True leadership is grounded in humility, service and ethics


Over the weekend, I was honoured to receive the Distinguished Old Rhodian Award from my alma mater, Rhodes University, from which I graduated in 1988. It is awarded to former students “who, through their individual actions and achievements, have enhanced the reputation of the university”. According to the university, the award is specifically intended to acknowledge Old Rhodians as role models.

My fellow recipients of Distinguished Old Rhodian Awards this year were:

  • Judge Jos Jones (graduated in 1959);
  • Imogen Mkhize (graduated in 1981); and
  • Rich Mkhondo (graduated in 1981).

The Emerging Old Rhodian Award, for those under 40, went to:

  • Konehali Gugushe (graduated in 1994); and
  • Unathi Msengana (graduated in 1997).

Words cannot do justice to my gratitude and appreciation to Rhodes University for granting me recognition of this magnitude. I feel privileged to be in the company of my amazing fellow award recipients, and I dedicate the award to the colleagues and peers I have had the privilege to lead. Their inspiration, guidance and constructive feedback have given me the courage to grow, both as a person and as a leader.

The essence of true leadership

Receiving this award led me to reflect on what a huge honour and privilege it is to lead people and  decide to share my thoughts on the challenges and choices facing potential leaders as they start to assume positions of responsibility.

Universities and other institutions produce strong and inspirational young people who go on to take on leadership roles in the private, public and entrepreneurial sectors or in civil society. How are we preparing them and other young people to face the leadership challenges of our time?

All of us have been exposed to various theories and definitions of leadership. The one that resonates most with me, that inspires me daily and that I ultimately hope to achieve and sustain is espoused by Kouzes & Posner. It is very simple, yet deeply profound in its implications:

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 of our actions … that’s true leadership.”

This definition not only captures the exemplary behaviours I believe should be expected of leaders but also the pure motives they must have. It sets a standard whereby leaders can benchmark themselves and, most importantly, whereby followers can judge their leaders.

It is not a new approach of leadership. It is an approach that has worked and changed the world for the better since time immemorial, as some of the stories many of us have heard and retold illustrate.

The story of the Barotse King

This story was shared between two eminent African elders, Eric Mafuna and Thabo Mbeki, sitting under the African sky in Maputo, Mozambique:

Once upon a time, a Barotse or Lozi leader was elevated to the position of a king or a Litunga. He was brought from his village to the capital, whereupon the great tidings were conveyed to him.  What did he do in response? He did not pump the air with his fist, he did not puff up his chest with pride nor did he recline on his throne with a self-satisfied smile.

Instead, he sighed deeply and declared: “Now you’ve gone and killed me.” What he meant by that, was that the “me” in him, his sense of self, had been surrendered, and had been sacrificed, for the greater good of the people over whom he would now rule.

Who, in their right mind, would kill themselves for the so-called greater good when power, glory, riches and fame beckon? Who would simply surrender their individual freedom to the people they would now rule? The answer is that many are doing that daily, far from the media spotlight, the selfie culture and the constant quest for recognition and honours.

As I travel on this beautiful continent of ours, far from the capital cities, in places that you won’t find in the weather reports, I have discovered that this beautiful continent works in spite of those who claim to be its leaders. It works because of men and women who have, like the Barotse leader, surrendered their personal ambitions and aligned their futures to those of the people they lead. I regularly meet and learn about these amazing people, who daily make a difference in the lives of many.

Each one of their words, gestures, visits, chats, speeches, decisions, plans and meetings helps this continent to move forward. As they do all this, they face many problems and stumbling blocks along the way. No matter what obstacles they encounter, something deep inside them drives them on past the challenges. Their students, community, constituency, supporters or team may believe this is a step too far, but their innate ability to influence, to inspire, to motivate, to cajole, to persuade and to drive people forward enables them to get the group to see beyond the obstacle ahead towards the ultimate goal or objective. Some of the words, gestures or speeches they employ during these trying times are immortalised and passed on from generation to generation.

Each one of us has come across such leaders in our lives, in our homes, schools, universities, sports teams, places of worship, community forums, the public service, civil society groups or the corporate world. We have fond memories of their influence on us; we vividly recall their words to us during dark times and we remember their life lessons. They, in words or deeds, inspired us, drove us, pushed us, motivated us to achieve much more than we thought we could. Some of them were there in our hour of need; some helped us regain our self-worth.

Through it all, it was never about them; it was about us. They did not seek the limelight; they wanted us to succeed. What they did was not for their personal gain, but for a higher and nobler ideal. As Kouzes & Posner put it, their joy was not in “how exalted they may be; how elevated their positions are, how much wealth they can amass, and how much power they can have…. it came from a deeper and special place, where others benefit, grow, or prosper because of their actions”.

