The triumphs and pitfalls of leadership

2011-03-19 09:12

Debora Spar
(president of Barnard College)

Leadership is a very ambiguous term.

Everybody thinks leadership is a good thing, yet it’s not necessarily clear what leadership is or how you go about getting it.

How do you know when you have it? How do you ­develop it? How do you see it?

In my job as president of Barnard, I spent a lot of time thinking about issues of women and leadership, and in particular about how we can ­educate young women to recognise their own leadership potential and to ­acquire the skills and experiences they will need in order to lead throughout their lives in whatever ­careers they pursue.

Women – and men – learn by ­example.

When they think about their own leadership they want to hear from other women and they want to learn their stories.

So I’ve asked four incredible leaders from across a wide range of sectors an ­impossible question: “Tell us how you did it in five minutes or less.”

Aloisea Inyumba (senator in Rwanda’s parliament)

What I am today can be attributed to the history of the Rwandan people and our reparation process.

I was the first minister of family and social ­affairs, and to appreciate the responsibility I’ve held in my life, you need to understand what we inherited as a country.

In 1994, there was genocide in Rwanda and the social, political and cultural fabric was down. Family structures changed.

About 36% of our households were led by women. The orphan population was about one million, and I was in charge of that responsibility.

In the early years, I would also just cry with the women. We didn’t know how to go about it, but we knew we had to make things happen.

And so, despite the difficulties we inherited, I am proud to tell you that today Rwanda is stable, peaceful, ­secure and the women are providing leadership.

We’ve got 56% women representation in our parliament. And it’s not just about numbers.

The women who hold leadership in our parliament are leading strategic standing committees for the budget and the economy.

We’ve initiated legal reforms on discrimination and protection of women, we’ve worked on gender-based violence, we’ve initiated small micro-credit programmes for rural women.

There has been a paradigm shift. There’s a new thinking and ­belief that the women at national and local levels can make things happen.

Gill Marcus (South ­African Reserve Bank governor)

I think [women in leadership] get there because other people put them there. It’s the amount of time, respect and engagement that you have with others.

And that is why those of us in the positions we’re in today have a responsibility to put back into others because people took time with us.

Why do we assume that if women are in positions, they’re going to actually be progressive? They’re part of the population. You have progressive women, and women who are not ­progressive.

You have women who lead in very unpleasant ways.

It’s personal leadership that ­matters.

And if you do not behave ­appropriately, it should be taken away.

Then you have positional ­leadership, like the position as ­governor of the reserve bank.

I’m a temporary occupant and the extent to which I stay there depends on how well I do and whose interests I serve.

It’s an appointment that comes with huge responsibility and people get confused between the trappings, the authority of the ­position, and themselves.

So the best leadership comes when the personal and the positional come together in a way that is in the interest of the greater good and is not about personal interest.

We also need to recognise that there’s bad ­leadership, which isn’t often visible.

We’re out of the recession but we’re certainly not out of a crisis, and the ability to get out of it depends on what we’re going to do.

Part of what we have to do is question the things that we have been standing for ­because what we have been standing for in the world today is greed.

The current generation has it much harder than we did because the ­challenges they face are much bigger and harder to resolve.

Our societies are much more ­complex and leadership has to get back to the basics: Who are we? What do we stand for? We need to be judged not by what we say but by what we do.

Yvonne Mokgoro (former Constitutional Court judge and chairperson of the South ­African Law Reform Commission)

As a Constitutional Court judge I had an enormous responsibility, which I had to exercise collectively with my colleagues.

We owed it to the people of this country and to ­democracies across the world to do it just right.

I was one of nine children of working-class parents who were first-generation high school graduates.

I was the first in my family to obtain a university degree.

I mention my family background because there’s a perception that when you come from a poor background, nothing is ­possible and everything has to be handed to you.

It’s not the case.

Hard work, knowing what you want, knowing that you have a ­responsibility to change the status quo and taking every opportunity to do so is essential.

After starting as a defence lawyer, I went to teach at a university.

