Leadership excellence is fundamental to the health and performance of an organisation. Leadership development, however, in most cases is a costly affair. It therefore warrants careful consideration of what organisations hope to achieve when they invest in leadership development. If the point of departure is to help people excel as highly competent individuals, then the criteria for a development program would be different from one where the goal is to grow people to be able to achieve more with and through others – in other words true leadership and teamwork.

Changing perceptions and expectations of leadership
Times change and so do the perceptions and expectations of leadership. If we lived in ancient times when progress meant territorial dominance and hard, hand-fought victories on the battlefield, we would be looking for strong, long, brave and imposing men with some ability to out-think the enemy. If we lived in the industrial age we would be looking for superior scientific minds. As the world became more ordered, specialised and hierarchically structured in governments, institutions, business- and many others types of organisations, technical or functional ability and political astuteness (skilful in tactics and power play) allowed many to rise to the top and thus be recognised as leaders. In this scenario leadership is typically exercised through command and control and concomitant tactics of intimidation and manipulation. Unfortunately, there are far too many examples of leadership and organisations that are stuck in this old mindset.

Instruments of power
Where command and control still delivers results, the people have succumbed to the idea that they are fundamentally either stronger or weaker instruments of power – in some cases they paint themselves powerless for life, in others they believe they are untouchable – and as a result often ruin their personal relationships. They fear and respect power for the sake of power. In the presence of higher powers they do what is required of them. Whoever is higher up in the hierarchy and thus the stronger instrument of power may not be challenged. Where those at the top embrace the culture – and why would they not if they were successful in and beneficiaries of it? – it is more likely than not that whatever choices they make on training and development will, consciously or unconsciously, will further entrench the culture. It does not bode well for the future in a world where optimum learning, flexibility and responsiveness are such important factors for success. Organisations who fail to address the problem will be left behind in a rapidly changing world of increasing personal empowerment. Lesser and lesser people respect power just for the sake of power. A leader of the future needs to earn respect, most of all through his character and respect for others.

The cost
The cost when organisations, and more specifically the leadership, are ill-aligned with societal changes is immeasurably high. Just think about the cost when disinterested and lethargic employees withhold critical information in their response to the dictatorial belittling style of a manager. Nowadays those employees who are not intrinsically motivated and who are prepared to submissively and passively sit out their careers for the sake of a salary cheque are difficult and expensive to get rid of. The cost of disengagement and unproductivity is rising by the day. The longer we have command and control environments (as it is experienced by the common worker, since it is seldom acknowledged by the leadership), the more disengaged people will become. Progressive organisations, most of all in their understanding of what is required of a modern-day leader, are quickly pulling away from the rest.

The key shift
Who do we regard as good leaders? Who is climbing the ladder to higher positions of authority and power? Who gets the benefit of the doubt when it comes to filling leadership positions? Is it not those with a strong knowledge base as reflected in their academic qualifications and other certificates? Is it not those with technical know-how and management experience? And is it not those who have demonstrated the ability to use their positional power to get quick results? I believe these are the three criteria most people have in mind when they consider candidates for leadership positions. Whoever fits the bill, can be forgiven if he or she feels superior to the rest. The combination of high intellect, know-how, tactical skill and a robust ego is a powerful one. It is almost inevitable that the leadership challenge ends up to be no more than a battle of wits and ego’s in budget, planning and strategy sessions. Teamwork, the key to success, suffers as a result.

How would leadership development programs be of any use for the above? If it means another qualification to go on the manager’s CV, more ideas, theories, models and arguments for the meeting room, and perhaps some insights that could improve personal effectiveness, then it will fit the requirement well. But the question that needs to be asked above all is: what is the value for the organisation as a whole? What is the positive influence on those who work with the leader, their morale, energy, focus, productivity, willingness to take responsibility, innovativeness, and own leadership development? What are the positive changes that others see in terms of the manager’s willingness to sacrifice for the cause, openness to feedback, team-orientation, his/her courage to name the real issues that prevent growth in the organisation, and work towards much needed transformation?

Culture eats strategy for lunch

The observation is widespread that in spite of various leadership development initiatives the change that matters most does not take place. And the change that matters most is not new, cleverer strategies, organisational designs, performance management tools or tactics to out-maneuver the opposition, but becoming a healthier organisation. What most people in unhealthy organisations secretly or openly hope to see is a change of heart in their leadership. When a change of heart happens, leaders realise that ‘culture eats strategy for lunch’. Their primary focus becomes the building of a healthy culture in all its many different aspects. It is more the way they do things than the things they do. It is more the quality of character they bring to the organisation than it is the number of things they know and are able to manage. (It is really the exception to the rule if organisations struggle as a direct consequence of the collective lack of knowledge and skills they possess.) And if the focus is on building character, leaders will know that it is inversely proportional to egoism. To use an analogy from the sports world, we know that when we are in agreement that the team showed character it also means they gave their hearts for the team and the greater cause. Poor character is when a team member put his own interests before the team.

In the development of a leader that positively influences the culture, is sensitive to the climate he creates and is interested in an environment conducive to organic growth, it is not knowledge experience and political astuteness that counts, but awareness, ‘inner work’ and context-sensitive leadership responses (not in order but simultaneously, continuously and as a whole).


