In conversation on Leadership

Dr Mongezi Makhalima and Dr Sunny Stout-Rostron share a conversation on leadership and how it has developed, three things that leaders need to focus on, and the impact of COVID on leadership.

Dr Mongezi Makhalima (MM): We always start the show with a very cheeky question: What gives you the right to talk about leadership on our show?

Dr Sunny Stout-Rostron (SSR): I think pretty much everybody has a right to talk about leadership. One of the key things is that if everybody just takes the time to sit down and reflect on what have they done today, that has shown leadership, there will be a journey, and there are probably some patterns.

MM: Actually, all of us have our own leadership work that we need to do. The real important job is to discover it and find it and do it. It’s not some academic thing that’s sitting in books. Tell us a little bit about your story about leadership in terms of how you got to where you are now.

SSR: It’s an interesting story. When I started to think about it, I always thought that my leadership journey started when I was in high school or university. But, when I thought about it a little bit more, I remembered what my mother used to do when I was eight to ten years old, which was go around the neighborhoods collecting money for cystic fibrosis and Marie Curie cancer.  I had to have a way of explaining, when I was a kid, that I did it because it was for my mother’s sorority, or it was for the church, and so I used to talk to people and help them think about what we needed to do for others.

One of the things that I learned very young was that it’s about others, it’s about other people. What do you have? What can you help them with? How can you assist them? Where can you be part of your community? What can you do for your community?

That was a lesson that I didn’t realize – until I was really in my 20’s – that I was absorbing. When I was 12, I was a very grown-up kid because I helped raise all my brothers and sisters. I was always babysitting and helping my mother’s friends.  Nobody had any money in those days, and I needed to earn my money for my school books, clothes and things.

I told my mother that I needed a job, so she found out that I could go teach swimming to Girl Scouts (or Bluebirds as they were called). So I would go every day in the summer and I would do activities with these kids, help them learn; we would read and I would teach them swimming, and so my ability to think about others and how to help others started in those times.

Then in high school and university, I mentored all my friends and other students. I was good at French. I was good at maths. I would tutor my classmates. When I was a teenager, one of my junior high school teachers said to my mother: “Do you think your daughter would be interested in going to Europe?” and my mother said “She would jump at it!”

So, my teacher invited me to come along – we went to France and Spain – to help mentor these 16-year-old girls and help be the organizer to find families for them to visit on Sundays to speak French or Spanish. My job was to tutor them, coach them and lead them in discovering Paris, Madrid and the places that we went to.  I had to make telephone calls in French and Spanish, and I had to organize things, so I discovered I was a pretty good organizer. And that became a skill that leaders really need.

MM:  What about that transition into the kind of positions and some of the work that you’ve now had the pleasure to do?  How did you get to be a to be where you are, what are you busy with, and how did that transition to where you are now?

SSR: I grew up in the days of drugs, sex and rock and roll in San Francisco. Don’t ask me any questions. I was an activist and I was part of fighting against the Vietnam War and the Cambodia war and then I became very involved in civil rights. In fact, I met Bobby Kennedy, two weeks before he was killed.

We were campaigning for the Democratic candidate for the presidential election, and I discovered that I had a way of influencing people and speaking to them and helping them think about things.  What I discovered later is that leadership is not about forcing your opinion onto somebody else, it’s not about forcing your opinion onto your team or your group. 

Later I went into business.  I first became a television presenter on a women’s magazine program. So, I became interested in women’s issues, women’s votes, women’s medical issues and their right to education.

When I grew up, I was told I could be a teacher or an administrator.  That was it, and I said to my mother “I’ll think about that”, and she then said “Your brother’s education is more important” to which I replied “I’m going to fight that to the day I die.” I was going to fight for the fact that women’s education this is important, as equal to men.  So I was starting to have some beliefs that influenced me.

But I think the most important thing is that I learned to influence people. You help them think. You help them to think things. You don’t just tell them what you think or believe. You help them to think it through and then you have a conversation. The most important thing is to be willing to be influenced by somebody else’s thinking and to not be so entrenched in your own point of view.

