What is your purpose as a leader



What is your purpose as a leader?  Is it not to help your employees love the work they do, to help them find that sweet spot where they are making the world – even the tiny space they occupy – a better place. There are a few points I want to make to (hopefully) illustrate just how far away from true leadership we have gone. In some cases we have found ‘alternatives’ to doing the difficult work of a leader and wrongfully equated them to leadership. Leadership is about people first, second, third and always.

Work-life balance is a luxury leaders can no longer afford

If you are a leader in your organisation and you do not spend time – hours, days even – thinking about your employees then you are sure to miss a crucial opportunity to engage meaningfully when you are with them. When your job wholly depends on the people under you then shouldn’t the majority (all?)of your focus and energy go into these people?

“Of course it should!” is the immediate answer often said with a look of incredulity and insulted surprise that someone would actually ask such a silly question. Well let’s look at your current boss. Do you believe s/he spends time thinking about you outside of work? I’m not talking about a passing thought about work in general, I mean a targeted specific session at home to think about where you are going, what makes you tick, how s/he will use this to make you a better leader. I’m talking about holding conversations in the shower with you in your absence. Plotting potential career paths for you that s/he will later engage you on, not because her/his boss or HR has now said they need a certain position filled but because s/he genuinely feels that you are capable of doing that job and that it fits with both of your ideas of career progression. Thinking about your gaps and the best way to help you close them while having a beer on a Sunday afternoon. Do you believe your boss spends this much time on you? Do you believe s/he should? Do you believe you should? If not, why not? Are you then going to try to do this in the work place? May as well try to do your MBA in your office.

Leadership is a profession and must be treated as one. We spend time and money extending our technical knowledge or working on that assignment or project for the entire weekend. Yet we don’t do the same for our people. If you can spend an entire Saturday evening working on a presentation surely you can spend the same amount of time working on your people.

I can see you saying that’s just ridiculous, when do you spend time with your family? What about work-life balance?! The MD of a company I used to work for said it quite nicely: it doesn’t exist. If you’re looking for a work-life balance you’re doing the wrong job. I would put it slightly differently: work-life balance is a luxury leaders can no longer afford. This is where Conrad’s quote becomes critical for you as a leader. After all, if you don’t like what you are doing how can you be expected to take it home with you? Another behaviour I’ve never understood is the people who are out the door of the office and out the gate religiously at knock-off time, every single day. These people cannot wait to leave the office. How much do you dislike your job that every single day you can’t wait to leave it? Even worse when you are a leader in your organisation! Do you not cherish those after-hours chats with your employees? Catching up on their lives, getting better insights into the people they are. These times when their guard is down and they open to you are gold.

Leadership is work and must be treated as such. It is not a means to an end, a way of delivering results. It is a calling and unfortunately too often people who do not subscribe to it as such are called into it. Your own leadership is to be analysed constantly and constantly improved. If you’re not doing this you’re not in the right game.

Work is love made visible

  • A friend posted this on Facebook (which inspired me to write this post):

“I don’t like work… but I like what is in work – the chance to find yourself. Your own reality – for yourself, not for others – which no other man can ever know.”

It’s a quote by Joseph Conrad. I didn’t know who he was so I looked him up. Fewer professions can provide the sentiments he makes above than writing. Leading people is one of them.

I can honestly say I found myself when I was leading people. I can honestly say I don’t know if I did it well or not but I know I found my own reality. I created it every day with the people I was leading. I don’t know how successful as a leader I was (you can never know this but for your people – the moment you think you can do a self-analysis on your leadership you’re dead in the water; you must strive to do better than your last attempt no matter how successful it was) but I believe I would have been immeasurably less successful had I not enjoyed what I was doing.

So knowing this it only makes sense that I work hard to make sure that I help my employees achieve the same opportunity to find themselves, and create their own reality in the work.

