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by Lisa Steingold on June 16, 2014

Responsible Leadership is an Inside Job; Reflections on the Missing Link in African Leadership in the 21st Century.


By Dumisani Magadlela PhD and Keith E. Rolle PhD


Leaders are not born leaders; they are grown and groomed to lead effectively over time. Great leaders have the fire within them to lead in spite of the life-circumstances they find themselves in. Like plants, good leaders require fertile ground to grow well, and regular nurturing and tending is essential in order for them to thrive and mature to lead effectively. The same environment that nurtures good leaders tends to nurture the growth of weeds in equal measure. The two (good plants and weeds) feed on the same circumstances, yet good leaders tend to emerge and thrive. The differentiator is the internal compass, the mind-set, and most important, the ‘heartset’ of the leader. Effective, accountable and value-based leadership is needed across the African continent, and Arica has the essential ingredients for growing more successful leaders to take it to the next level. The creation of leadership excellence is an inside job. Its practical value emerges from within each person serving in a leadership role. Leadership excellence cannot be imposed on anyone. While it can be taught through the school of hard knocks, in business schools, and through leadership development workshops and seminars, its acceptance and execution is an internal personal journey. This paper introduces the concept of Ubuntu Mindsets and Heartset in developing responsible African leadership. The concepts are tools for leadership competence and pre-requisite for transforming African leadership towards delivering development solutions, and leading beyond the African continent.

This paper introduces the concept of leadership mindsets and heartsets among African leaders. It is an exploratory overview of critical leadership issues that have not received sufficient attention, yet they command extensive impact in shaping the decision and approaches that African leaders make. The paper explores what mindsets there are, and proposes that leadership mindsets and heartsets are behaviours and attributes that all credible African leaders in business and in politics need to work on and refine. This will make them more effective and attuned to serve their causes, their people, countries and the rest of the continent. The paper also addresses leaders’ mindsets and heartsets through what the authors call the Be Attitude approach to leadership. The focus of a Be Attitude leader is excellence in self and in others, based on an attitude of being the best one can be, starting from inside self.

The first part of the paper gives a generic context and background to the current leadership challenges. It then introduces concepts of mindsets and heartsets, and how they are used by the authors in the paper. This is followed by a section on elements of African leadership such as Ubuntu, Botho and iSintu2 (humaneness). The discussion on Ubuntu is followed by an integration of mindsets, heartsets and the philosophy of Ubuntu in leadership behaviours and practices. This is followed by a discussion on the case for deep personal reflection by all leaders serving in public roles.

The Current Leadership Context
Globally, technical knowhow and competence are the easier part for any business leader or executive to acquire. It is the experiential grasping of the fluid subject of leading others through challenging and especially highly demanding social contexts such as the South African local government space that demands that public sector managers equip themselves with more than subject matter knowledge.

Leading and managing in business, and possibly in many public and private sector areas around the world, today requires different approaches and mind-frames that leaders do not get from business schools and MBA programmes. One of the potentially powerful tools for leaders in the public service to acquire, nurture, apply and refine, is what we shall call Ubuntu mindsets and heartsets. In order to develop these qualities, leaders need to understand themselves, in order to put their strengths to better use. Effective use of self is one of the primary qualities of transformative leaders.

One of the significant statements on the use of self for leaders was made by Edwin Nevis from the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. He said: “The use of self is defined as the way in which one acts upon one’s observations, values, feelings, and so forth, in order to have effect on the other” (Nevis, 1987: p.125, cited in Ted Tschudy, “An OD Map: The essence of organizational development” in Brenda B. Jones and Michael Brazzel (eds.) The NTL Handbook of Organizational Development and Change: Principles, Practices, and Perspectives. NTL Institute, Pfeiffer).

Understanding Ubuntu, Ubuntu Mindsets and Heartsets
In his book, ‘The Spirit of African Leadership’ Professor Mbigi says that “In indigenous African … traditions, a leader is the ultimate medium or channel of meaning, hope and value” (2005: p.20). Channelling meaning, hope and value appropriately would come in handy in light of service delivery strikes seen across parts of SA in 2008 and 2009. These are critical areas of development especially for many of our local government leaders at the forefront of delivery.

Ubuntu is one of the most resilient African principles and practices that have kept whole communities together in spite of the ‘separating’ influences of imported cultures, values and beliefs, behaviours and socio-business practices3. In the same vein, another South African leader, Bantu Biko summed it up thus:
“What the world can learn from Africa is the focus on humanness and spirituality, to complement [and possibly replace] industrial and western individualism [which goes with avarice and greed]” (Biko, 2004; also in Khoza, 2005).
John Quincy Adams, the second President of the United States once said the following about leadership: ‘If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become

more, you are leader’ (Keith Rolle, 2010: 4).‖The essence of this statement is at the heart of the concept of Ubuntu. Leadership and Ubuntu are related.
Ubuntu is a way of life. It is also a way of being, and is best understood experientially, not theoretically. The critical aspect for public servants to grasp about Ubuntu is that it emphasises our interconnectedness and our humaneness over our individuality. Ubuntu essentially means that each one of us can only effectively exist as fully-functioning human beings when we acknowledge the roles that others play in our lives. Some Nguni languages in Southern Africa describe Ubuntu as meaning: ‘umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’ (isiZulu, meaning: ‘a person is a person through other persons’, or ‘I am because we are’). See also the excerpts from Reuel Khoza in the prologue section above.
A deeper awareness of Ubuntu among African leaders will help grow collective recognition, acknowledgement and appreciation of our common humanity across socially constructed illusions of difference. One of the best explanations of what Ubuntu is, is given by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.

He says:

“Africans have a thing called ‘Ubuntu’. It is about the essence of being human. It is part of the gift that Africa is going to give to the world. It embraces hospitality, caring about others, being willing to go that extra mile for the sake of another. [When we live with Ubuntu…], [we] believe that a person is a person through other persons; that my humanity is caught up and bound up in yours. When I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms, and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in community, in belonging (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in Mbigi, The Spirit of African Leadership, 2005: p.20).
This description essentially defines what an Ubuntu Mindset/Heartset is about. Another legend of Ubuntu leadership in SA is the former President Nelson Mandela. In a foreword to a book by Reuel Khoza, Mandela describes Ubuntu’s relevance in modern business as follows:

“Ubuntu in business can help bridge gaps between people in the workplace, stakeholders within and outside the enterprise, [between] businesses and the broader society in which they operate. As a uniquely African moral philosophy, Ubuntu belongs in business life on this continent, just as it does in our political and social lives. Ubuntu promotes cohabitation: the tolerance and acceptance of all races and creeds in the human household. Every household has an economy and there is the potential for conflict in every household. Ubuntu reminds people in the household that they are all part of the greater human family and that all depend on each other. It promotes peace and understanding” (Source: Nelson Mandela, in Foreword to Reuel Khoza’s book ‘Let Africa Lead’, 2001).

Leadership and Ubuntu Mindsets
There is growing consensus in leadership research and development programmes that successful leadership is now more about managing relationships than wielding power. This is particularly relevant to our developmental state in SA where strongly opposing interest at macro-economic level demand equal attention. Managing relationships effectively requires specialised skills and the ability to connect to others, to communicate with them in a manner that ensures they listen and not feel patronised or bullied. It is about the skills to generate dialogue and not merely make pronouncements. The challenge is for leaders at all levels to realise that the ‘rules of engagement’ have changed. Position alone is not enough to be effective, or to last long in that position or role.

To read the full article please email Dr Dumisani Magadlela of GLA-Africa on




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