Anyone can be a manager; what does it take to be a successful leader?

MATCHA: Taking Up Space, July 2012

MATCHA: Taking Up Space, July 2012 (Photo credit: Asian Art Museum)

By Charlene Smith

An organization that does not innovate is expensive to run, cumbersome to manage, has unhappy staff and dispirited managers.

The fear of innovation tells us something important about a corporate culture, it is led by fear, and fear is most often felt by those inadequately trained for their positions. They are so terrified of making a mistake that they bully their staff, hire poorly skilled staff instead of the best, and over time their departments manage to run effectively but not efficiently, they don’t collapse but nor do they show appreciable growth.  In the end these risk averse scared bullies in management suits create a culture that will see major mistakes and errors emerge as the talent pool of new recruits shows inferior skills. Staff  do everything by the book and not the brain.

Bullying managers need to face serious consequences. Innovation needs to be encouraged and prized, this can range from encouraging staff to come up with small cost-saving measures, to bigger initiatives.

British management trainer Richard Olivier says that, “The danger, once on a slippery slope, is that it is easier to go forward than to go back and reform.” Going forward takes you over the cliff, going back and reforming sees short-term delays but long-term reward. If your company or team is in trouble then retreat, regroup, and reform.

Indian Hindu guru and management consultant Swami Parthasarasy says there are 3 C’s for success: “consistency, concentration, and co-operative endeavor.”

I’ve found that failure is awful until we realize that within it lies the imperatives for change.

These are some strategies for success you may want to meditate on:

–       You are only as good as the people around you.

–       Do not be afraid of hiring people cleverer than you.

–       Experience counts.

–       Give people the ability to fail. In other words, delegate. If staff fail, allow them to remedy it, counsel them or get a more experienced staff member to assist, this is the only way they will learn.

–       Be accountable.

–       Do what everyone else says can’t be done.

–       Don’t employ yes-men or –women; they will agree with everything you say and won’t have the courage to alert you to dangers.

–       Pay attention.

–       Watch trends, know what is coming next.

–       Be respectful.

–       Optimism is contagious.

–       Risk, backed by research and instinct, is essential to progress.

–       Never drink alcohol when you have a meal with co-workers or a client.

–       When all around you are panicking, step back, isolate yourself from the noise, and take time to reflect. Don’t allow yourself to be rush and don’t leap over the cliff with the rest of the herd.

–       Act with compassion. Don’t trash those whose views don’t coincide with yours. Allow them to be, or consider carefully their position and whether there is a positive way you can work with them.

–       Small acts of daily consideration are what sustain relationships, communities, and nations, and keep leaders ethical.

© Committed to Me by Charlene Smith, Oshun, 2009.





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The Leadership Test

Many aspire to it, but few achieve it: leadership.
True leadership that lives beyond us.
Because it is so coveted, yet so elusive, bookshelves sag under the weight of leadership tomes.
After five decades of studying leadership, and what happens when it goes wrong, Professor Robert Rotberg who founded Harvard’s Program on Interstate Conflict and Conflict Resolution at its John F. Kennedy School of Government has a better sense than most of the values real leadership embodies.

Charlene Smith drew up a leadership checklist based on the criteria in his 2012 book Transformative Political Leadership: Making a Difference in the Developing World*.

The higher your score, the more likely you are to be a leader or have strong leadership potential. It could form a barometer to your career advancement, e.g. Do I truly listen to others, or do I interrupt them as they speak?
Do I denigrate my opponents or do I create the capacity for us to work together for the common good of our nation/company?

Use this to evaluate your boss, political representative, or yourself.

1. The Leader (TL) exhibits the same positive, and inspiring conduct in private and public.

2. TL encourages and motivates.

3. The Leader appears to understand the fears and desires of his/her subordinates.

4. TL has a long-term vision – a grand but simple plan – that benefits broader society, not just The Leader.

5. The plan has the buy-in and motivation of TL’s constituents.

6. TL is dedicated to ongoing education among his/her

7. S/he is empathetic, or as Emotional Intelligence guru, Daniel Goleman suggests: “sensing what people are feeling, being able to take their perspective, and cultivating rapport… with a broad diversity of people.”

8. The Leader is intellectually stimulating.

9. One has a sense of hope in his or her presence, or when one reads or hears what s/he says.

10. TL is inclusive, which Professor Rotberg notes: “brings the aggrieved as well as the satisfied into a big tent. It also telegraphs toleration and fairness.”

11. The Leader knows how to listen – he or she spends “perhaps 70 to 80 percent [of their time] listening, taking in, appreciating, and empathizing.”

