Maverick Life


What makes a great leader? The ability to inspire, motivate and influence

What makes a great leader? The ability to inspire, motivate and influence
Effective leadership is multidimensional and has a multifarious set of contributing factors. Image: Marcus Spiske / Unsplash

Authentic and effective leaders are, in principle, champions of hope and express that in who they are and how they lead.

The much-awaited Daily Maverick Gathering in November 2022 was an  energised melting pot of people and ideas that was extremely well received.

The distinguishing feature was the focus on generating hope through defining solutions, rather than focusing on problems.

The various panels hosted seasoned and erudite leaders, and specialists in their field. Creative debate ensued with the common belief that with the right people, with the right intentions and commitment, we can move mountains. The buzz was tangible throughout the conference – particularly during the breaks – and the event was concluded with a riveting address by Pauli van Wyk, with a spectacular rendition of the national anthem by Anneli Kamfer.

The panel discussions were distilled into an overarching call to action across government, business and society, for leaders of integrity and consequence at all levels, and wherein each person is part of the solution.  

We cannot move forward simply hoping and believing that someone else will take care of it.

Most importantly, this must be exemplified in who we are, what we do and how we do it, such that we inculcate it in the young people of today and the leaders of tomorrow.

For most, this is easier said than done, which is understandable given that effective leadership is multidimensional and has a multifarious set of contributing factors.

To this end, this column was birthed, and over the coming weeks and months it will weave a colourful and compelling tapestry of possibility, hope and meaningful solution, by exploring and defining the cornerstones, conundrums, complexities and catalysts of effective leadership.

To understand what effective leadership is, it is important to distinguish between management and leadership – and where the two intersect.  

Management is a role and function that focuses on organising, planning and coordinating resources to fulfil tasks in order to deliver results.  Leadership is a state of being that is called to inspire, motivate and influence individuals and groups to find meaning and purpose in and through what they do and the goals they pursue.

  • While all managers should, in principle, be leaders, many, sadly, are not.
  • Not all leaders are managers – and have no wish to be.
  • At the heart of all leadership – good or bad – lies intentionality.
  • It’s not about the What – it’s the Why.
  • The heart of effective leadership is about we rather than me.

Each of us is potentially a gatekeeper and it is important to understand the difference between complicated and complex, which of course, the topic of leadership is both. To lay a rich foundation for understanding and embracing effective leadership, we have to examine the many moving parts and look at where leadership has come from, where it is now and what we are moving towards.  

A good example is the 20th century compared with the 21st.

The post-war era, spearheaded by the Silent and Baby Boomer generations, resulted in an unprecedented boom in which we saw phenomenal industrial and technical growth. It favoured a command-and-control style of leadership and largely comprised complicated systems that could be controlled, planned for and managed.

Where we have moved to in the 21st century, accompanied by the emergence of the exponential world, is a complex system that is dynamic and continually shifting, and has to be seen as an ecosystem rather than simply a set of entities.   

While complicated systems require a focus on linear goals, plans and directives, complex systems are centred on the relationships between the components, rather than the components themselves.

Ironically, effective leadership is complex, requiring the fulfilment of complicated behavioural changes in order to flourish. This is why there is an ever-increasing call for self-aware leaders who are agile, resilient, adaptable and empathetic.

The statistics on leadership are far from flattering. Research over time has indicated that anything between 40% and 55% of newly appointed leaders fail in their roles within the first 18 months.

And a five-year research project has shown that while 95% plus of people believe they are self-aware, only between 10% and 15% really demonstrate that they are.

A surprisingly large percentage of leaders, even highly successful ones, operate from a locus of fear.

Before Covid, people at all levels were finding the exponential world, and its rapid rates of change and disruption, stressful and difficult to manage. Increasing levels of burnout were occurring across the board. Covid greatly exacerbated this and unprecedented levels of anxiety and mental disorders emerged.

When operating from a base of fear, it becomes increasingly difficult to function from our executive and creative brains and everything becomes more difficult to do. Even now in the hybrid world of work that we have moved to, stress and burnout levels continue to increase.

History has shown that when public sentiment is overshadowed by fear, the economic impacts are significant, consumer confidence sinks and inertia prevails.

President Franklin D Roosevelt, on the back of the Great Depression and at the onset of World War 2, famously said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He urged the Americans not to succumb to “nameless, unreasoning and unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert, retreat into advance”, and called on the public to “unite in banishing fear”.

A wonderful revelation is that fear is the birthplace of courage and courage is a choice. As John Wayne put it: “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.”

We are the sum total of our choices as leaders of self and the actions we did or did not take – and the impact we had on the world around us – no matter how great or small.

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The great author and politician Samuel Smiles said: “Hope is the companion of power and the mother of success. He who hopes strongly, has within him the gift of miracles.”

Hope is not just a feel-good emotion, it is a cognitive system that can be developed and leveraged.

Hope creates a sense of positive expectancy. It is the anticipation of a positive potential outcome, while fear is the expectation of a negative consequence.

Authentic and effective leaders are, in principle, champions of hope and express that in who they are and how they lead. This speaks to character, which is forged through making and acting upon challenging decisions in difficult times. Extraordinary achievement is often accomplished by ordinary people. Hope helps to galvanise people and brings them together in a collaborative, unified spirit – if the vision and destination are believable and perceived to be attainable, regardless of the challenges.

Ernest Shackleton is a great example of an exceptional leader who took on seemingly insurmountable challenges and brought his crew to safety without a single death.

Good leadership principles are not sufficient on their own. Intellectual acknowledgement of a truth does not mean that we will act upon it. With thousands of self-help books written on leadership principles, why is there such little evidence of these in practice? 

Making meaningful sustainable changes in our behaviour requires meaningful and sustainable change in our heart and mindsets.

Often, when people encounter adversity and tragedy, they are galvanised into forging a new perspective of themselves, their lives and what really has meaning and purpose for them, resulting in a changed set of behaviours and ultimately outcomes.  

We do not have to wait for tragedy to happen to us – life might be late in delivering one. We need simply look at the plethora of challenges in the world to find reasons to metamorphose ourselves.

There is no better time than now to self-reflect and pose some haunting  questions, such as:

“What world am I leaving for my grandchildren?” 

“What is life and the world asking of me right now?”

The crusade awaits. DM/ML/BM


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