We own our destination

2017-11-26 00:00
Thuli Madonsela (Amanda Khoza, News24)

Thuli Madonsela (Amanda Khoza, News24)

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Grown-ups, even those at an advanced age, can be starry-eyed world changers with an optimism usually found among those in their teens or early 20s. A year ago, I would never have made or readily accepted this assertion.

I have no doubt that to change world, you need a childlike optimism and the audacity to believe you can achieve things that appear impossible. My participation in the year-long Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative sealed my belief that grown ups can indeed have a childlike optimism.

It was supremely energising to listen to my colleagues at our final symposium as they presented five-minute executive summaries of the projects they were setting out to implement in their quest to make this world a better place. The energy in the room could supply electricity to a mega city for years and possibly obviate the need for nuclear energy.

The underlying philosophy of the fellowship is purpose-driven leadership. The Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative gives leaders who have reached the pinnacle of their careers an opportunity to reflect on what they have learnt at the helm of their organisations, explore new horizons and set the direction for their next phase of leading with a view to making a lasting difference.

All the projects were amazing and I have no doubt that they will change the world regardless of how small their impact may be. I’m one of those who believes that a single step in the right direction is better than nothing or a step in the wrong direction. While the areas of intervention were so vast and worthy – from environmental protection, legal empowerment of the poor and social justice to food security, rural development, health and education – there were a few that left an indelible mark in me.

I would never imagine that the freedom to smile was an equality or social justice issue. When our colleague Faye told us about her quest to fix poor peoples’ damaged teeth so that they could smile with dignity and confidence, there was no mistaking the serious social justice dimension. When Faye shared her insights, it all made sense. That people with severely damaged teeth who can’t afford surgery for chronic cases are considered aesthetically unfit by businesses to serve seems true. We never see them as front-line service workers. Even more sad were Faye’s case studies of death because of infections spread due to lack of prompt dental care.

My personal favourite was John Ritter’s project to combat post-career depression by giving retired business leaders a renewed sense of purpose by enrolling them as mentors to younger leaders. I particularly liked this because we could leverage a similar initiative in South Africa for our unemployed graduate enterprise empowerment initiative under the Enterprising Communities Project of the Thuma Foundation.

Social justice

Before the fellowship, I would not have thought it possible that I’d see a rich businessperson whose quest was early childhood development in underprivileged communities. This is the crusade Tom Hedrick, a top corporate honcho, is embarking on because he believes everyone deserves a fair start in life.

The project is similar to that run by our colleague Kim Kispert, a retired IBM vice-president. Her project also focuses on empowering her community to work collectively to give children and young people a fair start in life.

What I found amazing was that virtually all the projects addressed some aspect of social justice. This includes my own project, the M-Plan For Social Justice, which is borrowed from the post-World War 2 Marshal Plan that saw to the speedy recovery of European economies and eradication of poverty therein. However, the “M” in this case stands for Mosa, in honour of Palesa Mosa, whose arrest as a 13-year-old pupil on June 16 1976, followed by detention without trial and torture, robbed her of education and an ability to realise her human potential. The M-Plan’s preliminary framework was crafted in August by women gathered at a multigenerational democracy dialogue at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, where the young Mosa and others were detained. The plan seeks to leverage civil society participation, technology and data to accelerate socioeconomic inclusion, particularly targeting the reduction of poverty and inequality. Essentially, the quest is to complete the constitutional commitment to heal the divisions of the past.

I must say, the beauty of listening to my colleagues, including two fellow South Africans Futhi Mtoba and Anne Pratt, was not limited to the world-changing potency of the presentations, it was witnessing the sense of purpose, dignity and joy among all. That is one of the key achievements as an innovative education phase.

It is said that the right to work is important because work gives people a sense of purpose, a community, a sense of belonging and a degree of health benefits that come with waking up every day and stretching your body to go somewhere.

The Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative goes beyond the general benefits of work for people seeking a fresh start at the end of a successful career, it inculcates a purpose-driven leadership paradigm. It helps participants transcend viewing major societal challenges such as current global and domestic social, economic, environmental and political wrongs as catastrophes they are victims of, but rather as opportunities for leadership niches for them.

With leaders like that, we don’t risk being forced to live for more than 30 years under a tyrannical leader, as Zimbabweans did. Witnessing Zimbabweans finally asking their president of 37 years to leave with grace as we held our final symposium was remarkable. In a way, this buttresses the truth that the world is changed by those who do not confuse difficult with impossible.

Lead decisively

As a side note, I found the original Zanu-PF charges interesting because each of those charges can be used by the ANC against its president if it so wishes. Hopefully, it wont take 37 years for South Africa to re-anchor itself in the constitutional democracy it committed itself to under the leadership of Oliver Tambo, who handed the baton over to Nelson Mandela.

It so happens that Mandela is one of the leadership icons and the epitome of purpose-driven leadership, according to Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative co-founder and director Moss Kanter. In her best-selling book Confidence, Kanter lauds Mandela for fostering leadership. I have previously mentioned how she singles out Mandela as a confidence-building leader with the power to turn a losing streak into a winning streak.

That South Africa is going through a major losing streak is undoubted. That evidence in the public domain points to our president being both part of the problem and unable to turn our losing streak into a winning streak is also without doubt. The question is, do we moan or lead purposefully to get ourselves as a nation out of the losing streak?

My lecture at Georgetown University, titled Leading Purposefully in Time of Turbulence, Lessons from Leadership Icon Oliver Tambo, called upon South Africans to lead.

Like the paradigm inculcated in the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative programme, Tambo never moaned and never blamed. He purposefully and resolutely led to achieve the change he yearned for. He was also exemplary regarding the behaviour required in the world he sought to build. More interestingly to me, he also took steps to advance social justice for his cadres in terms of access to education and related developmental opportunities while working for broader systemic change.

It would be nice if all leaders at advanced stages of life or at the pinnacle of their careers could get an opportunity to find their niche and support network to lead purposefully. Unfortunately, there are only about 50 positions available a year for fellows and spouses for the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative. Perhaps local universities should start similar initiatives.

Whatever the case, it is our time to lead decisively to achieve the South Africa and world of our dreams.

Madonsela is founder and chief patron of the Thuma Foundation, a Harvard Advanced Leadership Fellow and the former Public Protector

Read more on:    thuli madonsela  |  leadership

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