15 Oct 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
Very few of the leaders on the global stage today have had much hinterland other than politics, writes Tony Leon
A LOCAL cynic noted the other day that while South Africa’s government functions for only about half the day, in recent weeks that is immeasurably better than watching the US government closed down for the whole day.
The capture of the US Republican Party by its take-no-prisoners Tea Party wing of true believers, who don’t believe as much in election results as they do in stripping President Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms of funding, has provided an extraordinary spectacle. The old phrase, "crippled giant", has been given new meaning.
Not that the minority outliers in the House of Representatives should shoulder all blame. It has been a curious sight to watch the rhetorically impressive US president prove so feeble at what should be at the core of his job — doing the political business and forging the compromises to further his agenda.
The beetle-browed, 96-year-old British statesman Denis Healey had it right when he said every leader needed what he termed "hinterland". By this he meant being genuinely curious about the world around you and having a range of interests and a reach of ideas that draw on life outside your profession. This opens you to a world of inspiration to call on, which, far from crowding out your laser-like focus on your work, enhances it and inspires the decision-making process needed to enhance it.
Famously and balefully, Nelson Mandela fashioned much of his later political leadership from his prison experiences, enforced on him over 27 years. But it was also quite striking how often he referenced decision-making to experiences he gleaned in the unusual (in the sense it was the only black firm of its time) circumstances of the legal practice he established with Oliver Tambo in the 1950s. He certainly had hinterland.
Ronald Reagan built a hugely effective presidency because of his Hollywood background. This didn’t only allow him to become the "great communicator", but his clashes, as president of the Screen Actors Guild, with the powerful trade unions there gave him an essential idea about free markets to communicate as well.
Two of South Africa’s corporate leaders who grew family enterprises into global corporations were Harry Oppenheimer and Anton Rupert. They both had hinterlands in spades. Oppenheimer had spent a decade in opposition parliamentary politics and had a lifelong love of Africana. Rupert’s fascination with South African art and his love of his Karoo hinterland were not examples of corporate social responsibility — the concept had yet to be conceived and codified in his lifetime — but the consequence of real passion.
The contrast between those times and today’s leaders is quite striking. Very few of those on the global stage have had much hinterland other than politics. Obama was essentially a community organiser and a state legislator before serving two years in the Senate and running for the presidency. British Prime Minister David Cameron, born into affluence, aside from a brief spell in financial public relations, has spent his whole life in government and politics.
Locally, practically the entire Cabinet and the president have either spent a lifetime in politics or trade union work and have experienced little of the challenges of professional, nonpolitical activity. Of course the extraordinary circumstances of our history accounts for some of this — but not entirely. For example, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan is admired across the cacophonous divisions of our polity. But aside from a lifetime in "the struggle", he had also practised as a pharmacist. And before his appointment to the Cabinet, his leadership of the South African Revenue Service provided him with knowledge of the intricacies and challenges of business and the corporate world, which went beyond the theoretical.
The emerging new leadership on the opposition side is cut from a similar, politics-only cloth and few of them could claim too much hinterland either.
But hinterland alone is not enough for successful and consequential leadership, which can change country destiny or corporate fortune. I was reminded of this when I participated in a debate the other night with AgangSA leader Mamphela Ramphele. She is charming, erudite and certainly has a greater hinterland of experience than any other recent leader in this or most other countries. The policy positions she elaborated were sensible. But I am not sure that she moved much of the capacity audience in Cape Town that night.
The additional missing ingredient is to explain the "why" and not just the "what" and the "how": a belief in something that inspires followers to believe in it themselves. There’s a brilliant TED lecture on the subject by Simon Sinek. It lasts about 10 minutes and is free to download on YouTube. It provides more insights than most I have heard from an army of expensive management consultants and political strategists. Take a view.
• Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA