Featured Article: What Sets True Leaders Apart?

Yene Assegid

Yene Assegid

yene assegid
Vision is part of the attributes we associate with great leaders and one of the key faculties of great leadership. It refers to the leader’s capacity to see ahead and envision what the future could potentially hold or what opportunities lay ahead and defines the reality where the leader wants to take her community. Vision allows the leader to adjust her strategies and actions, today, so that she could tap into the opportunities that she has foreseen. But, could there be more to vision? Could there be levels of vision and evolving stages of both the quality and the texture of vision? Is there a distinction to be made, within the context of vision, about what might set apart leaders?

In the past six months, I traveled to 12 countries throughout the World, mostly in Africa, with the quest to interview leaders about “leadership”; about “what they think makes a leader” and also about “their personal stories, their journeys, their challenges and successes”. The purpose of these interviews is to complete the field work for my doctoral dissertation, which focuses on African Leadership, with the aim of finding stories, data and knowledge to demonstrate that leadership in Africa is not only as it is portrayed in most literature and the media, as poor, corrupt and less than able, but that the quality of leadership might be, in fact, more enlightened, wise, resilient, compassionate, progressive and tolerant than most of us would expect. As I write this article, I am writing with 19 interviews completed and countless conversations with various individuals from a broad range of background, field and expertise. I interviewed very senior leaders in the international development world; I interviewed senior civil society leaders, former Heads of State, current Heads of State, as well as senior policy makers.

boxThroughout the conversations and interviews various aspects of leadership were discussed in terms of the act of leading, the particular role of leading, and the philosophy of leadership. While the fact that leaders must have vision is a statement that came up almost all the time, what was interesting is that the leaders that actually contributed to make a substantial shift for the better in their communities and countries, were those who held a vision that transcended the reality of the times in which they lived, while at the same time they were able to adapt and contextualize their way of leadership to the reality of their times/era.

What transpired for me is that although we speak of vision as a key attribute for leadership, what the greatest leaders have is not only the gift of vision, but also and more so the capacity to literally time travel while they remain grounded in the present. Time travel is not exactly the same as having vision. Time travel is something slightly different. True leaders are literally able to bypass time as we know it and travel back and forth through the ages to sources for their strategy and path, to find insights and to find direction. They can travel one hundred years ahead (or more) and envision the future, feel it, taste it’s texture, see its colors and dynamics and return back to “now” in order to re-adjust their actions and decision so that it supports the direction of that future which they saw and they aim for. It’s almost prophetic. The more the leader is able to time travel, the more her conviction about the direction; the more the conviction, the more the courage and commitment to travel the journey; the more the perseverance to overcome obstacles and remain on the path. It is another level of vision. It is not only about merely seeing what the horizon might hold, but rather about being able to go there. Go to the horizon and go beyond the horizon, to see the possibilities that lay there. It is about reaching out to the future to see it, touch it, smell it and be it—be there, in that future reality, that future that for awhile might only exist within our higher self and then, be able to bring that future and envisioned reality back to the present time. Leaders can do that through sharing the vision, sharing the insights and mobilizing the communities, societies, nations to garner collective momentum and engage the path that leads to that future the leader envisioned.

While time travel may have served many, it is important to know that at the same time, there have been brilliant and remarkable leaders, in the past and still today, that time traveled so far that the vision with which they came back was too much for their current reality. It was too much because the level of consciousness of their communities and societies were just not at par or even close to that of the leader. In fact, because of this gap in consciousness and the leader’s powerlessness to enroll his or her constituencies, such far out visions have often cost many lives. So, it’s almost about knowing how to gauge the tension between the future possibilities leaders see through vision/time travel, the leadership style exercised in the “now” and the collective consciousness of the ground reality. It’s about the leader’s ability to gauge this tension, knowing how much of it s/he can handle, and how much of it the community or society can bear with.

There are two stories that I would like to touch upon in this article to illustrate my point. Although a few paragraphs in an article hardly do justice to the work of these leaders, I present these stories with gratitude and reverence for the sacrifices and the hardships these leaders have been subjected to. I refer to these two leaders with deep gratefulness for the dreams they had, for the vision they held and the compassion, the spirit, faith and commitment reflected in their work.

sankaraThe first case is that of Thomas Sankara, the late President of Burkina Faso (1949-1987), who served as Head of State from 1983-1987 ( Thomas_Sankara). I conducted an interview with Mme Josephine Ouedraogo in Dakar, Senegal. While she is an amazing leader in her own right, she also spoke to me about President Sankara, his ideas, his thoughts and his dreams. Mme Ouedraogo had been Minister of Social Affairs in his cabinet. Currently, after a long career in the United Nations, she heads the largest African humanitarian organization, ENDA Tier Monde based in Dakar, Senegal.