12. TL does not demonize opponents.

13. TL has legitimacy – this is not the same as popularity, and it is more than simply winning an election. People have confidence that The Leader intends keeping his or her promises.

14. He or she does not foster a cult of personality.

15. He or she had a parent (esp. a mother) who was supportive and encouraged self-belief and confidence in the child.

16. The Leader has great determination, and is prepared to personally experience hardship, or sacrifices, to achieve his or her goals.

17. He or she does not like ‘bling’ or ostentation, and while well-turned out, does not like a show of wealth, and discourages it in the leadership team.

18. The Leader consults, and will listen carefully to the wisdom of others.

19. He or she does not fear contradicting the popular wisdom of the day.

20. He or she understands that, as Rotberg puts it: “acts of conciliation [are] acts of courage.”

21. The leader is a person like Nelson “Mandela [who affirms] the humanity of his [enemies]. On an individual level, he returned courtesy with courtesy, and respect with respect.”

Created and compiled by Charlene Smith, based on Transformative Political Leadership: Making a Difference in the Developing World by Robert I. Rotberg, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2012.

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Answering journalist questions about Mandela family feuds & Mandela’s Long Dying

My inbox has long lists of questions from journalists who want me to type answers to each and send them back. But I, a journalist of the old school, send my phone number, I won’t write for the cut-and-paste generation.

These are questions from just one. I post them here to save you the trouble in case you want to ask similar questions.

What do you believe Mandela’s legacy is?

A legacy, the dictionary tells us is the inheritance, usually financial, that someone leaves to others. In this instance, Mandela’s legacy was made long ago, his will is set, no doubt it will cause further discord when it is read.

But I believe most reporters want to use legacy as a synonym for inheritance or heritage. Or perhaps even, “what example did Mandela leave?” But then again s/he may want to know – what were his greatest achievements? This is a partial, very flip, response.

He led South Africans, together, as one united nation to the polls for democratic elections, the first in its history in April 1994. He was 75 when he voted for the first time, many others I interviewed at that time, and who walked barefoot for days and miles were far older. I, a white South African refused to vote until all could vote, I was in my 30s, I can’t describe the reverence it has given me for elections and the need to vote if you have the privilege.

What South Africans, and global citizens should have learnt from Mandela is the importance of persistence, commitment, tolerance, a sense of humor, sacrifice and dancing whenever, and wherever, the mood took you.

He saw value in every person. He understood that it is not the degrees behind your name, or the balance in your bank account that made you consequential, it is the way you live your life. Is it with honor? Do you show respect and compassion for others? Or are you among the wretched of the earth who think the clothes you wear and the car you drive give you status?

At any gathering he would greet the “invisible people” first – the cleaners, waiters, guards. He was truly interested in them. He cared. He didn’t have screaming black car motor cavalcades and flocks of black-suited bodyguards speaking into their earpieces; he often went and mingled with the public. He loved us. We were his family. He’d sacrificed everything for us, not just for South Africans, but also for the people of the world, because in his sacrifices and in his successes were lessons for us all.

He was not a saint and he would hate to be treated as such, because one of his most important lessons is that anyone can overcome the greatest obstacles if they take on a foe without thought of personal gain, and in the hopes of righting a great wrong that hurts many. Although it was only late in his life that he decried military solutions, he most powerfully lived Gandhi’s exhortation that we should carry suffering in our own bodies rather than destroy the body of our enemy.

Do you feel the fighting between his family members will have an effect on his legacy?

How can it? His achievements are far greater than the petty wranglings of the greedy. And not all members of this sprawling family are involved; some are deeply distressed by this situation.

How did it happen that a man known for peace keeping has a family with (apparently) so much friction?

I don’t get this question. Let he or she who lives in a family that never has discord raise their hand.

How can we blame a parent, especially one who was not there for most of the years of his children’s upbringing? His daughter Zindzi was two when he went to jail; she was 15 when he was next allowed to see her. He first touched the hand of his wife Winnie after he had been in jail for 21 years. He first saw his daughter Zenani, who he’d last seen when she was a toddler, after she married. He wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral of his mother, nor his son Thembekile, who he had last seen as a small boy, and who died in a car accident as an adult.
In his first decade or so in jail he was allowed one 500 word letter in or out every six months, he was permitted a half hour visit once a year and if either said anything the warders didn’t like it would be immediately terminated.

His second wife Winnie has severe Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome as a result of being held naked in solitary confinement for 18 months in 1969. She was arrested at her home in the early hours of one morning and forced to abandon her two small daughters, it was 18 months before she knew what had become of them.