Another friend asked on Facebook (yes sometimes value adding conversations do take place on Facebook!) if it was better to be feared than to be loved as a leader. The answer was instantly clear to me, it is never better to be feared. There is no scenario out there in the known universe where this is the case. Some people confuse fear for respect or, even worse, think it can be applied to get respect. I have found that these people are usually novices at the leadership game; they still have a few bumps and bruises of experience to get through. One of the questions that usually come up at this point is the question on delivery of results. It is here that it becomes apparent that people, on top of confusing fear with respect, also confuse love with weakness. An article in the HBR Blog Network titled What Stops Leaders from Showing Compassion addressed this very question. One of the commenters wrote this which summed it perfectly for me: “At the risk of stating the obvious, the leader without compassion is leaderless. Heart with backbone are quintessential points on the compass of life in whatever endeavour.”

This has to be genuine though. It cannot be an implementation of something that you have been told by a leadership coach. If you do not believe then something has to happen to convince you, a paradigm shift, or you are simply not suitable to be a leader. You have to believe with every bone in your body that your people come first, that if you help them be the best they can be they will deliver the best results they can. And you have to believe all of this will be done with love and compassion and not fear.

“Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.”Kahlil Gibran

I don’t believe there is a better way to say it and something of which your employees must constantly be reminded.

Fear of competition from followers

Finally there is this competition that some ‘leaders’ create with their employees. A fellow blogger perhaps articulates it slightly different here in an article called Causes of Leadership Failure – Fear of Competition from Followers. He suggests here that the reason for this fear, and hence the competition, is a practical one, that the employee will one day take his job or, for private business, become competition to him. He then lists reasons why this fear makes no sense. And I fully agree with his reasons. Where I differ slightly from him are the reasons for the competition in the first place, sure there are those individuals who have that fear that their jobs may be at risks from their subordinates. But in my experience there are usually two types of people who engage in this competition, the ones who have climbed the ladder relatively fast and have set records within the organisation and ones who took an unusually long time to get to where they are and often think others (usually their own employees) must take the same amount of time to get there.

We are all in competition with each other. We want to come first, be the only one to have achieved this, the youngest to have achieved that, the quickest to have risen through the ranks. As leaders, we need to rise above this individualism. Years from now no one will care how fast you rose through the ranks, or how old you were when you promoted.  They will only care what impact you have made in people’s lives and the business. What legacy you have left behind.

Your purpose as a leader to allow, and even help, your subordinates to surpass the standards that you have set and not be envious of them. If they fail the accountability must rest with you as a leader first and then with them.

We all aspire to greatness. We all wish and dream about that moment when we will be pronounced as great leaders. Great leaders know that the standard has been set and if they wish to be pronounced as great leaders then they need to set a new standard. The greatest leaders do not aspire to be great leaders themselves but rather to build great leaders.

Martin Luther King Jr said that “All labour that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” And this is what the greatest leaders seek to achieve and the legacy they wish to leave behind, an uplifting of humanity.




“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main…”

Upon hearing the news I knew immediately my world would never be the same. I had been through enough life changing experiences to know that the decision to make the change better or worse was up to me. Through weeks of denial I alienated myself from those that I loved and those that loved me. This was a very methodical alienation. I seized every opportunity to lose touch with friends and family, to push people away. I never counted on the tenacity our relationships had built within them. I’m glad for this, for had I know or even suspected how far they would go to reach out to me I would have countered their efforts. I would have chosen my words very carefully, aimed them at the most vulnerable spot to inflict maximum damage, kill the spirit so that they gave up on me. When you stop caring about hurting yourself the most difficult things become very easy to do. And when you decide that this was the best way to protect your friends from yourself, well then you’ll go to great lengths to achieve your objective. Self-sacrifice may be a noble thing but it is selfish and may be even evil when it is used for self-preservation.  But they came through for me. All of them. In their own way. Some more subtly than others yet just as impactful. Of course there were those who maximised on the opportunity to drive the stake further in. And for what gain? Who knows, self-vindication perhaps. But these I do not count among friends. And if I ever did I no longer do. They taught me that no man is an island. That I am piece of them and they of me. It is a lesson I am still learning. My nature makes it difficult to accept though I must for I now know that my friends and family have my best interest at heart. They are involved in me and me in them. My death would diminish them as theirs would me. And so does my hurt and theirs. And so must my love and their love.