It is to state the obvious that heightened levels of awareness is needed for real change in mindset, attitude and behaviour. As the emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman points out, self-awareness forms the cornerstone for awareness of others, self-regulation and regulation of inter-personal relationships. As obvious and simple as it seems, it is not a given. As a starting point it requires openness, vulnerability and humility to grow in self-awareness. With the ‘chips’ of knowledge, experience and positional power on one’s shoulder, the tendency is very high to filter out signals that might be damaging to the ego.

The three main areas for awareness are personal disposition and discipline, adaption to and need for change, and relationships. Note that we need others to become more self-aware. Self-awareness often fades in individualistic cultures while ego-mindedness surge. The defining, breakthrough moment that leads to heightened awareness and sets ‘inner work’ in motion, is the understanding that the use of outside help (from family members to friends, colleagues, books, coaches and mentors) is not a sign of weakness but of becoming more authentic and mature.

Inner work

Awareness is one thing but challenging conversations with oneself is another. As all exemplary leaders will testify, the make or break in their growth as leaders were the challenges they put to themselves in response to the challenges they experienced from the outside – be they tragedies, major disappointments, lack of results, personal attacks on them, honest but hurtful feedback or overwhelming responsibility. Sometimes ‘inner work’ demands nothing short of a deep and painful ‘inner journey’ – going back to unresolved issues and unhealed pain of the past. But most of the time it is nothing as dramatic as that, but being intentional and committed to grow as a person and a leader in all the many wonderful facets of being human.

Again, the three broad areas for inner work are personal disposition and discipline, adaption to and need for change, and relationships. And as with awareness, we need others to do the inner work. Sometimes it is encouragement, sometimes it is confrontation, and sometimes it is insights that we didn’t have.

Context-sensitive leadership responses (use of inner wisdom)

Key to leadership and leadership development is the ability to respond appropriately and more wisely to all kinds of situations. That is why awareness and inner work is so important. To think that reading textbooks will help the leader to do the right thing or minimise damage is shortsighted. Leadership in its proper sense is authentic, spontaneous and from within. Whatever knowledge the leader comes across, it needs to be internalised to make any real and meaningful difference. A leader that has grown out of the command and control style learns the critical importance of adjustment. For instance, to be forceful, courageous and bold is important in leadership. But the context determines when it is appropriate and most effective. Bright ideas at the wrong time or with an insensitive presentation in a particular context can be totally counter-productive. The key to becoming wiser is to consciously and intentionally keep all channels of feedback and learning open. When we are open and receptive to our environment and to others our eyes open to the wisdom that we have within but never allowed to guide us. It is at the point where we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, not all-knowing and self-important, that we rise to new levels of understanding and insight.

From a leadership development perspective it is much more effective to explore leadership responses in conversation with others who share the same context (facing their ‘real world’) than listening to leadership theory in a lecture room. It is a common complaint that the good and lofty ideas in the lecture room come to nothing the moment a person is back at the office facing ‘the real world’. It is different when leaders in a development program support each other by sharing their leadership thoughts and questions as they face the challenges before them.

For healthy cultures and organisations I believe that leadership development should facilitate growth in the areas of awareness, ‘inner work’ and context-sensitive leadership responses. As illustrated below, in many cases a shift in thinking about leadership development from an outdated paradigm needs to take place.


old and new

Less is more

The best way to grow an organisational culture for organisational health is to identify the people who have real leadership influence. Who are the top five to fifteen people who

– are clearly passionate about the cause and values of the organisation
– don’t need and don’t rely on the power of position to be able to have significant influence
– genuinely want to become better leaders
– would be keen to play a part in building a strong leadership culture in the organisation

The group can be a mixed group of members in various roles and at different levels of the organisation. Collectively they will however have a much bigger and focused impact than would be the case with large numbers of half-motivated people who participate in a development program under some form of pressure. The rationale behind this approach is twofold: 1) what will most benefit the organisation in the long run (impact on the culture) and 2) what is the best way to build momentum (‘move with the movers’). A 12 to 18 months program that facilitates growth in the above-stated areas and ensures both individual and collective journeys of development will go a long way in building the momentum for culture change.

The example of Nelson Mandela
Late last year the world seemed to come to a standstill to reflect on the remarkable life and example of Nelson Mandela. One of the most striking and powerful illustrations of his leadership influence is that so many people recalled that nobody could turn down his requests – a manager’s dream! It is the best possible illustration of the truth of John Maxwell’s axiom: a leader first gives his heart then asks for a hand. The belief that, particularly business leaders, need to hide their hearts from others (and themselves) in order to take hard, calculated decisions and remain resolute in negotiation, is wrong and in truth undermining of their leadership. Passion for and dedication to the cause is a matter of the heart. Respect for others, irrespective of any personal qualities or value they might have, is a matter of the heart. And so is the will to serve, humility, the willingness to ask forgiveness, care, trust, compassion, moral conviction, resilience and perseverance.
Surely, if we recognise leadership excellence in the person of Nelson Mandela, we should endeavour to look for and grow the qualities he lived and demonstrated. For organisations it is not a call to become more touchy-feely, but to responsibly address the context within which strategy, finance, marketing, technology, and everythings else takes place.

Author : Dr Gerhard van Rensburg