We see this today. In the country of my birth, you see that people think their opinion is the right opinion. Everybody has part of the truth, but we don’t necessarily each have all of the truth. So, it’s really important to be willing to be influenced by other people, and for me, that’s what leadership is about.

You bring everybody’s voice in, and then you make a decision. That’s what I did in business as I very quickly became an executive. I had a very interesting business journey until I decided to come out of the corporate world but I was in it for 18 years. For me, it was always about helping your team because everybody could be a leader. So, it was never just about you as the boss. It was never just about you as the leader. It was always about how do we be leaders together.

MM: What are some of the big lessons for you about leadership that you’ve taken from your experience?


SSR: One of the first lessons was when I was 21. A girlfriend and I went – with $100 – to travel around Europe and Northern Africa. I don’t know how we thought $100 was going to last, but anyway, we did and we realized we had to work very soon. So, we did things like making breakfast for people in the youth hostels.  A couple months down the road, we went to Barcelona with a friend who was a student in Paris and we travelled on the trains to Sweden. That was how we traveled: using cards and passes and things.

At Christmas, we went to Barcelona with a friend whose parents’ friend was an American diplomat or ambassador in Barcelona.  He was having 65 people to brunch and he asked us if we would help with the brunch.  He asked us if we could make omelets.  My friends both said no, but I said yes, so he knew that we couldn’t make omelets, but I really wanted to do the work.

The next thing we knew, we were looking at hundreds of eggs. The ambassador came in and said: “You don’t really know how to do an omelet, do you?”  I said that I did but that I was terrified to do it, so he rolled up his sleeves and proceeded to teach us how to make omelets. It worked, and we learned a new skill, so that’s what we went on to do as we traveled: we could contact the American Embassy and we would offer to do branches for the diplomatic parties. That’s how we survived and traveled for 18 months.

That ambassador in Barcelona gave me my first lesson in leadership: he said that you always tell the truth to your team. You always tell the truth to your team and you always agree with your team together.  That was my first lesson in leadership and it was a good lesson.

The second lesson in leadership is about courage. When I was an executive in hospitality, I was sales and marketing manager and this new boss arrived. I turned around as he walked in the door and I said “Thank goodness you’re here. We have so much work to do.”

Everybody looked at me like I was mad speaking to the boss like that. But when we had our first meeting together he said it was so refreshing to meet somebody so passionate to do the work and who was inclusive of everybody on the team. That was my second lesson in leadership.

MM: The lesson that you shared now is around authenticity: just showing up as yourself.

SSR: That’s right, and I think that’s the most important things in leaders. When I started out in business, you played a role: you’re professional and you dress the part and all that kind of thing. But nobody really knew who you were. Leadership isn’t like that anymore.

One of the things I always say to my clients is to get to know their team. How are they working with their team?  Very often they don’t want to talk about personal things with their team. They don’t know anything about the personal lives of their team members, yet they need to know and understand the values and culture where their people come from – particularly in South Africa, where we’re so diverse.

It’s so exciting – living in South Africa – because people are so different, and yet we have a lot of common interests, but you’ve got to be a human being with your people. You need to know something about them, which leads me to something else that I think is really important about leadership, which is the ability to manage conflict and tension.

MM: I find, when it comes to authenticity, that people censor themselves so much. For some reason, there is this template of how a leader is supposed to be but then you show up looking like this template and nobody knows who you are. Part of my PhD was around credibility, and one of the things that underpins leadership credibility and leadership trust is self-disclosure. I find that, working within corporates, leaders struggle with self-disclosure and thinking that people may disrespect them because they know too much about them. and what I don’t want them to think that people are going to disrespect me because they know too much about me.

You spoke about the American politics earlier. What is your sense about the state of political leadership in the world right now?

SSR: I presume you really wanted honest answers to that question.  First of all, that there are a lot of people who do not step into leadership roles, who would be really good in those roles.  But it’s so difficult to be a politician these days because it’s very politicized to be a politician of any kind – even to be a leader in their environment or community. Times are very difficult.

The second thing I think, is that we don’t have enough mentoring. As we grow up, everyone should have a mentor throughout their lives.  I have three mentors. The people who are most successful in life have about twelve mentors.  It could be a parent, a teacher, a priest, a pastor, a minister, a rabbi, an Imam – throughout your life, there will be somebody that you’ve gone to for advice and ask for help.