“As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.” – John Donne

In the darkness there was light and the light was in the darkness

It’s a kind of emptiness. Not having someone to share with. Yet still I wonder. Is it possible to find someone who you will be able to share with as one entity? Where you will not have to split the experience for their benefit? Where you can let go and give yourself to the experience and having her around will enhance it rather than take away from it? I once believed this to be possible.

It is with these feelings and thoughts that I meet her for the first time.

From the moment our eyes lock we want each other. Had we been primates we would have each other right here and now. But civilization gets in the way. We still play the game with hope in our loins more than in our hearts. We share the same space hoping for a hint of the experience to come. Just a whiff of perfume to get us intoxicated with each other. Or a brush of the fingers to send an electric shock coursing through our bodies. Her thoughts are filled with curiosity and interest. What will it be like to be in his arms? His hand on my breast. His other hand lifting my leg. To see his arms flexing as he holds himself up on top of me. My thoughts are non-existence. My senses are on overdrive. All my eyes see are the curves. The curves of her body, the shape of her legs. The thighs and the inverted V they make where they come together. Her waist and her breasts above it. I picture my hands on her waist hoisting her up to my level. My mouth on her breasts. Her beauty slices through my defences like a samurai sword through silk. It’s almost too painful to look at her. To know that soon I will be helpless in her presence. I will lose myself in her smile, drown in her eyes. She has a most perfect face. Her jaw has been constructed to best accommodate what comes above. I could trace the line of her jaw for days and still be amazed by its perfection. Her lips. I once thought I knew perfect lips. These are not as supple as those and they are darker. It is this inviting darkness of the lips that has me licking mine in anticipation. The lines of her smile lead me to the point of her nose. This nose has been sculptured by a Da Vinci and is by far his finest work. Her eyes are dark but they sparkle. The sparkle is for my benefit. And hers. Her eyes smile throughout the night. I see the fantasies they create in her mind. The imagined pleasure.

When I hug her goodbye I breathe her smell in. She presses tight for a second. It lasts a decade and is gone too soon. I could kiss her right now. Push her against the car. Carry her back upstairs when we both get cold from the nakedness. But again civilisation steps in. We are not Neanderthals though we may forget this in the art of love making.

I will see her again tomorrow but it will not be same. Sanity will have reasserted itself. Reality would have reminded us of our other responsibilities.

We are more careful the second time around as I predicted. We both have a good time with our chaperones. Her thinking that he is a nice guy but she’s not so sure she is willing to give up her comforts for this unknown entity. This man she barely knows. Besides he comes with responsibilities. She doesn’t know if she’s ready for any part of it yet. My once forgotten self-consciousness returns like a dark knight in dull but very real armour. Where last night it was absent today it is whispering doubts in my ear. I wonder if she thinks I’m attractive enough. Maybe if lost some weight. Or if I still had my hair. Or if my cheeks were more average sized. We seem to both mutually agree to have fun and enjoy the day with no awkwardness or expectations or questions. I wonder a few times if I should let my intentions known regardless. I decide against it. We have a great time.

Having a beer later at the bar I sit across from her so that I can get a really good look at her. Drink her features in while sipping on my beer. This may be the last time I see her after all.

I tower over her as I give her a final hug at home. This hug is less open than the first one but it is still filled with wonder, suggestion, a certain desire. I can’t help but imagine myself leaning down to kiss her and her standing on her toes to kiss me back. My hand on her back to help her, my other in her hair, pulling tight enough that has to change her hair the next day. When our lips finally let go I cradle her face in my hands and kiss her again, once, briefly.

I think about these things as I’m driving home. I tell myself it doesn’t have to be the last time I see her. But I have grown too old to lie to myself. I recognise her through the feelings I’m already starting to feel. My carefully cultivated cynicism is no match for my romantic nature. And this is what will make me fall for her as heavily as any of my last four girlfriends. I know if I see her one or two more times I will not be able to help myself. I will fall in love with her and I will dedicate my sleeping and waking hours to making her fall in love with me.

