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Thought Thursdays
Moving from academic success to significance in praxis


When we come to the end of an academic year, the highlight events are the award ceremonies all across Africa. It is not only required of someone in my role to speak on these occasions, but I also choose to speak and to seize the opportunity to express my joy at being in the presence of another cohort of six thousand leaders ready to return to society and contribute. At these events, I reflect on some meaningful message I choose to impart, as well as on management development systems as a whole – focusing especially on the system we designed to equip leaders in their quest for greatness in all they do.

When someone in Africa accepts the role of manager-leader, she is immediately confronted with an ethical question emanating from society: So now, what kind of Africa do you choose to help build with all the continent’s resources available to you? Society offers us an opportunity for greatness or mediocrity. The choice is ours. What kind of Africa is it exactly that society wants from its managers and leaders? It is a wish most of us have in common, namely a sustainable society where – 
  • all its peoples seriously consider a quality life, i.e. where we all feel safe; we have enough food on our table; we hear the happy laughter of our children; our young people have access to excellent education; our elderly are cared for; our dedicated civil servants diligently deliver the services they promised; and where responsible entrepreneurs have opportunities and flourish in an environment conducive to achievement. 
  • there is fairness for all. 
  • all citizens care for the environment and all stakeholders respect the natural constraints we have, diligently guarding the well we all drink from.

When this ethos and vision is shared among a critical mass of our managers and leaders, they have the best chance to shape and lead the social, economic and environmental landscape so that it contributes towards this sustainable future. For this, society requires something beyond an ordinary mind: we need leadership minds that are vastly different from ordinary minds. 

As a school for management development, we are confronted with the same ethical question and more: how do we use our convening power to assist this migration from ordinary to leadership minds and how do we equip these transformed leaders to dominate the social, economic and environmental landscape with a sustainable and responsible set of behaviours? Our learning content and learning processes ought to be constantly tested against this ideal future, as a desired societal outcome and the actual behaviour of those managers in praxis.

When we design learning interventions with this ultimate endgame in mind, we make an effort to develop the horizontal skills in order to make the most of the participating brilliant minds and all the creative skills and tools needed to operate out there in praxis. That however does not suffice. To really optimise the leadership mind, we must (as Koestenbaum so elegantly described) also develop the vertical needs of leaders. At the highest point we work with the character and values of the leader. Peter Koestenbaum states: “A brilliant strategy is implemented by a strong character, not the other way around”. When leaders are at the deep end, they do not avoid, but they do the difficult work, bearing the pain that so many leaders have to suffer in dealing with issues that constrain them to become great leaders, guiding them to discover new ways of being, doing and knowing.
At this time of year, we reflect on these things and whether the oath to greatness (i.e. to relinquish mediocrity forever) is indeed bearing fruit for ourselves and for those we teach and develop. We watched the 2016 landscape being marked by weird and strange events, e.g. Brexit, the USA elections, the refugees in Europe, the wars, the events here at home with the most bizarre leadership behaviour imaginable. We see a disillusionment of citizens with politics. We observe a puzzlement with the market: do we have a market economy or a market society? All these things and more confront our leaders in their quest for greatness, while marching towards a sustainable African society.

It is not too difficult for the ordinary mind to get trapped in these events. The leadership mind has another approach. Sir Geoffrey Vickers writes: 

Lobster pots are designed to catch lobsters. A man entering a man-sized lobster pot becomes suspicious of the narrowing tunnel, he would shrink from the drop at the end; and if he fell in, he would recognize the entrance as a possible exit and climb out again – even if he were the shape of a lobster.

A trap is a trap only for creatures which cannot solve the problems that it sets. Man-traps are dangerous only in relation to the limitations on what men can see and value and do. The nature of the trap is a function of the nature of the trapped. To describe either is to imply the other.

I start with the trap, because it is more consciously familiar; we the trapped tend to take our own state of mind for granted – which is partly why we are trapped. With the shape of the trap in our minds, we shall be better able to see the relevance of our limitations and to question those assumptions about ourselves that are most inept to the activity and the experience of being human now.

When I am on stage handing over a certificate and grasp the hand of another leader in a handshake, a pact is sealed: together we strive for greatness in all we do so that we can be wise and courageous in building the kind of Africa we all want.

Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica.

Frik Landman is the CEO of USB Executive Development. 

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