When Thomas Sankara took office, he made radical and innovative changes that were mostly appreciated by the population, but seldom by those who represented the elite. His focus was to eradicate poverty, to improve human rights, to improve women’s lives and give education and health a priority. For example, with a high illiteracy rate and extreme poverty it was hard to get women to stick to the dates and schedules of vaccinations for their children. So, he had traditional African fabric printed with all the dates so that women would wear this fabric as a wrap. It was then easy for them to remember when to vaccinate the children.

He asked all the Ministers and high officials to give up their big luxury cars and drive to work in a small car or on a bicycle because, he would say, “We are here to serve the people. As our people are living in poverty and our country is struggling with its economy, it is not normal that we drive around in Mercedes cars and fly Business Class. It cost the country too much and funds can be allocated somewhere else to better serve our people and our nation”.

In the four years that he was President from 1983 to 1987 Sankara managed to make sure that every single person in the country had at least two meals a day, where previously malnutrition and food insecurity was rampant. Sankara was a socialist, but also very pragmatic. He changed the name of his country. When he took office, the country was called “Haute Volta” as per the colonial rule had name it. He re-named the nation “Burkina Faso,” which in the national language means “Land of the dignified and upright man”. Sankara was always accessible and that did not change during his time in State House. He often rode his bike to work or took his small inexpensive Renault 5 car that he drove himself. When attending international meetings or conferences, he would often share flights with other Heads of State, or they would pick him up on the way. He put in policies to support women, youth, and children and also provided social welfare to all. He worked hard; he worked fast and efficiently. He aimed to give back the people the dignity they had lost. He aimed to create a prosperous nation, a nation that would be free of aid and autonomous.

Thomas Sankara stood to establish the sovereignty of his nation and re-emerge the dignity of his people. He was a man of principles. On one occasion, he was on a state visit to France. Upon arrival he was received by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was scheduled to see President François Mitterrand the next day. But, Sankara refused to see the President, unless he received due apologies for the inadequate protocol with which he was received at the airport. As a visiting Head of State, it is protocol to be received by the host Head of State. Many found Sankara, insolent and audacious. As time went by, the number of politicians, Heads of State of neighboring countries as well as of some European nations like France took increasing offense at his stance. Not many understood what he was trying to do. Many felt threatened by his behavior. But the people on the ground loved him, because, for once, their lives were changing for the better. People became hopeful about the future. They became empowered. Sadly, this would not last long. He stood for the people. He had seen at the horizon all that Burkina Faso could potentially become and that’s what he worked for. However, he was not always able to translate what he saw in a form that would allow him to enroll his peers, constituents and colleagues.

Thomas Sankara was assassinated in October 1987. As is widely stated in the media and literature, although no criminal investigation of this murder was done, many feel that the assassination took place with full knowledge of his second man and best friend, current President Blaise Campaore. Should this be true, there is reason to believe that Campaore may not have taken this decision alone and that a number of other Heads of State from neighboring countries as well as some European countries may have taken part in the resolution to take Sankara out. That is what often happens when one is perceived as a disturbing element; as one that shakes the boat too much and eventually destabilizes the status quo—one is just taken out.

kathradaThe second case I would like to share is my experience in South Africa and the interviews I have had with some of the most senior African National Congress (ANC) leaders. While in Johannesburg this past July, I had the chance to interview Mr. Ahmed Kathrada. Starting with handing out flyers for the ANC and the Indian National Congress at the age of 8 (just eight years old), he spent his entire life together with the core group of the ANC as a political activist in the Freedom Struggle against the apartheid. Mr. Kathrada spoke to me about not only his life, but also about the ANC, about Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and so many more. He spoke to me about what kept them going to fight apartheid and believe that they could manage to create a democratic nation where all people of all races, ethnic groups and religion could live as one people.

Mr. Kathrada was only 34 years old when he was sentenced to life in prison after the famous Rivonia Trial ( He would stay incarcerated for the next 26 years. Despite the hardship of prison as well as in exile (for the ANC members in exile), being incarcerated did not stop him or his comrades from working and fighting apartheid. It is their vision for a new South Africa—where all communities and peoples of all races would live freely together—that fueled their political convictions, determination and perseverance. That’s what kept people like Mr. Kathrada and his comrades going. It is also this same vision that gave them the power to resist and fight apartheid.