I am not ready for that kind of fall just yet. Not ready for what comes after the fall. Good or bad. There is recovery and taking of stock still to be done.

Religion and Politics: A Dangerous Marriage/Working and Travelling in Africa

Before I deactivated my Facebook account (which is now reactivated :-)) I had quoted one of Stephen King’s characters from The Mist: “As a species we’re fundamentally insane. Put more than two of us in a room, we pick sides and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another. Why do you think we invented politics and religion?”
This is not my quote. This is from a work of fiction. But clearly it is an idea the author has thought about (but does not mean that he believes it). There was a time when it made sense to me. And it still does to a large extent. But I am older and wiser (I hope) and have a slightly better understanding of both religion and politics. They both (need to) exist to bring us together towards a common vision to create a better world than we live in today. Religion brings us together and politics keeps us on the path to achieve our collective vision. And with my better understanding of these concepts is the realisation that they can and sometimes are being used for evil purposes. And so I would rephrase it slightly to read: “As a species we’re fundamentally insane. Put more than two of us in a room and the most insane of us will force us to pick sides and use religion and politics to dream up reasons to kill one another.”
This is a very cynical way of looking at things, but after the attacks in Kenya and Nigeria how much can you really argue against it?

Shoppers leaving the mall with their hands up to show they're not carrying weapons. From DailMail Online.
I wrote before that I had fallen in love with Africa. It is a difficult love. Imagine coming home every day to your wife or your husband knowing there’s a possibility s/he will snap and kill everyone in the house. What would you do, stop coming home? Sleep with your own AK-47 under the mattress? You may think it’s farfetched and ridiculous. But when you get to Nigeria for the first time and you are escorted by armed guards to your hotel, or you arrive in Zanzibar and read about the tourists that had acid thrown at them in the streets, well you begin to wonder. And when 67 people are killed in a relatively cosmopolitan city in Kenya in a shopping mall, people like you and I, then wonder turns to belief.
This is what travelling into Africa has become. Sometimes it’s not as easy as divorcing your spouse and not coming home. Sometimes you love them too much to leave them.
And what if love is not enough? Well, the answer to that is it has to be enough. Some of us may have the luxury of the option to live somewhere else. The rest of us must recognise that not coming home is not an option, that Africa needs us as much as we need her. But first we must accept our fundamental insanity and understand how easily religion and politics can be manipulated to exploit that very insanity within us.
I love my country and I will continue to nurture my growing love for Africa. Not despite the recent attacks but because of them.


Your employees are still your most important investment

I’m beginning to think that Larry was a small but critical part of my development into a leader. He stands as the symbol for the metamorphosis that I went through while under his tenure. There were surely events that occurred in my earlier life that have been preparing me to be a leader. From my family to high school; sports to varsity. All of these experiences and life lessons cannot be relegated to the back benches in favour of a single period in my life as life changing as that period was. So I conclude that Larry having a massive influence over my life that he did was another cog in the still being built wheel. If there are three central cogs that keep this wheel turning, and if my father is one, my high school rugby coach (who was also the superintendent in the boarding house) is another, then Larry would be a third. Perhaps there are more than three of these cogs, maybe there are six or ten. What’s relevant right now is that there is more than one.

Larry has been a yard stick for every manager that came after him. Most have fallen short. Some have brought different perspective to how I view leadership and in that way have helped me grow as a leader. Others have shown me how not to be a leader. And I have taken their lesson to heart.

Sensitivity analysis is defined in the Business Dictionary as: simulation analysis in which key quantitative assumptions and computations (underlying a decision, estimate, or project) are changed systematically to assess their effect on the final outcome. So the question is how many of us as newly employed graduates do a sensitivity analysis to determine which variable skills or competencies is to be changed systematically and by how much to deliver the final outcome of the best leader? Or better yet, how many of our managers have determined this? How many are capable of determining this?