She was allowed no visits, nor cleaning materials. She was given no sanitary towels during her periods and so the blood caked on her, and she was given nothing to clean it off. And that has left her with profoundly erratic conduct.

His daughter Makaziwe he saw last when she was an elementary school pupil and then next when she was in her forties. She and Winnie loathed each other and formed two primary factions in the family. Into this came Graca Machel, a foreigner, who married Mandela when he was 80. Some family members insultingly called a kwerekwere, a slang name for foreigner. Graca had her own burdens; she kept the name of her first husband, Mozambique’s president who died in a plane crash and maintains close ties with her homeland.

Maki was verbal about how she resented her father for not making enough time for his family. Which sounds a lot like the complaints directed toward successful parents in business and politics.

But given the challenges Mandela faced as a man, a parent, a husband, a father, a politician – and the difficulties his family faced … please think before you ask such questions.

What do you think South Africans think of the fighting?

South Africans are hurt and ashamed by the family feuds, but they also think it is symbolic for a country that has become greedy, corrupt, and grabbing. Shakespeare couldn’t have written it better.

But too, I think of the feuding Reagan children, Mark Thatcher’s checkered background, the scandals around the family of Martin Luther King, and Gandhi … In the end the families of the great, are people too. It would help if the media, of which I am one, do not treat this like Jersey Shore, we created reality shows and the nightmare of 24-hour news cycles, and tabloid nonsense, it helps if we show more compassion and less sensation toward those who truly sacrifice their lives to create a better world.

What do you think of the fighting?

I’m thrilled it is happening now because the family has opened Pandora’s Box, many of us would have died with what we know rather than dishonor Mandela. But they’ve opened it and you can bet there are already journalists nose deep funneling out the endless dirt that is there to be found, not about Madiba, but about some who disgrace the name Mandela.

Most of all I am angry that they began this while he is still alive. He has had dementia for some time, but he is not unaware of all that goes on around him. The lack of respect is disgraceful, but by their actions they have revealed themselves.

Finally, what is your official title and occupation?

Ahem, why are you writing to me if you don’t know who I am? What happened to Google?

I want to add something, in a letter to the Young of America in 1993 Mandela wrote: “A time of crisis is not just a time for tears. It gives us a chance, an opportunity to choose well or choose badly.
“The past does not dictate our choices.”

Somehow in his long dying I feel that Mandela is giving South Africa and South Africans a chance to see themselves in the mirror that the conduct of his family holds up to society. In it we all need to look at ourselves, and say, “What have we become?” Mandela gave us the golden key; we melted it and sold it. We’ve been so short term in our attitudes we forgot about the long term, the days of forever, the days of our children, I fear for their future in South Africa.


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How we danced – Mandela’s golden years

