Attuned Leadership Synopsis

By Dr Reuel J Khoza – Chairman of Aka Capital and Nedbank Group Limited  I  14 November 2013

Leaders are not just born to the role. They are born, then made – and sometimes unmade – by their own actions. A leader who is not in tune with the followership soon becomes a leader in limbo and sooner rather than later withers.

Former president, Nelson Mandela, never fell into limbo as a leader. I am not likely to cite anything new in the moments of his life that has not been highlighted previously in news reports, books and documentaries. What I seek to do is reconstruct the record to reveal the inner workings of attuned leadership in the hands of a master.

Throughout his political life, Mandela has demonstrated Aristotle’s principles of practical wisdom, concentrating on the common good and putting his leadership skills at the service of his followers.

During his long sojourn behind bars it was obviously impossible to stay in touch directly with the masses. He showed extraordinary warmth and understanding towards fellow prisoners – not only ANC supporters but those of the rival PAC and, in later days, the Black Consciousness movement.  His personal sincerity and acumen as a man, and his political instinct of responsiveness as a leader, lent him an all-encompassing aura. These same qualities were to serve the cause well when he was released. He became the standard-bearer of the liberation movement in negotiations with the white government. If any one person could bridge the gap between the ‘structures’ of white nationalism and black liberation it was Mandela.

Just how did he accomplish this? Several aspects of Mandela’s leadership ensured that he bridged the dualisms of leader and led, self and community, person and people, I-am and You-are (therefore We-are). To elucidate the metaphor, his leadership rested on five supporting pillars:

  • Being self-attuned as a leader and emotionally intelligent
  • Being attuned to the situation, knowledgeable, capable and astute
  • Being attuned to the needs and aspirations of followers
  • Being attuned to the moral imperatives of integrity, efficacy and humility
  • Being attuned to history, the present and destiny.

At every step along the way, from self-attunement to the quest for destiny, the leader should be aware of conative feelings as well as cognitive mental processes that are present in him and in the followership. The English word conative, by the way, came into psychological parlance relatively recently to apply to the aspirational aspects of our human nature. It is drawn from the Latin verb ‘conari’ which means to attempt or to strive. It thus implies that leadership is a striving to fulfil the aspirations of the followership. By focusing also on cognition, the leader is both emotionally and intellectually attuned to the followership.

The features of Mandela’s leadership were on display for the world to see, though as I said before, very little analysis has actually been done as to why he was so effective. He represented a collective ethic of reconciliation for a nation that was still deeply conflicted. The divided races wanted to learn to live together but they needed a leader who could symbolise this yearning: Mandela did that for them.  There was nothing abstract or mystical about his attuned leadership. It was down-to-earth. the personal qualities he brought to the Presidency included:

  • Insight: Seeing the world from the followership’s vantage point and embracing their world views non-judgmentally, ‘to walk in their moccasins’, so to speak. Attuned leadership is thus as passionate as it is compassionate.
  • Inspiration: Engendering a sense of follower self-worth, pride in current status and hopefulness in the future. In the relationship of leader and led, it is vital to strike a balance between reality and potentiality.
  • Commitment: Ardently pursuing an agreed course of action but remaining willing to be flexible and respond to changes in the environment or expectations.
  • Probity: Assuring the followers that the leader can be held accountable. Probity is the ethical imperative to remain upright and honest in the service of the followership, and behaving in a manner that is beyond reproach.

The attuned leader is a reflective person for whom human relationships are of primary importance; hence empathy and identification with the followership will typify his actions. The attuned leader is also a student of human affairs with a developed sense of the forces at work under the surface. The attuned leader wins trust and maintains it by producing results that are in line with the deep human needs of followers. A sense of efficacy in the leader combines confidence in the power to do good with competence to carry desires into effect. Trust can easily be broken by promising too much, or delivering too little.

It is fundamentally important that the leader be a student of human nature and of human reality. You cannot have an ignorant leader who has gone through no process of leadership development and who is grossly incapable of sensing the aspirations of the followership. Again, demagogues may dominate through sheer force of will but this does not quality as leadership in the normative sense. Both sensitivity and good sense are required if one is to be a principled leader.

In recent times theorists of leadership, especially in business, have come round to the idea that emotional harmony between the ethically motivated leader and the followership is the single most important ingredient of success.