I am a proud beneficiary of such leadership, as I outlined in an article published in the Sunday Times in April 2012, titled, ‘Yes, it takes a village to raise a child’ ( It is such leaders – during my schooling, at university, in sport, in the church, in my family, in my community and in my work environment – who contributed and continue to contribute to who I am today. Every time I meet them, their joy is unmistakable. Their pride knows no bounds, because they wanted the best for me. The award I have received from Rhodes University is a tribute to these selfless and caring leaders and shows the true beauty of leadership in action.

The story of Icarus

Once upon a time, in ancient Greece, there was a brilliant inventor, Daedalus. He had angered King Minos, the ruler of the island of Crete, and was imprisoned on the island. Desperate to flee the island, Daedalus used wax to build some wings for himself and his son, Icarus. Daedalus warned his son to fly at mid-height as the seawater would dampen the wings and the sun would melt them.

Icarus heeded his father’s advice for a while, but then, as he soared higher and higher, he felt free. He felt he could fly higher than the birds. He was feeling so free and so savouring having so much power, fun and freedom that he ignored his father’s warning and flew close to the sun. As his father had warned, his wings melted, and Icarus plummeted into the sea and drowned, to his father’s sorrow. 

Hundreds of young people graduate from Rhodes and other universities with great hopes and dreams. We, as their parents, lecturers, supporters and family members, wish the best for them.

As they move into their chosen careers and professions, we look on in admiration as they soar and reach unimagined heights. We may occasionally give them a Daedalus piece of advice, but the power, the glory, the freedom and the material rewards of high office often drown out our feeble attempts to keep them grounded.

Then the inevitable happens, a crash, a fall from grace… society’s admiration turns to scorn; friends and family who used to bask in their limelight now hide from the searchlight of public scrutiny. We ask ourselves how this could happen to Craig, Jane, Saras, Bradley, Sipho, Munyarazi or Matsepo. They had a great future ahead of them; they had a great upbringing!

In the wise words of Prof Bill George, “Leaders who lose their way are not necessarily bad people; rather, they lose their moral bearings, often yielding to seductions in their paths. Very few people go into leadership roles to cheat, to do evil, yet we all have the capacity for actions we deeply regret unless we stay grounded.”

None of the young people we produce at Rhodes or any other institution are necessarily born evil; but they unfortunately, like you and me, have in themselves the capacity for actions that they may later regret. Where in our curriculum, across various disciples, do we have lectures or modules that give the Daedalus advice about the dangers ahead?

As we daily read the headlines trumpeting the fall of the mighty, the promising, the achievers, what is our response? Beyond the initial disbelief, followed by denial, later followed by blaming the media or the intentions of others, what are we doing to prepare our young not to fly too low, lest their wings be dampened, nor to fly too high, lest their wings melt?

As the saying goes, you cannot lead others until you lead yourself. However, it is near impossible to lead yourself if you do not know yourself. The great motto emblazoned on Greece’s Oracle of Delphi is, “Know thyself”. It means you should  know your own mortality, frailties, limitations, errors, flaws and shortcomings. In the sphere of leadership, this means being wary of hubris, or pride. Our greatest mistakes and flaws are often exposed at our moments of greatest triumph. It is at this time of high altitude, in the true “death zone” of leadership, that we lose our knowledge of ourselves and become arrogant and self-serving, committing acts that may bring about our downfall from the highest peaks of adulation and admiration.

As we progress, as  glory, fame and fortune beckon, it is increasingly difficult, but absolutely, critically important, to remain grounded in “knowing thyself”. That is the oxygen of leadership survival in the dreaded “death zone”

Throughout my life, my father played the role of Daedalus, occasionally scolding, advising, or inspiring, always teaching me what true leadership was about. There were many times he held me back. I now know it was for my own good. There were times he pushed me too hard. I now appreciate he did it because he had my interests at heart.

I believe each one of the young people graduating from Rhodes or any other institution should first receive guidance on the dangers of hubris, the importance of humility, and the need to “know thyself”. In addition, they must be encouraged from an early age to have advisers near them as they scale the leadership mountain.

I brought my Council of Advisors with me to the awards ceremony:  my wife, my mother, and the elders of my family. They are the discreet people who listen without broadcasting my troubles and failures; they are the wise counsellors who temper my enthusiasm with a dose of realism and constantly, yet gently, remind me that I’m a mere mortal with great flaws and weaknesses.

Let us teach our youngsters now about the dangers of hubris, and promote in them the noble virtue of humility.