By Charlene Smith

“How we danced,” retired judge Albie Sachs said remembering the years of Nelson Mandela’s presidency.
Sachs lost an arm to apartheid bombers and became the inspiration behind the artwork at South Africa’s Constitutional Court, built after the first democratic constitution was signed into law in 1996, just two years after Mandela became president, and six years after Mandela’s release from 27 years in apartheid jails. One of the most liberal constitutions in the world, it was the first to enshrine gay rights.
Tributes will be paid to Nelson Rohihlahla Mandela on his passing, many will say ‘the world has lost a great man,’ indeed in this age of mediocrity, Mandela, it seems, will take the patent for greatness with him. There will be profound grief in South Africa, because Mandela’s death will be a reminder of how, after three hundred years of conquest and bullying, South Africa was given the rainbow and the pot of gold, but after Mandela left office in 1999, the gold was pillaged and the rainbow sold.
On February 11, 1990, Mandela walked out of prison clasping the hand of his wife, Winnie Madikizela Mandela.
Rightwing death squads were planting bombs and assassinating, and some black factions were engaged in vicious fighting. Some weekends as many as 200 people were slaughtered in villages in KwaZulu Natal and townships fringing Johannesburg.
Nelson Mandela stepped into a country where colonialism and apartheid controlled people by dividing them and encouraging fear.
Mandela returned to Soweto, to the small house he had left when he went to jail; he refused to live in Winnie’s palace on the hill. All of Soweto, it seemed, walked to his home, they sat on the streets, or squatted on sun-bleached hills, waiting, waiting, for the freedom his release promised.
A week later 75,000 filled a stadium, just outside Soweto, sweating in the heat. Millions more watched on television. His speech was dreadful. He peered through large owl-shaped glasses and gave a stolid message, but then music started, and that’s when freedom began: Mandela danced.
Thousands stared in amazed delight, and then started dancing. A nation filled with fifty years of apartheid resentment, threw their heads back and laughter broke through the clouds. It was going to be okay. We took the hand of the stranger next to us, our fellow-South African, and began the Mandela Jive. We were finally home.
During the Mandela years, we danced; we obeyed his plea to make our enemies our friends. We reached out tentatively and found their fingers touching ours. Oh, the emotion in that touch.
That didn’t mean challenges disappeared. Violence soared as political groups fought for supremacy. For a time Mandela openly berated his liberator, President Frederick Willem de Klerk.
The day before South Africa’s first democratic elections on April 26, 1994 I walked over pieces of human flesh no bigger than a coin in Germiston, where a rightwing bomb killed ten people. The following day, in KwaZulu Natal where violence was anticipated, elderly people sat patiently on blankets on the ground, waiting to vote. Some pointed to hills, blue with distance, as their homes. They had walked for days, some without shoes, to vote. The first day was for the elderly and pregnant women, the next day Nelson Mandela and the general public voted, most for the first time in their lives. Mandela was 76.
South Africans discovered each other anew in those lines; it was an almost spiritual experience.
In Mandela’s government cabinet ministers came to work in jeans, Mandela, accustomed to comfortable prison clothes, eschewed suits, and so the Mandela-shirt, a loose, silk shirt was born. He despised pomposity, understanding that pomp is how governments keep the governed distant.
There were no aggressive bodyguards, nor screaming black limousine convoys.
His focus was on reconciliation. South Africans, who for half a century were ashamed to say where they came from when they traveled, found strangers shaking their hand and saying: “ah Mandela!”
That happens no more. Fat with our ill-deserved status South Africa forgot that charity begins at home. Crime is now among the worst in the world with a rape every 26 seconds, and around 49 murders a day (Boston had 44 for all of 2010). The gap between rich and poor is worse than during apartheid.
The government of President Jacob Zuma is riddled with corruption. Two police commissioners in a row have been jailed for charges ranging from racketeering to fraud. Violent protests are routine, so are assassinations.
Nelson Mandela’s last joyous semi-public occasion was his 85th birthday, Bill and Hillary Clinton were present, so was Robert de Niro, John Cusack and Oprah. We sat at long tables, and introduced ourselves by our first names. We jived until late, and left inhaling deeply of the crisp dark air, falling in love with Africa again.
Mandela’s last decade saw increasing ill health and a struggle to manage the circling vultures, some of whom are family members. His family was his Achilles heel; he grieved that they (and hundreds of families like his) suffered because their father was a prisoner of conscience.
He loathed his successor, Thabo Mbeki, an AIDS denialist who refused to give life-extending drugs in the worst HIV-infected nation in the world. Harvard estimates some 365,000 people needlessly died, including Mandela’s son. It gave Mandela a new reason for activism.
Mandela hoped that Jacob Zuma, a man with only four years schooling when he came as a political prisoner to Robben Island, would have the common touch as president, that Mbeki lacked. Instead, Zuma, the African National Congress’ former head of intelligence has increased spy structures, done little to improve schools, or the delivery of basic services, and become inordinately wealthy.
In his final years Mandela was often at home alone with staff. Dementia shielded Mandela from the heartbreak of seeing how South Africa disregarded his 27-year sacrifice and became a land of robber barons.
South Africans will say, when he goes, Hamba Kahle, Mkhonto – Go well, brave warrior.
* Charlene Smith is a South African born journalist who lives in Cambridge. An authorized biographer of Nelson Mandela; her books are Mandela: In Celebration of a Great Life, and Robben Island.

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To find life, experience death

This year three friends have died, one was murdered.

The day after Keith died this week, another friend told me of a member of his congregation who had given up his battle at the same time as Keith, except he shot himself after shooting his wife and leaving two sons. Thank God, he never physically harmed the children, but their emotional scars will be deep.

 I’ve just finished speaking with Steven, a mutual friend of Keith and Glenn, the first friend who died this year. Steven’s wife has perhaps days or even hours left. They’ve had an extraordinarily happy 10 year marriage, they’ve never argued. Bridgette is the sort of person everyone loves.  They have both come to terms with her death; she was sleeping peacefully as we spoke.  She has needed no morphine; he and I believe she will simply pass on in her sleep. A heavy cigarette smoker she has lung cancer.

At Glenn’s wake in January, two of the 10 people there were already dying, neither they, nor we, knew it then. 

We’ve all known each other since school days, Glenn, Keith and Steve were some years older than I. Glenn and Steve were very good looking, popular with the girls, charming and wonderful. Keith was a quiet support, someone solid and reliable.