At a time where most African countries were still either under colonial rule , at a time where even in the United States, the land of Freedom, racial segregation was the norm, unlike any other political organization the African National Congress was not only open for anyone of any race to become a member but also it fought for its vision of a new South Africa, a country that had Whites, Indians and Africans as a population evolved through the centuries of Dutch and British rule. It would have been easy to fight only for a “black” South Africa. But what good would that be? What would happen to all the other “non-black” communities who had been in the country for generations? Were they not also South African? To me this is where the concept of vision and time travel comes in. What has certainly led to the reality of the South Africa we know today is a combination of what the vision of ANC leaders, as a collective, back in the early days of the forties, fifties and onwards—their conviction that it would be possible to create a democratic nation based on human rights and freedom for people of all races and backgrounds. It was their ability to reflect this vision in the running of their organization, as well as their commitment to work towards the reality they envisioned. I am convinced that the leadership of the ANC did not just have a vision. They could see the reality that they aimed for. They were able to strategize, to organize themselves and attune their decisions and actions in the present in order for it to be both supportive of their vision and also be understood by their communities and constituencies of the times.

Some leaders have the ability, the gift, to see clearly what might be achieved in the future. We might be able to see what kind of world we aspire to create. Often times when we write proposals for a new organization or create a new company, one of the common exercises is to sit down and write the vision of this new entity. So, we sit and write as best as we can. We call it a vision. Yet, vision, as tangible as it sometimes is, is also something very elusive and subtle. It is that which we have seen with the eyes of our higher being. It is something that has emerged from the depth of our being. It is not always understood by others. It even might not make any sense at all for the times in which we live. The realization of the visions that we have is directly subject to our ability to systematically maintain the clarity of the vision, in order to continue fueling our commitment, conviction, direction and determination. At the same time we enable ourselves to present this vision, which we have brought back from traveling through time, to our communities, peers, and constituencies in a language, form and discourse that they can understand.

As Sankara was brutally assassinated because he shook up the status quo too much and thus was perceived as more of a threat by his peers; the leaders of the ANC, starting from its initial days in the early 1900’s, fought for a democratic nations based on human rights and freedom for all people of all races, all ethnic groups and all religions. Although in the course of the struggle, the movement lost many of its members through torture, incarceration, beating, and more, the collective heart of the organization kept focused on their vision. They kept focused on what they knew South Africa could be. They were able to speak of that with clarity and with a language that would enroll communities and constituencies. And this reality they envisioned and paid for with their lives and their blood came to manifest in 1994.
Both Thomas Sankara and Ahmed Kathrada are men that gift us with the best examples of leadership. They count among those leaders who time travelled; those leaders who had seen the other side and were led by the vision “they could see”. It is from such vision and conviction that the kind of commitment, they had, emerges from the depth of their soul. This commitment is the kind that empowers one with resilience and courage to continue to move forward regardless of the circumstances. These great leaders have paid for their respective vision at a great personal cost. Sankara lost his life, and Kathrada spent 26 years behind bars. Yet despite such price, Kathrada never flinched and Sankara never gave up. Both men have left a legacy within their nations and also beyond.

Sankara has inspired thousands of young men and women in Burkina Faso as well as around the continent to continue to struggle for principles, for rule of law, for social welfare and for peace & security.

As for Ahmed Kathrada his legacy continues as an extraordinary liberation struggle veteran. At Kathrada’s eightieth’s birthday, Nelson Mandela said the following to him: “”Kathy, our warmest congratulations to you on the occasion of your eightieth birthday. Your friendship has been a great resource to me in good times and in bad “. Today, Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada are the only two survivors of those accused and charged in South Africa’s principal political trials. Kathrada remains a beacon of light, a source of hope for peace and a champion of non-racism, an issue to which he has established a foundation. South Africa is a special country, not only because of its history, but also because of its diversity. It is a country where people of all races, ethnic groups and religions live together as a people. Yet it is not that there not challenges, even today among the various communities, but at the end of the day, leaders such as Ahmed Kathrada have, through their sacrifices, their leadership, their commitment and compassion, bridged gaps, encouraged dialogue, enlightened and softened the hearts of many and created opportunities for exchange and understanding.

Looking at such leadership with an Integral lens, it is obvious that such leaders showed second tier qualities. They had the gift and ability to understand, communicate and operate with the whole range of development levels, be it with their society, with the communities and stakeholders or with the World. They were endowed with a capacity to see the whole system and this is what may have empowered them to assume an enlightened leadership to take their people at a new level of existence. Despite the often very challenging realities and concrete obstacles that confronted them, these leaders remained unconditionally inspired by their vision despite the fact that the vision they held were light years ahead from their current times.

