Humility, Courage And Vulnerability

Nation Builder has been encouraged and inspired by the courageous and humble way that Infundo engages with community development – we want to learn from the team’s experience and wisdom.

What is your definition of courageous leadership?

Firstly let me say that I often don’t feel courageous – we are blessed at Infundo because the team is a courageous team – they are good with feedback and holding each other accountable.

In my opinion, courageous leadership is an abundance of many activities – many of them small and perhaps insignificant from the outside. Some might be big decisions and actions which are visible to others. Courageous leadership is also an amalgamation of deeper principles and values; and at its heart a personal conviction to move things forward; to do things better and a vision for how to solve issues which will make life better for others; and to be willing to take a risk for a better outcome.

Courageous leadership is a lifelong living of values which are evidenced in activities – not in rhetoric or in speechmaking; and a sense of service to a broader and greater cause. It is impossible to continue to make courageous decisions if the ultimate agenda is about your own comfort, thus an eye on the horizon is imperative if leadership is to be forthright and brave. This does not mean that fear and doubt is not present; the tension between the willingness to take risks and some doubt will become the fulcrum around which purer decisions are made.

Courageous leadership can present as an initial deep disquiet with the status quo – a discomfort which drives a leader to pursue a new way; and to be willing to sacrifice one’s own ego or agenda for a greater good; a purpose larger than self. Then the actions are not so much courageous but born of a deeper conviction; which, ironically, makes the courageous actions for the leader not feel courageous, merely a natural extension of “living on purpose”.

Which courageous business leaders do you look up to?

Infundo works in communities around the country; and our teams meet courageous leaders all the time; they don’t look like the ones on TV or on billboards – they are the mothers who work multiple jobs to ensure their children go to school and are educated; the selfless teachers who (despite great challenges) teach large classes in under-resourced schools trying their best to assist their learners to succeed. They are those teachers who fight for the rights of children with disabilities – who include them and make them feel accepted and loved; those community members who patrol the schools (as volunteers) to safeguard schools and their learners. One SGB chairperson patrols the school regularly to ensure that cows don’t get in to graze and dirty the classrooms – because this means the children won’t have a clean classroom, and this impacts on the children’s dignity. Courageous leaders are those who wash their children’s clothing by hand in icy water so they can go to school clean; they are the teachers who give us honest feedback so we can serve their community better. I have also been inspired by District officials and union leaders who work with us to overcome the silos in delivery and go the extra mile to ensure that learners get the best education possible.

The theme which is mirrored in these courageous leaders is a commitment to a long term vision, which allows them to commit to the work, whether menial, strategic or operational – even if there is little obvious short term gain. Courageous leaders play to win the long game. They don’t do this because they will gain anything; they do it because it is who they are. When our teams work on the ground in community projects they, and we, are reminded why we do what we do; it energises us to do better.

What traits would you encourage business leaders in South Africa to foster?

Look long term. Consider a challenge in the country/world worth taking on which scares you just a little, which makes you feel uncomfortable and which can no longer be ignored. Embrace the notion that our actions can make a difference! Cultivate a collaborative spirit (because mighty challenges need honest friends for the journey) in your organisation. Listen to others and learn as much as you can. Stay connected to the energy which inspired you in the first place; and then commit to that new picture of what could be; and walk the journey, despite the challenges which will come. Just walk it each day authentically. Some of the toughest challenges the Infundo team has faced has made a difference (I believe that) but it has also shaped us; and brought us great learning.

To make sure that your actions are not about your ego, it is healthy to have people in your inner circle who can give you feedback. It might not be enjoyable; but it is healthy.

What have been some of the most difficult decisions you, as a business leader, have made?

A theme which runs throughout Infundo is to “do whatever it takes” to take the project forward and create impact.

One of the lifelong decisions; and a value which Infundo shares openly with colleagues and associates – is the willingness to do the internal work. To really look at ourselves and live consciously – committing to lifelong learning. This is very demanding; and crucial.

One of the principals we work with passed on in a car accident, and our client was facing financial constraints and couldn’t pay for the trip. So we at Infundo decided that we needed to attend the funeral at our own expense. It meant flying at 6, driving for 1.5 hours to the site, spending the day at the funeral and flying back that night. It was the right decision, and although money was tight at Infundo, it became a non-negotiable for us and we did it. This was based on a good friend’s input that week: she told me very clearly that there could be no reason at all for not being present, not even money . It may not seem difficult now but we were a very new company at that stage and money was not freely available. What it did was set a precedent and principle at Infundo that money is never a good enough reason for not doing the right thing for our communities.