Glenn sent me a Valentine’s card every year since I was 16. He would often include veld grasses or flowers stolen from someone’s pavement, balloons or a poem he had composed and scrawled on paper ripped from a notebook. We were never more than just friends, but it was his Valentine’s card or wishes I waited for every year. Nothing else compared.

Steve says that when he first met Bridgette he never introduced her to the guys for some months because she was overweight, “and then I thought, heck she’s such a nice person, what the hell, and everyone loved her. Now I sometimes put the phone on silent because I can’t deal with all the calls, everyone loves her.”

He speaks of her without sadness, there is simply love and the gentle happiness we accumulate with someone we have loved long and who knows everything about us and we know everything about them. And because we know everything, we love them more. In part, because they see every flaw and still think we are wonderful.

A person, who is truly loved, loves themselves more because they experience their own life through the eyes and gentle tolerance of the one who loves them best.

Steve and Bridgette’s patient acceptance of death reminds me of another friend whose wife died two years ago, 72 days after being diagnosed with brain cancer. Together they chose her funeral spot and discussed the service; she approved the memorial he wrote for her tombstone, they spent the days of her dying in conversation, love and quiet reflection and gratitude. They too accepted it; they had lived life, loved a lot and were grateful for what had been and what was to come.

This week I met a wonderful Irish woman who married her husband when she was in her early 20s, she is now in her late 60s. He died five years ago and when she speaks of him now her eyes light up and her voice becomes animated. Love doesn’t die, we may experience it differently, but it remains. The first real boyfriend I had, the first man I loved, died in a car accident when we were both in our teens.

Many, many years later I am closer than most daughters to his 83-year-old mother, I help pay for her care and, but for one other, am her primary source of love. Those we love live in our hearts and because of them we may extend the range of those we care for.  There are times still, rare, but it happens, that when I speak of Mike with her, I weep. And in those intervening years I have married, had children and loved others a lot.

These are the things I have learned anew with all these deaths this year and those of other close friends I have helped care for before they died.  My experiences are not necessarily yours, so forgive me if what I write feels hurtful.

Those angriest about dying are often those who have failed to live.  One friend was a person who always seemed to be there, when our group of friends got together, he was there, yet he wasn’t. He was physically present, but never really emotionally engaged.  When he became ill he at first said he wanted to die and then was overwhelmed by all the friends who contacted him. Because he had never expressed emotion to others, he had prevented them from showing it to him. He suddenly realised how much he was loved and now wanted to live but already his body was betraying him.

He died angry that he wasn’t given another chance; yet all of us are given multiple chances, how many of us are squandering them even now?

Yet another friend was married for many years in a succesful marriage. But his wife increasingly became insular and disliked having people visit. She disliked going out even to the movies or for dinner.  In the last few years of her life she developed a close bond with a neighbour, me, and a few weeks before she died she did what she hadn’t done in years, she came to tea with her hair done, lipstick on, a pretty blouse and she looked simply beautiful.

When I conducted a door to door petition among neighbours to ensure better security for our street, she egged me on and though ill, insisted on driving alongside me as I strode up and down the streets delivering pamphlets.

After she died, her husband mourned briefly, then blossomed. He began going to the theatre, ballet, the movies, travelling, and although he had loved her he looked happier and healthier.  Four years after she died he developed prostate cancer and in the last 18 months as he became increasingly frail I helped care for him. He was angry, “I still had so much travelling to do, so much living…”

During the marriage he subordinated himself to his wife’s desires and surrendered his life.  When he believed his time had come, time had already run out.

If you have read this far, please sit back, take stock; this is your only life.  There is no time for if, but, maybe, when the children are bigger, when I retire, when I have money … time is running out, do it. Take the chance. Face risk. Get on the plane. Tell that person you love them. Put your needs first.

Do what you fear doing, bugger what others say, this is your life, your only life.

Edith Piaf sang a song that has been my life subtext, Non, je ne regrette rien – I have no regrets.

What is the point of regret? We are human, we err. Our errors should point us in new directions, allow us to discover new parts of ourselves, learn new lessons.  And so, I have no regrets, I have loved a lot, made plenty of mistakes, been hurt, learnt from pain and tomorrow I am going to wake up and say, ‘what a totally fabulous day..” and find new ways to be happy. 

I wish the same for you. Today may be the last day.

  •  This is dedicated to the memory of Mike, Peter, Guy, my grandparents, Nomakwezi, Busi, Glenn, Keith, Maria, Frank, Fran and the people who love and loved them. And to Bridgette and Steve who show us the power of eternal love. 
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