Sankara had inherited an extremely poor country with very little natural resources; Kathrada was faced with a government of apartheid that segregated the populations and instituted means to prosecute those who violated the rules and regulations of apartheid. Because these leaders could see the system as a whole; because they could listen and appreciate the perspectives of so many (all at different levels of development); because they were committed to a cause that they felt would benefit the collective—they gave their lives to their work out of conviction, out of commitment and out of service to humanity. It was not just a question of leadership per say but leadership to fueled by the struggle for justice, human rights and freedom from oppression.

These leaders, and many others like them who have contributed to major paradigms shifts, had the ability to speak the language that would be heard by all levels of the society. To the people at the community level who may not have all the complicated vocabulary, they spoke simply; to those who came with conflict in their heart and looking for a fight, they responded back in the same way; and to those who wanted to come along with them to create a paradigm of existence, they opened their hearts, minds, and souls to work together.

Sankara would often take his Ministers and other such high officials to the community level and ask them to explain their policies and strategic plans. He would often say that if people at the policy level could explain their programs to the people at the grassroots in plain language free of jargons; then there was a genuine chance to see the successful implementation of the programs.

Such leaders could operate up and down the developmental levels because they, themselves, had transcended all the levels (the levels that we refer to as first tier). These are leaders that operated from a holistic perspective. We could say they worked with an Integral mind.

These leaders worked on all the AQAL quadrants at the same time. For example, in the same day Ahmed Kathrada would have to deal with the rough guards of Robben Island, with their cruelty and arrogance; then spend time with the world greatest leaders and thinkers incarcerated with him, learning and discussing ways to change the world. One minute he was addressing the cruel heart of the guards, the next he thrived in the golden heart of those he related to as his teachers, elders and mentors and at the same time, he worked relentlessly to struggle for the freedom of his nation.

In the process of conducting this research, I have learned so much about the subtle factors defining the quality of leadership. Even though I will never meet Thomas Sankara, I spoke with several individuals who knew him well, worked with him closely and had the chance to witness him in action. Sankara’s leadership was all about service. It was all about taking leadership to ensure the well being of others, ensure the welfare of the community. He focused on those that were unprivileged. He paid attention to the issue of Women and Children; he put education, health, and agriculture at the forefront of his agenda, in the most innovative, creative and bold ways. He remained close to the ground and kept his doors open for anyone who wanted to communicate with him.

On the other hand, I have been extremely lucky to meet and interview Mr. Kathrada. In my discussion with him and through the stories and experience he graciously shared with me, there is a sense of responsibility that has emerged within me to pass on the message and the stories of leadership. As he put it, our best capacities in leadership emerge in times of crisis, in times of struggle. It is at such times that we can see our creativity; our resilience, our compassion and humility; our courage and boldness emerge from the depth of our being. The struggle for good births a different kind of leader: one that will find ingenuity and genius to overcome the challenges obstructing the way to manifest the vision.

We must dream without holding back our imagination, compassion and heart. We must envision the future reality we want as if nothing else mattered and we had the freedom to entertain the boldest vision for our communities, for our people and the world. And once we can see that reality clearly—then we have a vision to anchor our commitment and source our energy. That’s when the work starts and we get the inspiration to strategize, to work and lead the way to manifest that reality, that vision, we pictured in our time travel. This is what sets true leaders apart.

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Yene Assegid is SubSaharan Africa Bureau Chief, Integral Leadership Review, For the past twenty years, Yene worked in human development programs mainly for the Sub-Sahara African region. She aims to transform lives, empower communities living at extreme poverty levels to become economically independent. Yene brings years of experience especially in the field of HIV/AIDS programs and Transformative Leadership Capacity Development. In the past, she worked mainly for organizations such as UNDP, GTZ (German Technical Cooperation), MSF (Medecins Sans Frontiere—Doctors without Borders), PACT-International and several African governments.

She is the founder of everyONE, of two non-for profit organizations 1) working with over 4000 children, elderly and physically handicapped youth and 2) Integral Africa,, a non-profit with the aim to support and facilitate the emergence of the next generation African leaders. Currently her focus is her doctoral dissertation on African Leadership and the launching of Integral Africa.

Yene lives in Freetown, Sierra Leone with her family and is proud to be part of the global team of ILR.