Another time we had an associate who had become emotionally hooked by some of the dynamics in the community; she had lost her objectivity and on the weekend before she was meant to begin a coaching module with the teachers we (the management team at Infundo) had to make a decision to contact her and to relieve her from the coaching job. This was to ensure that the community got the best service which they deserved. We had to pick up the extra work, move some commitments – the community welfare came first. The conversation with the coach was a tough one and necessary. The coaching sessions went well and the teachers never knew that something had changed. The project continues to grow.

In one project we knew that the community principals were feeling like they had no answers; and that we had all the wisdom. In light of this Gail, my fellow Director, made a decision that we had to be vulnerable with the group. In one pivotal session we, as facilitators, had to actively give up our position as those in power and authority, and in that one morning, the principals came to recognise their own power. The schools have grown exponentially since then – the leaders now know they possess everything they need to make the changes they wanted to make.

What has been the most difficult lesson you have learned in your journey of leading a business?

The hardest journey for me has been the lessons I have had to learn myself. Courageous leadership takes authentic living of the principles and values espoused in company policy; sacrificing for the greater good. Hands down the hardest work I have to do when I work in our projects and at work generally, is the internal work I have to do – to show up authentically, listen without getting hooked by my need to rescue; balance my needs with the needs of the staff, schools and the project; remain open to suffering in our communities without becoming so overwhelmed with guilt that I cannot make clear decisions (plus they don’t really need my guilt-laden actions – this would be about me, not them); thinking and making decisions strategically to make the most impact with tight budgets; and managing my own boundaries – what is mine and what belongs to the people around me. My own default settings means that one of my hardest lessons is to listen to others, receive criticism with grace and grow as a person and as part of a team.

One example: I appointed someone onto the team who had been the cleaning lady at our home. I appointed her as an administrative assistant. I committed to teaching her administration skills – so I paid her for additional days when she would learn how to use the computer and type. This continued for 2 years until I felt she was ready to transition to a full time position. I put a mentor in place to work with her and she started working full time administering projects in our office. When her mentor left Infundo I realized over the subsequent 6 months that the mentor had been doing the work and she still had very poor skills. I kept her on for another 2 years, trying my best to train her myself but after that we had to both agree that it wasn’t working, after a lot of conflict. I had failed – she was unable to return to her previous work as a cleaner due to salary expectations but she couldn’t continue in the work she was doing. We paid her an additional 4 month’s salary over what was required and let her go. Where she had been confident in making decisions in my home; she was stripped of her confidence in a job which she couldn’t do. I had been courageous in trying, but the failure to transition her has impacted her life more than mine. I realised afterwards that this had been about me trying to do what worked for me. I had never asked her what she wanted – so I created a reality for her which was borne out of my need to save her – not out of her need for her life. And ultimately we suffered a lot during the years in which she tried her best to fulfil the vision I had for her. Courageous leadership was, in this case, realizing I had failed her, and admitting my mistake; apologizing and moving forward.

Courageous leadership isn’t always pretty or perfect. Sometimes its messy and uncomfortable.

In what area would you like to see business leaders make more courageous decisions? 

I think courageous leadership is a living out purpose in small and large ways; for a greater cause than our own egos. Courageous decisions are also about asking rather than telling; choosing a purpose greater than the company and pursuing it long-term. I think our greatest challenge is that we give up power to the government – waiting for them to sort out the issues which impact on our people here. It would be great if all of us – business leaders and others – commit to working long-term to promote social justice and restitution. This is different to philanthropy and charity – social justice and restitution is about addressing the real imbalances in our country and owning the reality that we may have to give up (our power, our need to be right, our authority, resource, access etc) for a new sustainable status quo to become a reality. Unfortunately we all think that we can carry on as usual and that offering opportunities to those who have never had is enough; but the reality is that the imbalances are still so pronounced that we may have to give up what we have in order for others to get what they need. Let’s be prepared to do what it takes….our country and our own survival and growth depends on it.

Let’s be conscious about what we are doing.

Infundo Consulting is a social enterprise focused on performance across all industries; based on working with and shifting Human Behaviour. Infundo has focused predominantly on the development space: education, community development, District and social impact across geographical areas as well as into corporate spaces which include a focus and understanding of development as a platform for transformation. This reflects Infundo’s ongoing passion for impact across South Africa and the African continent.
 Infundo Consulting is based in Johannesburg with impact in all 9 provinces across various contexts; and more recently working into the Rest of Africa – impacting 9 other African countries.