Leadership – What exactly is it?

Nelson MandelaNelson Mandela

“What is leadership?”  This question has been asked over and over by every generation, by people in all stages of life, from various economic levels, religious persuasions and political views.

It is a question we seem to ask more when we look around and question the actions of leaders in positions of influence. It is a question we are asking now in South Africa as we negotiate a very difficult discourse politically and economically.

As a father of a beautiful one-year-old daughter, I wonder if I will be a good father to my daughter, a good leader. I wonder what type of country she will grow up in. What is it that I want her to understand about her community, her country? What are the stories she will tell her kids one day about the South Africa she grew up in? Is it one of opportunity? One of hope? One of a people living out their purpose? Or one of turmoil and disconnect? I realise more and more that it is the picture I choose to see and then show her that will define her definition of community and her definition of leadership.

As I thought more about the topic of leadership, I reflected on some of the good examples scattered through history. The likes of Nelson Mandela, a son of South Africa, who has been recognised as one of the most profound statesmen ever to have lived, who helped South Africa transition peacefully from the oppression of apartheid to a free democratic country; the likes of Jesus, who set the example of servant leadership and changed the course of history by loving people regardless of their status; the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., who challenged the status of equality and whose “I have a dream” speech inspires people to this day; and finally the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, who led India to independence and inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world. What great examples we can choose to learn from. On the other hand, we have some examples of leaders who abused their positions for self-serving agendas. The likes of Hilter, Kim Jong Il,  Idi Amin, Ho Chi Minh, Benito Mussolini and even our current president, Jacob Zuma, to mention just a few. While these are leaders who did not well serve the people they were entrusted to lead, we can still learn from them.

As an entrepreneur, I have the privilege of leading a group of people in the healthcare sector. In my experience, all I did with my business partner was step out into a space that previously few people had been in, and in so doing moved into a position to lead people. People often call themselves leaders even if  nobody is following them. If nobody is following you then all you are doing is taking a walk alone.

Leadership for me is not about a title of CEO, director, chairperson, or boss. It is rather a way of thinking. Leaders think differently. They realise that they have a sphere of influence, or otherwise known as community, and it is in that sphere that they have the ability to influence – whether that sphere be at home, at work, at church, in their community, in their country or even in the world.

We have been fooled to think that leadership is a title or position at the top. We have been fooled into thinking that not everyone has the ability to be a leader. I am of the opinion that leadership is not this abstract evasive quality that only a few people have been gifted with. I believe that, just like other skills, we can learn it and develop it.

We were not all born with the skill of being able to dress ourselves. We learnt this skill by watching our parents do it and then learnt to do it for ourselves. Granted, some people dress a lot better than others – but we all walk around with clothes on.

Leadership is something you can learn to do. At first, it may require us to watch some people who lead and to learn from them. Learn what they do well and what they don’t do well, and soon we will be able to lead in small ways in our own sphere of influence.  Some will be better than others, but I don’t believe we were all designed to just be followers. We were designed as humans to conquer and lead in the spaces we find ourselves influencing.

In my opinion, one of the most important characteristics of a good leader is their ability to learn from as many opportunities and people as possible. Isaac Newton said “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”

Leaders understand the power of the mind and when we know better it leads to us doing better. The more you are open to learning, the more you are able to speak about things that you previously were not able to, thereby increasing your sphere of influence. Leaders know that being able to be part of the conversation is the first step to influencing the outcome of the conversation.

Far too often, as citizens, we leave the discussions – and ultimately the decisions – to the people in leadership. If we realize our power to change the narrative by being part of the conversation, we will feel compelled to participate more in building this nation.

Marc Anton Naidoo is a father and a businessman

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