The story of the cat

Once upon a time there was a domesticated cat that was treated as an only child by its wealthy owner. The owner, who was very ill, had one last wish before he died a magnificent dinner with his closest friends. He said to the cat, “Dear Cat, please be a host and a waiter on this special night with my dear friends. After that, I will die peacefully and leave to you all my riches.” The cat happily agreed and the evening was a major success. Both the owner and his guests were very happy on this last night.

 Towards the end of the evening, as coffee was being served, the cat saw for the first time a mouse in all its splendour. The natural instinct in him urged him to go after this mouse, but his good judgment thought about losing out on all the riches he was promised. In the end, the temptation won. The cat dropped the hot coffee on the owner and his guests and chased after the mouse. Unfortunately for the cat, the mouse went through a hole and the cat lost out on a wonderful meal.  More importantly, he lost out on all the riches he had been promised.

How many times has this story played itself out in real life? How many times do leaders fall from grace because of temptations – wealth, greed, bribery, insider trading, corruption and fame – losing their good name, political office, job, position or even their freedom?

We always need to remind ourselves that the true essence of leadership lies in a higher ideal, a challenge to be confronted, a goal to be achieved or a mission to be accomplished. Anyone who takes on a leadership role driven by personal reasons, motivated by possible gain, enticed by the benefits that may accrue or excited by the possibility of being in charge is likely fail dismally as a leader.

In the words of Prof Bill George: “Before anyone takes on a leadership role, they should ask themselves, ‘Why do I want to lead?’ and ‘What’s the purpose of my leadership?’ These questions are simple to ask, but finding the real answers may take decades. If the honest answers are power, prestige, and money, leaders are at risk of relying on external gratification for fulfillment. There is nothing wrong with desiring these outward symbols as long as they are combined with a deeper desire to serve something greater than oneself.”

Many leaders, motivated by more narrow and selfish interests, easily succumb to greed, to negative influences and to vices. This leads them to use their position of trust (the role of the cat in that household) for personal gain or enrichment (the pursuit of the mouse).  This leads to corruption, embezzlement of funds, fraud, collusion, price fixing and the use of public, community or corporate resources for personal gain.

The reality, however, is that the problem goes beyond what intentions one has as a leader. Some temptations and seductions affect every leader, particularly when they become successful. In the words of the former Novartis Chairman, Daniel Vasella, “for many of us the idea of being a successful manager – leading the company from peak to peak, delivering the goods quarter by quarter – is an intoxicating one. It is a pattern of celebration leading to belief, leading to distortion. When you achieve good results… you are typically celebrated, and you begin to believe that the figure at the centre of all the champagne toasting is yourself.”     

This phenomenon does not only affect the private sector, it touches the public sector too. This was aptly illustrated by South Africa’s former President Kgalema Montlathe, who described these temptations:

“Corruption is a very simple problem. Its front-line soldiers are gifts. They won’t ask of you for any favours at the time, they will just leave it and go. But one day, the same person, while you are sitting at the counter, will find themselves at the end of a long queue and then wave at you and you must make a plan for him to come to the front. Corruption does not announce itself with drum majorettes.”

Indeed the daily temptations, the orchestrated schemes, the exciting possibility of shortcuts to success will present themselves to leaders and potential leaders in various guises. They are likely to be clothed in charitable language, or masked under the banner of a good cause, or presented as a legal, yet not quite ethical or slightly over-assertive way to achieve quick results.  They may take the form of generous gifts or donations. Furthermore, they are likely to be presented by people you know, relatives, friends, comrades … the people you trust.  We must protect our future, our young and the potential leaders, from these temptations through sound education and proper role modelling.


The current societal climate promotes an environment of hubris, greed, corruption, fraud, and conspicuous consumption. Jonathan Sacks sums it up well: “When everything that matters can be bought and sold, when commitments can be broken because they are no longer to your advantage, when shopping becomes salvation and advertising slogans become our litany; when our worth is measured by how much we earn and spend, then the market is destroying the very virtue on which in the long run it depends.”

Without the benefit of a good grounding in ethics, values, principles, compliance and the importance of doing things with the highest levels of integrity, how do we expect our potential leaders to emerge unscathed from this corrupting jungle? These issues are not only relevant to students in the humanities. They affect people in every sphere of endeavor, because the scourge of corruption, greed, collusion, fraud, bribery and embezzlement dogs every facet of life.

The bar for leadership has been set by those who have come before us, the standards of being set daily by unsung heroes and heroines who are leading in exemplary ways.  We need to set up the future leaders for success by giving them the guidance of Daedalus and by instilling in them the humility and selflessness of the Barotse Leader.