Professor Eugene Cloete, Vice-Rector: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies at Stellenbosch University chose an interactive approach when addressing a group of senior university leaders on the topic of Executive Leadership Skills.
Instead of telling the attendees of the Executive Leadership Workshop, hosted by the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme, what makes a good leader, he let them determine that for themselves.
“The true test of leadership is what people think of you after you are not in that position anymore. How do they remember you? Do they remember you with fondness, or are they happy that you’re not in that leadership position anymore? So, you can be a good leader, and you can fail leadership,” said Professor Cloete, who is also the new Chair of EDHE’s Community of Practice on Entrepreneurial Universities. Co-creating and hosting ELW 2021 in Stellenbosch marked Professor Cloete’s debut undertaking in this capacity.
The primary responsibility of the EDHE Community of Practice for Entrepreneurial Universities is to support universities by inculcating in them, a culture that molds and transforms them into entrepreneurial and innovative ecosystems, driven by entrepreneurship policies relevant and responsive to their contexts.
How people ascend to leadership positions
Professor Cloete said people get into leadership positions based on things such as their position, personal attributes, qualifications, experience, and achievements. And then it almost always happens that the positional leadership has actually very little to do with their personal attributes. “For example, you become a dean of a faculty, and suddenly you have to decide which students will be readmitted and which will not be readmitted, because that’s part of the position that you’re occupying,” he said.
He split the workshop participants into groups and, not excluding those participating via Zoom, showed each an image of a famous leader. He then asked them to respond to certain questions:
- What do I think about this person when I see him/her? Do I get a good feeling, or a really bad feeling, or feel neutral?
- What were their best attributes when they were in leadership positions?
- Where did they fail “because no one is perfect’’, said Professor Cloete.
The leaders he presented were Professor Thuli Madonsela, Thabo Mbeki, Robert Mugabe, Angela Merkel, Mahatma Ghandi, Donald Trump, Hitler and Nelson Mandela.
The feedback included:
Feelings: We feel relief just looking at her. We attribute a lot of the unearthing of the level of corruption within the country to her because she started that culture. We feel happiness when we see her, and hopeful just by looking at her, before she even opens her mouth, because we know she’s going to be making us happy in one way or another. We feel inspired by her and, as women, victorious. We can sum it up by saying: Wow, we are in awe.
Attributes: Boldness, calmness, collected, knowledgeable, consistent, can easily relate to her because she does not throw legal jargon in our faces but explains with the simplicity a Grade 10 kid could understand, dignified, admirable.
Failings: The group didn’t report any.
Feelings: largely positive, inspired
Attributes: Forward-looking, academic, trustworthy, inflexible, rigid, a big-picture person whose outlook was broader than just looking at South Africa, visionary, and it was debatable if he was charismatic or not. Professor Vusi Gumede, Dean of the Faculty of Economics, Development and Business Sciences at University of Mpumalanga, who was part of the group but had abstained from its discussion because he had worked with the former President for years as Chief Policy Analyst to the Presidency from 2001 to 2009 and Head of the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute from 2013 to 2018 — added that Mbeki was a thought leader. “Not just somebody leading society but also thinking through issues and trying to come up with a solution to those challenges,” he said.
Failings: HIV/Aids issue
Feelings: Generally, a clear sense of relief when he left. People were waiting for him to leave power. One person said someone who does not want to leave their position is described as “playing a Mugabe”. He was the liberator of Zimbabwe and when that happened, there was excitement across the board and a heightened sense of anticipation for a better life. He loved education and led by example, because he was a well-educated man and exemplary as far as that is concerned, as can be seen by the education system of Zimbabwe and the quality of people that the system has produced.
Failings: Openly racist although that’s debatable, defiant, authoritarian which played itself out badly for his own people. He was central to the destruction of the collapse of Zimbabwe’s health system. The way he handled the land issue collapsed its economy.
Professor Cloete summed up all the responses by saying that ultimately, trust is the number one quality of a good leader. “People don’t follow people that they do not trust. And trust is something that comes with time. It is not something that you get overnight,” he said.
The second quality arising from the group’s responses is for a leader to have empathy with the people he/she leads. He used the example of the big difference between Mbeki and Mandela’s people skills. Children would sit on President Mandela’s lap, but President Mbeki had seemed more strategic, tolerating children around him while keeping his distance.
The third quality of a good leader is service orientation: to serve the people that put the leader in the position in the first place. “Look at Mother Teresa, another iconic leader who sacrificed her life for the poor and died poor. She could get an appointment with any president, anywhere in the world, anytime. Imagine the influence that she had. And she had nothing material. She just served,” said Professor Cloete.
He summed up by telling fellow DVCs and other executives attending the workshop that they all had to survive the leadership jobs they had been elected to, voted into or appointed to. Overriding personal attributes, he reckoned, were key determinants of whether his peers had “nice, solid, good feelings” about their careers.
Out of ELW 2021, EDHE was looking to achieve a shared understanding among DVCs and other executive university leaders, on the characteristics of entrepreneurial universities in the South African context; to equip and strengthen the DVCs to promote entrepreneurship at their universities and engage in institutional entrepreneurship policy development work; to instill in DVCs a clear understanding of their role as executive leaders at their institutions and, ultimately, to increase the number of universities with entrepreneurship development policies.
The event was hosted in collaboration with the British Council, Stellenbosch University, and in partnership with the Department of Higher Education and Training.
Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.