising people, a word of encouragement, may only take a couple of seconds from the leader’s time, but may resonate with a person for years to come.

As leaders, by definition, we do our work through other people, and yet how easy it is to lose sight of that, to focus on the amount of work — the tasks, the output, the jobs to be completed. The irony is, the more we focus on the quality of those connections, the greater our quantity of output is likely to be.

How many opportunities are you currently missing to connect with others?
Do you realize that your words and actions daily make or destroy connections with your constituency?
Are you prepared to change to focus on utilizing every opportunity to truly connect?

Getting to know people helps you to connect with them

The process of getting to know teams, constituencies and groups is a fascinating learning for any leader. This process challenges beautifully drafted corporate reports, well-meaning advice from one’s aides and well-cultivated theories and assumptions. It allows a leader to confront the daily reality of those he/she leads, their aspirations, dreams, frustrations and expectations. In order to do this well, leaders need to sometimes look beyond the organizational diagrams, official visit programs and official briefings, to reach out themselves to connect to people at a very basic human level as Madiba wonderfully did. As a matter of principle, each leader needs to assess how much time is spent at HQ versus time spent in the field, with customers, suppliers, community leaders, local stakeholders with the view to connect one’s vision with theirs and to receive unfiltered feedback on the true state of affairs.

In the words of John C Maxwell, this entails leaving “your place” with its warmth, trappings of power and privilege and visit “their place” which is characterized by the cold reality of competition, challenges and daily problems. The best way to keep from stepping on other people’s toes is to put yourself in their shoes.  In my little experience, working with people across cultures, languages and lately across boundaries, there are better connections forged in these interactions than through the standard corporate email. This requires more than a “tick the box” exercise, at the very least, each of these visits needs to have the following key ingredients:

Genuine engagement with all stakeholders on the corporate vision and strategy and its implications for each of the audiences;
Willingness to sincerely understand the challenges and circumstances under which people operate;
A keen interest to get to know people at an individual level, understanding their dreams and wishes, their culture and language and the ideas and proposals;
Recognize, reward, reinforce, and celebrate exceptional efforts and success towards the common goal;
Provide an honest and sober assessment of the organizational performance, opportunities presenting themselves and threats emerging on the horizon.
Report back on issues that were raised with you on a previous visit.

Issues to reflect on:

How much do you really connect with your constituency?
How much time do you really spend in the field versus Corporate HQ or seat of power?
Do you have a better sense of reality from these visits; are you connecting more with the constituency at a personal level?

In the end, true connections will depend on the following factors:

Do people believe you genuinely care about them and do you leave them more inspired, more knowledgeable, more committed and more engaged than when you came?
During your stay do you truly exhibit empathy, engagement and inspiration?
Are your connections attempts purely opportunistic in the form of the “Roadshows” that most corporate and political leaders?

An interest in people is an interest to connect

One of the hallmarks of Madiba’s life was his genuine interest in the lives of others, their triumphs and tribulations. True connections arise as we as leaders become part of the lives of our constituencies, genuinely knowing everything there is to know about each person. Here are some of the factors that have assisted me to take on a greater interest in the people I work with, hence promoting more connectivity between us:

Getting to know the people you work with at a deeper and personal level allows you to get to know their families, hobbies, fears, aspirations, goals and broader life beyond the office. There are two advantages to this, firstly, you are then able to connect, motivate, and engage each person differently as you recognize their individuality; secondly you are able to celebrate their personal or family achievements or support them through personal tragedies such as death of a loved one, divorce, illness, and other losses or pain. Done consistently, and sincerely, this will create connection and strengthen emotional bonds for years to come.

Working in larger teams may present a different, yet a manageable challenge because of the numbers of people involved and the distances created by time and geography. I have found that these can be overcome by; firstly making a concerted effort to remember, faces, names, incidents and conversations with people; secondly always asking people to talk more about themselves and their stories, and always ensuring that conversations gravitate more towards other people’s interests rather than mine.

Leading diverse teams presents an opportunity for leaders to learn, appreciate, respect and understand other people’s history, languages, cultures, traditions and diversity. This understanding and appreciation enables one to connect, engage, lead and adapt one’s style to the environment.

In thinking about your team or constituency, how much do you:

Know their passions, fears, anxieties and expectations?
Have you gone out of your way to understand the diversity of your team’s language, culture and tradition?

Use your power to affirm others 

One of the hardest things for leaders to do is to use their role or power to make everybody feel comfortable, appreciated, important and worthy. This is difficult for leaders with a sense of self-importance or who thrive on positional power. The reality, however, is that our titles and roles are meaningless without the support of our constituencies. In the words of Kalungu-Banda, “Great leaders do not see titles. They see human beings who happen to have certain titles in order to perform certain tasks. Leaders that touch our souls recognize and honour people simply as human beings and not the institutional tasks they perform

I have personally found that every encounter, with every staff member, customer, supplier or stakeholder should be characterized by humility, respect and dignity, regardless of rank or position. To me the humanity of the security guard, driver, top customer, senior executive, waiter, receptionist, government minister, cleaner, or colleague trumps their social status. In my work, in all my travels, I found that treating each of these people with the necessary courtesy and respect reaffirms their humanity; make each person feel valued and important.

Doing this consistently and visibly in a sincere manner increases human connection beyond measure. This means that we as leaders must consistently honour and treat everyone we come across with the utmost respect. This Madiba demonstrated as a “deliberate practice as well as spiritual disposition”, in that way everyone who felt the effects of his personae and position deserved and received his undivided attention for however long the interaction lasted.


In the words of Deepak Chopra, “Leaders bring out the best in others, but successful visionaries go even further: they form lasting emotional bonds.  They are the kind of leaders we hold in our hearts.  When people are emotionally bonded to you, they want to have contact with you.  They want to be of service and share in your vision.  Deep motivation then develops.  True, lasting loyalties are formed.

In each of us, throughout our beloved Continent, lies a true leader, who through genuine introspection and deliberate and conscious change in behaviour can reach the standard set by Kouzes and Posner and wonderfully lived by Madiba. Such behaviours would galvanize and inspire our constituencies more than any eloquent words. This would create amazingly deep human connections as described by Chopra. I hope you will take up this opportunity and give true meaning to leadership beyond our titles or positions.

As you finish reading this and reflect about your own leadership, would you say you lead more through your behaviours or through your position or title? More importantly, if your team, supporters, constituency or followers were to be asked about your leadership:

Would they say you:

Put them at the centre of everything?
Are responsive to their needs, respectful of their wishes and accountable to them?
Are you selfless in your contribution and inclusive in your decisions?
Are humble in your behaviour and inspiring in your actions?
How would they describe what motivates your actions and decisions?
Is your leadership driven by how exalted you are, or how elevated your positions is, or how much wealth you can amass, or how much power you can have?
Are your actions motivated by the benefit of others, the growth of your people or the prosperity of your enterprise, organisation, team and country?

I hope you will reflect on these in a sober and dispassionate manner with the view to change your behaviours towards a much more inclusive, engaging, and inspiring leadership driven by higher ideals and not self –promotion or narrow self-interest. Should you change for the better, should your constituency or team proclaim the change for their benefit, then Madiba’s idea that true leadership is behavioural and not positional would come true. As more of us follow this noble path, then we can fully appreciate and support the Angolan salute to Madiba:

Obrigado, Madiba. As tuas ideias ficarao sempre conossco.” Thank you Madiba, your ideas will always be with us.

I look forward to your comments, reflections and healthy debates as we seek to preserve Madiba’s legacy.