I knew I had a responsibility to train good prosecutors.

I wanted to be an ­academic and argue about change with our new Constitution from ­outside.

But some people had other ideas and nominated me to be ­appointed to the Constitutional Court, and I did so very reluctantly­ ­because I enjoyed being an academic.

The opportunity for change at the Constitutional Court was immense because every case changes not only individual lives but the lives of many.

We need to make principle changes real in the lives of everyone.

The huge gap between ultra-rich and abject poor is too huge for a country with such a beautiful constitution.

Mamphela Ramphele (academic, activist and former senior director of the World Bank)

Turning challenges into opportunities starts with understanding that the personal, the professional and the political have to cohere in our ­everyday lives.

You cannot claim to have integrity and then leave your ­integrity at the door and pick it up when you go home.

I come from big-hearted stock. My great-grandma, who was totally illiterate, brought us up. Her daughter, my father’s mother, was also illiterate.

My mother’s mother, my namesake, was a teacher. She couldn’t sit with people who couldn’t read or write so she started teaching people.

My mother was a teacher, a wife, and a mother. She was tough but wonderful. These are the women who shaped me. We don’t just drop from the sky.

But I was also shaped by a freedom struggle where we had no role models to follow.

We had to create spaces for dialogue, not only about the struggle for freedom from apartheid but also with how to make the “three Ps” come together.

 We had to ask: “How do you define yourself as black in a white, ­racist environment?”

So my generation had to question what we had inherited and what we would leave behind.

Today, we see four women willingly marrying themselves off to the same man in the name of culture, and we see men raping babies in the home without a single women’s organisation challenging or talking about it.

And so we sit on a continent of ­contradictions: rich in natural ­resources and people, yet under­developed; a continent where ­the freedom fighters of yesterday are the tyrants of today;

a continent with a very young, passionate and talented population allowing aging autocrats to mess up their societies.

We are a continent dying for value-based ­leaders


Debora Spar
It’s easy to be against things and harder to be for things.

I think it’s harder to be clear in terms of what to fight for rather than what to fight against.

So what can we say to urge the next generation to keep fighting? What should they be fighting for?

What should they be inspired to do?

Mamphela Ramphele
The first and most important fight you’re going to have is with yourself – to define yourself and be true to your inner voice.

Once you do that, you are unstoppable because you’ll be clear about the values that define what you do, how you relate to people and what your bottom lines are.

So when choosing a career, a ­partner or a political stance, make sure you don’t choose one that ­conflicts with those values.

Yvonne Mokgoro
People say it’s more difficult for the younger generation who were not personally affected by apartheid to know what they should be fighting for.

But those who were personally ­affected fought for a principle.

And principle has to be integral to our lives.

You don’t have to be affected personally to have convictions and to fight for the courage of your ­convictions.

Gill Marcus
All of us have to treat people with ­respect and dignity.

We all know that it hurts to feel disregarded, looked down on and be treated without ­dignity.

Black women [who are a majority] are going to have it ten times harder.

Don’t ask for it to be fair because it’s not going to be. You need to do better so that no one can question your ­capacity, your professionalism, your technical knowledge and your ability to deal with issues.

Debora Spar
Do women lead differently? T

here are progressive women, non-progressive women, good women and women who are less good.

But are there generalisations we might make about how women behave when they are in leadership positions?

Aloisea Inyumba
Looking at the critical mass of ­women in leadership today, I’d say that something is happening and changing.

At a national and policy level, they come with lots of expertise and can unleash their potential.

Women who are given a platform for the first time are often more aware of grassroots issues and often ­contribute more than men.

Yvonne Mokgoro
The good thing about women in ­leadership is that women are not afraid to express themselves or to bring their own experiences and ­perspectives into decision-making.

To make those perspectives believable, they must be based on ­knowledge, and knowledge takes hard work.

It wasn’t enough having women as part of the Constitutional Court. You had work and it was hard work.

I have never worked so hard in all my life.

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.