Judging Leadership on criteria that matters – Mandela was a true leader – Mbeki not

Biznews blogger Alexx Zarr returns to the subject of Leadership. In this, his second in a series, he compares the actions and words of Nelson Mandela and his successor Thabo Mbeki against his criteria for authentic leadership. Madiba comes through with flying colours. Mbeki not. Despite the way many have recently been trying to position the latter. – AH

Thabo Mbeki - doesn't qualify on Zarr's strict Leadership test.
Thabo Mbeki – doesn’t qualify on Zarr’s strict Leadership test. Mandela does.

By Alexx Zarr*

I paused in my leadership discussion during the course of the past week.  However, while mine has been momentarily silent, there have been other conversations about leadership.

Since the inexorable news broke last Thursday that Mr Mandela has passed on, there has been considerable use of the term ‘leadership’ in a variety of contexts, by a diversity of opinionistas, commentators, politicians and others.  Almost without exception, Mr Nelson Mandela is glorified as the epitome of an outstanding and exemplary leader.

The phraseology is not simply of a person who headed a movement, an organisation and a government, but who was also a leader.  Here was a moral compass that guided South Africa towards all that was good and honourable.  He was a person who was prepared to sacrifice; his life, personal dreams, family, whatever it took, for the collective good, for what was considered right.  The subtext of ‘right’ is that it is what history declares is right.  There is no hint that this form of right was cheap, subjective, or selfish.  There is no sense that there was ever any form of rent-seeking present in Mr Mandela’s leadership.

Mr Mandela’s leadership has also been juxtaposed with other people who hold national power-positions.  It is normal to compare people who happen to hold the same positions over time.  It is thus inevitable that the various ANC presidents are lined up for relative reflection.  Let us hear what has been said.

Some folk who have been rather dormant on the national stage, have arisen from their armchairs or travels to offer opinions on leadership.  Mr Thabo Mbeki had the following to say at a Mandela memorial event:  “It will come back to the quality of leadership.  This struggle that we face now is more complicated.  It is even difficult to see who is an enemy.  I think because we are dealing with this complex situation, that’s when we need to raise the level of leadership.  Surely we can’t lower the level of leadership.”

Former President Mbeki seems to be lamenting the current state of ‘leadership’, assuming that holding some kind of office equates to leadership.  He then appears to suggest that the current leadership (office-bearer) is so flawed, that there is confusion between possible enemies, and their own side.  Furthermore, a more complex situation requires even more profound leadership, rather than less.

So, based on my last leadership offering, let us test what Mr Mbeki is saying about leadership, and of whom he says it.

In the previous edition of Leadership 101, I defined leadership as, a social practice that exercises influence over oneself and others to harness their maximum effort (or contribution) to achieve an agreed collective outcome, that benefits society.

I also set out concepts that I think are confused with leadership.  It is not something inherited, or being a boss.  It has nothing to do with designation, rank or title.  It is not management, or the exercise of any form of coercive power.  Neither is it to do with personal attributes.

So, what is leadership then?  It is a social practice.  It is an inter-human behaviour.  It is about influencing other people to sufficiently believe in some cause or outcome that they willingly rally to that objective.  One exercises influence through personal behaviours that articulate the cause, the dream, the objective, or a desired outcome.  The core of influence is the nexus between self and behaviour.  There is no greater force of influence than leading by example.  There can be no effective leadership without first corralling self; all else follows.

Leadership extracts the best from the collective, which are both the leader and their fellow participants.  It is like a music conductor; they bring together the various instruments into the music at the right times, shifting tones and intensities to render the most pleasing sounds.  The conductor is nothing without the other musicians; without the conductor, they are not ‘in-concert’.

Lastly, but certainly not least, the outcome must be for the common good.  Leadership, on the whole, is not a zero-sum game, it is not destructive, it stands the test of history.  Leadership cannot be anti-social.

Does Mr Mandela stand the test of my definition of leadership?  I reckon he showed early on that he had command of his own being.  He sided with right, and was willing to die for it.  From that personal position, he was able to project fundamental principles into the various collectives he sought to influence.  These ranged from the movement he was part of, to the country at large and the worldwide community.  While fellow travellers may have had other ideas about what outcome they desired, Mr Mandela stayed firm to the principles he espoused at his trial.

Mr Mandela was a leader, not because of his aristocracy, or position, or intellect, but because of his leadership behaviour.

Back to Mr Mbeki’s comments, for a moment.  He seems to suggest that current office-bearers are poor leaders; that they do not exercise (good) leadership.  However, history is not kind to Mr Mbeki, as leader, either.  Sadly, he was president, but no leader.

Even now, he is divisive.  While he aims barbs at others, his statement, quoted above, contains a phrase that begs deciphering.  He states, “It is even difficult to see who is an enemy.”  This is not the language of Mr Mandela.  This is not productive imagery in a country beset with schisms of all kinds; one that needs on-going healing.  Such phraseology creates metaphors evoking ‘us and them’, ‘good and bad’, ‘the party vs. others’, ‘insiders and outsiders’ – choose what you will.  Perhaps we do not all care to be in a cuddly huddle with everyone else all the time, but it is better to dream for that, than the opposite.

Mr Mbeki, you are a man of words, a self-declared intellectual.  You choose your words too poorly to exercise leadership.

How about the man Mr Mbeki seems to be aiming at; the current president?  Sometimes it is best for silence to be the judge.  Too many pages are penned cataloguing this matter.

However, our pipe-smoking former president did have a useful advisory.  I would like to believe that most of us yearn for a person who will rise up and exercise leadership.  We need someone who can overcome their own shortcomings, who can sketch a picture for us to dream of, and who can influence us all to give it our best shot.

Either we shall achieve a better life for all, or we will fail the dream of Mr Mandela.

* Alexx lives in and works from Centurion.  He has degrees in economics, politics and strategic studies.  In the recent past he has been managing director of a mutual fund company, a pseudo banker managing wealth and transactional products and currently runs a specialist research and consulting entity.  Before that he did a stint at National Treasury and at a Constitutional entity, managing its research division. He has travelled extensively, studied offshore and done a stint of work for the IMF.  More than most things he loves to mountain bike, let his dogs walk him and write – just write.