On leadership: the importance of conviction, authenticity and luck

It was a massive privilege to hear former South African president, F.W. de Klerk, speak at an Ashridge event yesterday.

While I can’t faithfully recreate the entire conversation that took place with him and Dr Nkosana Moyo (founder and executive chair of the Mandela Institute for Development Studies), I can at least attempt to capture a few of the insights from my hastily scribbled notes…

#1 – The task of a leader is to lead

Axiomatic? Maybe, but you could easily argue that many of today’s ‘leaders’ (in the political sphere especially) aren’t leaders at all. The conviction politician has been largely replaced by the career politician, slavishly pursuing what’s popular, as opposed to a clear and immutable higher purpose.

That’s certainly not an accusation you could level at Mr de Klerk, whose conviction that South Africa “must totally abandon separateness and embrace togetherness” was unwavering, even in the face of multiple bi-election losses in ’92 that could easily have encouraged him to change tack.

That same conviction saw bold action – the package of measures in Feb 1990, for example, that saw the unbanning of the ANC military wing, lifting the state of emergency, and releasing all high-profile political prisoners – in a concerted effort to remove all conceivable hurdles to negotiation on South Africa’s political future in one fell swoop.

#2 – Modernisation ≠ Westernisation

Countries like the US and the UK make a huge mistake in attempting to export Western DemocracyTM to other parts of the world. Likewise, people in the developing world make a mistake in equating modernisation with westernisation.

What is still needed in Africa, agreed both Dr Moyo and Mr de Klerk, is a much clearer sense of what leadership and democracy mean within the specific context of African culture.

There is a rich and proud tradition of democracy in Africa – as illustrated by Nelson Mandela’s description of tribal meetings in Long Walk to Freedom – and the authenticity of leadership, and systems of government, depend on being true to these roots.

#3 – Don’t discount the importance of luck

Last but not least, Mr de Klerk was quick to acknowledge the incredibly important role of good fortune in his time as president.

Whether in the shape of external forces, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, or internal ones, like the split within the National Party* (one that effectively liberated moderates to embark on the process of dismantling apartheid), there was a convergence of circumstances that helped to create the momentum for change in South Africa.


* In an interesting parallel to this, Mr de Klerk predicted that we might see a similar split in the ANC, perhaps as soon as within the next five years.

Just as ultra-conservatives split from the National Party, he believes that socialist/communist factions within the ANC will split to form their own workers’ party, in the process probably merging with Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters, who polled 6% of the vote in the recent general election.

Similarly liberating moderates within the ANC – those who believe in “capitalism with a friendly face” – he suspects that this will usher in a new era of coalition politics in South Africa.


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