Leadership much more than holding a position

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As we approach the ANC elective conference next month quite a number of things are happening.

Skeletons (small and not so small) are tumbling out of many cupboards.

Some individuals – Dr Makhosi Khoza – have quit the party.

Others – Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa – are exposed as “adulterers”.

This should not come as a surprise. ANC succession battles have in the past proven to be almost life and death battles as was evident in Polokwane in 2007 and Mangaung in 2012.

With the ANC commanding a majority of seats in the National Assembly and governing eight out of nine provinces, leading the party affords any individual and aspirant leader status and financial advantages.

The branches, as we are constantly reminded by party officials and staunch members, will decide.

Well may they decide. Some among us will not be there and whoever is elected as a leader may impact our lives from 2019 (when general elections are to be held) and beyond.

I guess it is fitting to suggest some of the qualities that a leader should possess over and above his knowledge of ANC policies.

I understand that the party puts a premium on its leaders knowing the ANC’s policies (and implementing them!) as well as one would know the back of one’s own hand.

But I’d like to look at what leadership means.

It may seem somewhat bizarre to suggest that an elected individual should have the characteristics of a leader.

We all take it for granted that by virtue of one’s election to a position of leadership one is naturally a leader, right?

Definitely not if one considers the situation we find ourselves in at the moment.

This is something that experts on the topic will confirm. Holding a position does not equate to being a leader.

Numerous other examples in South African, African and international history have shown us that it is possible to have people in top positions who should be leaders but who lack leadership skills and capabilities.

In fact, leadership or the lack thereof, seems to be the bane of modern society, whether in business, academia or in politics.

In the political realm we have many of those of who James Macgregor Burns, in his book, Leadership, describes as “power wielders”.

These are individuals who are motivated by using power for its own sake – or their own sake – than by providing critically needed leadership for the people.

South Africa is presently beset by the triple challenges of poverty, rampant unemployment (hovering above 25%) and inequality (wealth is skewed in favour of a few). Consequently, the country needs a leader who will have strategies to extricate us from this morass.

After all “everything rises and falls on leadership” as the leadership guru John Maxwell says.

It will certainly require astute leadership to steer the ship of state out of its turbulent waters into placid and calm seas.

Some societies in crisis have had the good fortune of being led by individuals who were attuned to their immediate needs at that moment.

During the Great Depression of 1929 the United States was fortunate to have at the helm, President Franklin Roosevelt. Through his words, deeds and astute leadership skills he was able to lift the entire country out of that sad chapter.

Though his famous “fireside chats” – 28 radio broadcasts – he was able to explain his policies to the people and “pledge” America to his “New Deal”, the Works Progress Administration project to provide jobs for unemployed people.

The policy may have had its strident critics but the fact of the matter is, it helped the country find its way in a crisis.

In Britain just as the clouds of the Second World War were gathering, the British people elected Winston Churchill as Prime Minister.

The bellicose German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler had squeezed several concessions out of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain who had been following a dangerous policy of “appeasement”.

When Hitler’s forces invaded Poland it was clear wakeup call that Germany was spoiling for war, not peace.

Leadership was sorely needed at a time of great crisis for Britain and Europe.

Cometh the hour cometh the man, the saying goes. The feisty Churchill – an articulate orator – was able to inspire British forces and people to resist the Nazi onslaught.

Many may remember his defiant and inspirational speech as the country braced for what became the war that has killed more people than any other in history:

“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,

we shall fight on the seas and oceans,

we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,

we shall fight on the beaches,

we shall fight on the landing grounds,

we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,

we shall fight in the hills;

we shall never surrender.”

Both Churchill and Roosevelt epitomise the kind of leadership that South Africa would benefit from at this present time.

The two leaders came at a critical time in the history of their respective nations and distinguished themselves with superb leadership skills. In fact, they actually served their nations – something we currently lack in South Africa.

It is not as if Churchill and Roosevelt (the latter a member of the Democratic Party) did not belong to political parties. Of course they did, but as leaders of their nations they served each and every citizen.

We need a leader who will transcend party political barriers and be a servant to all South African citizens, irrespective of colour, race or gender.

In his seminal book Servant Leadership: A Journey into the nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, the late Robert K Greenleaf proposes that a great leader is primarily the servant of those he leads.

One hopes that as the branches of the ANC gather in Gauteng to elect leadership, they will give much consideration to the type of leader the country needs.

It is time to elect a leader who has a wide range of appeal, but this does not translate into an individual who will seek to please everyone.

In the late former President Nelson Mandela we had such a leader. An inspirational story is told about an incident during his funeral as the motorcade passed through the Eastern Cape to lay his body to rest. A man who was watching the motorcade saw another man shedding a tear. He asked the crying man if he had personally known the deceased president.

The weeping man responded “he knew me”. I daresay that’s the kind of a leader South Africa needs.

Lolonga Tali is a regular contributor to the Daily Dispatch and works in the heritage sector

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