The Big Read: If you want to be a leader, follow these simple steps

16 August 2013 - 09:37 By Jonathan Jansen
Walter Sisulu. File photo.
Walter Sisulu. File photo.
Image: Times Media

So you want to be a leader? That is something I admire, for leadership is the most profound service you can offer to others.

But as a veteran of many universities, let me share with you what I observe to be eight critical challenges facing student leadership in South Africa today.

1. The challenge of purpose

Are you seeking leadership for yourself? Are you being set up by an external political party? Or are you doing this out of a genuine desire to serve all students? Is the desire for leadership simply good for your CV? Why do you want to lead? I know that at some universities student leadership means access to huge amounts of money, official cars, booze and all kinds of other privileges I would rather not mention here.

My example of leadership is Walter Sisulu, the most powerful leader who never sought position. He was always behind the scenes, quietly working for our freedom, encouraging Nelson Mandela, strategising change and planning the future. But he resolutely refused to take a position of leadership in the government after years of imprisonment and suffering. He gave others the limelight, and yet he was such a powerful and decent leader to whom this country owes much.

2. The challenge of perspective

Universities are institutions, not organisations. They have long histories and established traditions with embedded values and beliefs. They change slowly, everywhere. This calls for patience but also insistence on change. You cannot toyi-toyi an institution into change. The key is to work together to make change happen in a deep and sustainable way.

3. The challenge of resilience

This will be your toughest assignment. You have to balance academics with public duty. You will be tired all the time. You will face abuse by immature students. Use this experience to learn toughness for later in life, in the real world. As a leader, people are constantly making "withdrawals" of energy from you, but you also need to make "deposits" into your life that will help you build resilience for those tough moments. It might be music or religious devotion or the gym, but find ways to strengthen your inner self.

4. The challenge of love

Most students come to university with firm views about those they deem different from themselves. Your role as a leader is to embrace those differences, and to lead all students - not only those who look like you, speak your language, or share your political ideology. You can run on a partisan platform but you lead with a universal mandate.

5. The challenge of respect

Some student leaders do not have any sense of respect for themselves and others. They bully, insult and grandstand the moment there is a platform to show off. I do not expect you to agree on anything, but I will insist that you respect each other and all campus citizens, and all leaders on this campus, even as we might and should disagree on various issues of public concern.

6. The challenge of scope

Student leaders often have a narrow agenda: student finance and academic exclusion. These are important issues but student ambitions should be much greater.

There is a need for activism on xenophobia, green campuses, curriculum renewal, public service and community literacy that should form part of a larger set of struggles for a better campus, city, country and continent.

7. The challenge of change ownership

Students who come with demands and not with ideas transfer their power and authority to a university's senior management and leadership. This is your university. Propose what changes you would like to see. Own the process. Make radical proposals for how to change your university. The change is in your hands. I have never been unresponsive to students who come with bright and bold ideas about how to change the university.

8. The challenge of reasonableness

Students who come to meetings with aggression rather than with carefully thought-out arguments and positions do not practise the skills of reason but merely imitate outside behaviour, which is often expressed as rage. This will not serve you well in the long term. A university is the one place in which reason should trump recklessness. I have often disagreed with a student on an issue but found ways to support that student because of their capacity for reason.

Now, go out there and lead. Be blessed.

Edited version of speech to candidate student leaders at the University of the Free State, August 12 2013