Despite the great value that we seem to place on an intellect devoid of emotions, our emotions are quite literally more powerful than our intellect.  In moments of emergency, our emotional centres actually commandeer the rest of the brain, so leaders who are not emotionally intelligent – who can’t keep their emotional impulses in check or correctly read the emotional temperature of a given situation – will simply not be effective. Biologically speaking, the art of resonant leadership interweaves our intellect and our emotions in a way that inspires people to move forward toward a common goal – regardless of the situation.

There has to be an underlying sense of human community to unite leaders in their quest for a common goal. Being self-aware and attuned to one’s own inner processes, drives, doubts, hopes an emotional ties is vital to attuned leadership.

Emotionalism on its own is not a trustworthy basis for leadership. It must be balanced by ethics and intellect.  Western literature on leader-follower relationships has sometimes idolised force of character and pure charisma as the essence of leadership. History has taught that there are serious risks in following a charismatic leader like Hitler. Hero-worship is not the path to the common good.  What the leader wills and the followers want may be dangerously out of tune with public virtue. When this happens the correct words for it are demagoguery and mob rule. Those who lend themselves to such power play become toxic leaders.

Balance has always characterised Mandela. Emotional appeal and good sense played out equally in many of his public appearances – including those where he improvised.  British entrepreneur Richard Branson described how, at the unveiling of a statue to Steve Biko in East London in 1997, President Mandela seized the occasion to apply crowd pressure to place rival South African movements under an obligation to improve their relationships with the ruling ANC. Seated beside him on the platform was Mangosothu Buthelezi, a troublesome partner who was then Minister of Home Affairs in the Government of National Unity and also leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, against whom ANC formations had frequently engaged in bloody conflict. Branson saw what happened:

Mandela stood up and just ad-libbed. The speech he gave was fantastic, turning to each person on the stage and then asking the crowd: ‘Shouldn’t we be working together as one?’ And the crowd were shouting ‘Yes!’ and the other leaders were squirming in their shoes!  Most people see him only as a grand statesman doing things, but it was interesting to see what a wily politician he could be.

This was a moment of dignity, not demagoguery. Mandela reminded those on the stage that they, like he, were leaders who could induce their followers to prefer peace to violence. He expressed for one and all the yearning for peace, security and freedom from fear – a yearning that was left no doubt equally by the rival leaders and by the crowd who had come to hear Mandela and celebrate the legacy of Biko. He is not great because he is admired, he is admired because he is great. His greatness consists in being able to sense the profound longings that people have for a higher purpose, and being able to speak directly to this desire.

The leader as pioneer is a familiar figure in literature. Here I have tried to conceptualise this role in terms of a model of leadership that makes the individual and the group co-responsible for initiating change and achieving outcomes. The collective model does not deny the importance of individual agency in transformation. Society and its formations are pliable and open to the influence of human actors. Contributions  to leadership theory from the fields of philosophy, social psychology, sociology, political science, management and communications networking have all served to reduce the agency/structure dualism. The dualism resulted in views of leadership that either reduced leaders to nothing, as the tools of structures, or boosted them to almost superhuman status as controllers of human destiny. Leaders can redefine institutional structures but do not have a free hand to do so: the true instigators of change are the communities from which leader’s spring, and to which leaders must be responsive. This is the fundamental argument underlying my thesis of attuned leadership.

If nothing else, perhaps the treatment has deepened the reader’s appreciation for Mandela’s leadership example. He employed practical wisdom to bridge wide social, ideological and historical gulfs. Instead of regarding South Africa’s racial divides as entrenched structures, firmly anchored in prejudice and class, he intervened personally at key points in history to overcome division and conflict.  He could not have done this without collective backing. Yet, secure in the knowledge that the followership trusted him, he confidently stepped beyond immediate expectations and to pioneer a new course into the future. His philosophy of leadership was a shining example of Ubuntu in practice. He accorded human dignity to all, and based his decisions on an ethical commitment to the common good.

Dr Reuel Khoza is currently Chairman of Aka Capital (Pty) Limited and Nedbank Group Limited.  In addition he is a director of several companies in which Aka Capital (Pty) Ltd has invested including Nampak Ltd and Old Mutual plc. He is the co-author of The Power of Governance and the author of Let Africa Lead. He has completed a book titled Attuned Leadership. As Chairman of the Nepad business Foundation he initiated the establishment of the African Leadership Development which is now jointly run by the Gordon Institute of  Business Science (GIBS) and the Nepad Business Foundation (NBF). He is currently Fellow and President of the Institute of Directors in Southern Africa. He is also a Visiting Professor at Rhodes Investec Business School, Rhodes University, University of the Free State, Professor Emeritus of the University of Stellenbosch Business School and the Chancellor of the University of Limpopo.