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Our leaders might be having a tough time, but that’s what they signed up for – we need servant leadership

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Zukiswa Pikoli is Daily Maverick's Managing Editor for Gauteng news and Maverick Citizen where she was previously a journalist and founding member of the civil society focused platform. Prior to this she worked in civil society as a communications and advocacy officer and has also worked in the publishing industry as an online editor.

What Ramaphosa is showing now is that there may not have been a wholesale uptake of the leadership modelled by Nelson Mandela, without complaint and at great personal sacrifice.

What makes good leaders and are said leaders allowed to complain about the difficulties of the job? On the assumption that we are all human and susceptible to burdens of stress and testing times, how far do we recognise this?

It is said to be good to get a glimpse of mortality and humanness in leaders, but because they are called to a position of higher purpose and authority, people are often unsettled by the perception that the person called to the position may not be of the transcendent mettle they may have thought them to be.

In his book, It Worked for Me, former US secretary of state Colin Powell says: “Lieutenant, you may be starving, but you must never show hunger; you always eat last. You may be freezing or near heat exhaustion, but you must never show that you are cold or hot. You may be terrified, but you must never show fear. You are the leader and the troops will reflect your emotions.”

This statement finds resonance with me because I believe one dare not betray the hopes and trust that others put in you for the betterment of their lives simply because it is difficult and at times proves to be inconvenient. To do so would also serve to demoralise and plunge already vulnerable and disenfranchised people into despair.

In a press conference last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa complained that he has had a more difficult tenure as head of state than others, saying he had to  deal with the revelatory State Capture proceedings, the enormity and complexity of the Covid-19 pandemic, unprecedented floods and displacement of people in KwaZulu-Natal, and unrest that gripped the country in July 2021.

The crux

One could argue that other presidents and leaders have had a more or less difficult time. However, that really is not what is at the crux of the issue – which is what Powell emphasises in his quote.

Further to this, in 2019 when Ramaphosa assumed leadership of the country as our President and commander in chief, he loudly and boldly declared to us, “thuma mina”, which translates to “send me”. It is a rousing line from legendary musician Hugh Masekela’s song that referenced a kind of leadership that centres on serving people and not on personal comfort and convenience. So it becomes difficult to understand or justify Ramaphosa complaining when people invested their faith in him and expected him to rise to the challenge.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Who will save South Africa? The country is in dire need of good leadership

Robert Greenleaf originated the concept of “servant leadership” (which I subscribe to) and defined it as being: “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead… The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

The characteristics of such leaders are also those of trust, deep listening, foresight, caring, accountability and balance.

Our first democratically elected president, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, is revered for having lived and modelled this leadership without complaint and at great personal sacrifice.

What Ramaphosa is showing now is that there may not have been a wholesale uptake of this style of leadership within the governing party and subsequent state leadership, and South Africans are poorer for it. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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