What I now appreciate is that Larry understood that my learning curve for skills would take care of itself and that if it didn’t hard work would do it. He also understood that he would have to take care of the competencies. You can teach (almost) anyone how to use SAP, make washing powder, run a boiler, run payroll, test a sample in the lab and so on. It’s a bit more difficult to teach someone how to talk to people, how to discipline people, and how to bring a team together. It gets increasingly difficult when their whole lives have been a lesson in the exact opposite. But it can be done. This is the first thing a manager needs to understand if he or she has any hope of being a good leader.

So what happens when you have been through this for a few years, and you have grown your leadership potential and you now have people reporting to you? The simple answer is that you apply the same principles that have helped you get to where you are physically and emotionally. But it’s not that simple is it? The position that you are in now means that you have to contend with a higher level of management, with different priorities. Your new manager is now asking you to forget about people and focus on results. Less time is given to building these competencies and all the focus is put on skills. To be fair not all of this can be put on the new manager. It is expected that at a higher level the focus will shift to profit a lot more than at a lower level. When the world is going through a recession you can also expect an organisation to shift its focus to immediate delivery of results. What I don’t understand is that even after people have been doing business for over two thousand years they still don’t understand that human capital is the biggest investment they have and that growing it will ensure the security of the future of the organisation.

Burning platforms are here to stay. The days of cash cows are numbered if not yet quite over. Resources are scarce and getting less. There is competition for both your consumers and your talent. Cash flow has become critical over the security of stock, while ensuring that your customers are serviced on time and in full. Does all this pressure translate to: we will no longer put as much effort in building leaders but will expect results based on the investment we have made on skills and experience? I believe that the message must be that we need to put conscious effort behind building (leadership) capability and not rely on managers to do this by themselves. The new business pressure does not mean an abandonment of what we know works to create new leaders but rather a change in the speed with which this is done focussing on impact and not process.

Larry had a natural talent for it. Not every manager does. They will have to be trained how to do this while they themselves are being grown as leaders. If this is not done there will come a time in the future when organisations realise that they have run out of leaders. This will be a great time for recruitment specialists and head hunters but with consequences that some organisations cannot afford. It is happening in some companies already. They have exhausted their pipeline for leaders and are having to recruit outside. They have failed to realise that human capital and not machinery is the priority and therefore have no plans to grow this investment in the future. They have run out of leaders and are now buying them from other organisations. And where does that leave the people already within the organisation who would have been looking to be given that opportunity? Besides a mass exodus you will have people that are disillusioned (which ultimately leads to them leaving anyway); you will create a culture where people believe they can only get to a certain level within the organisation before looking elsewhere but most important of all is that you start robbing the community and the country of a much needed influx of great leaders.

My Last Meal in Zanzibar

My food has arrived and after the first fork of tuna the world around me seems to fade out of existence. The squid and passion fruit salad I had as a starter was an explosion of flavour in my mouth. This. This is something else entirely. This is a feeling that goes so deep and touches so many parts of your being it’s difficult to describe. It’s an intense orgasm of taste. I don’t want it to end.

I finish my food and drink from my forgotten glass of shiraz-grenache.

My dessert arrives. Its all sugar and small amagwinya. I dispense with the cutlery and use my hands. The couple next to me get their food. They look like models here on honeymoon. Even the smell of tobacco from their smoke is fine. It adds to the atmosphere. Enhances it somehow.

I finish my dessert and my wine and ask for a black coffee. It’s time to go home.


Such a happy person! Shes having the time of her life. I suspect she does this most times. Have the time of her life. The joy at the expectation of her dessert was wonderful to watch :-). And her running commentary as she eats! “Oh, is this the chef?” she pipes up. It is indeed the chef. And as he heads over to their table she starts clapping. Happiness all around. 

She laughs from the next table and I remember her happiness. Perhaps now I understand it better? They’re getting ready to leave. Her son, who is also the husband takes after his mother. He is making jokes as he stands and stretches. Having dinner on the floor when you’re pushing what must be fifty cannot be easy. As they put their shoes on I tell him what’s been on my mind. They’re the happiest family I have ever met. He smiles, tells the waiter asante and takes his wife’s hand.

They walk down the stairs, following his mother. Pole pole.