But everyone who has been mentored in their life needs to mentor. I always have at least three people that I’m mentoring every year where I don’t charge, and it’s to help them develop and grow in their career or through difficult times.

In terms of leadership today, we don’t have the right leaders in place everywhere. I think it’s because some of the people who would be good in those roles aren’t stepping up because it’s scary to be in a leadership position these days, whether it’s in business, whether it’s in politics.

On the subject of politics, we have become a world divided rather than a world shared.  I speak from what’s happening in Europe. I speak from what’s happening in the States. We’re not seeing it in the same way in South Africa. South Africa is a lot more unified, I think, than it even realizes. If you asked me to choose what country we would want to live in right now, i would be in Africa. I’ve lived in Europe, in the UK. I’ve come from the States. I have kids in Australia. I’ve traveled a fair bit. I think this is one of the more exciting places to be and I would always encourage people – young people particularly – to step into leadership positions here, and to think about what are some governing positions they would want to be in.

I think that our leaders today haven’t had enough mentoring. They haven’t. Also they have an axe to grind. They have an agenda. Let’s just look at what’s happening in the States where you can see the country’s divided 50/50 In terms of what people believe.

I think one of the things we’ve done pretty well in South Africa is there is an ability to listen to other people who come from another culture, another value system, another religion. I’ve never been in a country where there was the lack of religious tension that I’ve experienced everywhere else. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I think people accept what another person’s spiritual path is.

Oh, we argue about a lot of things. I mean, we have a lot of issues and problems in South Africa. We’ve come from a really troubled history of slavery, and prejudice and racism and lack of education. We have a long way to go to put it right.

 For those of you who don’t know why I’m here, I brought my husband home to South Africa. He had spent his life as a journalist using his pen to fight for freedom and democracy for South Africans. He’s fairly well known. He was very ill, and we thought he was going to die, so I said: “You need to go home, this time for you.”  That’s how we ended up back in South Africa. That was 22 years ago, and he’s still here, so it was the right decision.

MM: Getting back to diversity and the fact that we are living in a divided world, no matter where we are, what would be what would be one thing that a leader could do to create inspired diversity?

SSR: The most important thing is to be interested in others. When we go to a party or a social event, we don’t ask questions.   We don’t find out who the other people are, where they come from, where they grew up, how come they’re there. A leader needs to be interested in others: to be interested in somebody else’s language, learn how to say their name, learn their language. Learn how to say hello, and goodbye and how are you in their language. It doesn’t take much to show somebody that you’re really interested in them. So, I think it’s about being interested in others, and also being willing to share your story if they want to hear it. But don’t be the only one who’s sharing their story.

MM:  A lot of what Sunny speaks about can be found in her book Transformational Coaching to Lead Culturally Diverse Teams.  She works with real world experience around this issue and talks from experience.  As we wrap up, how has COVID impacted you as a person who is working with leaders, and how do you think it has impacted leaders?

SSR: It’s impacted leaders with a lot of dramatic stress. Many families have lost family members and some people have lost colleagues. COVID has changed our lives. We’re working on Zoom. We’re working on Microsoft Teams. It’s impacted our family a lot, because I actually have the number two dread disease of the gut and I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that I’m not to get COVID because I won’t make it.

It’s affected all of us, and it affects my clients hugely because they’re managing teams or losing members of their teams. It’s affected all of us and our future because COVID isn’t going to go away. It’s something we have to learn how to live with. 

One of the things that I would say about leadership is to is always to be working on developing your own self-awareness. Continually ask yourself how people experience you, and what do you need to learn to do differently, because leadership is about how you behave.  Management is a profession and you can be trained. You need both.  You can’t lead without managing and you can’t manage without leading.  Managing is achieving results through others.  Leadership is how you behave, how you role model, how you show up in the world.

COVID has impacted that in a big way. One good thing that has been a result of COVID a lot of leaders are more humane. They’ve had to learn a lot about people and they’ve had to understand their people at a deeper level.  They’ve had to learn how to help their people cope with loss, how to cope with estrangement and isolation, and not being able to see people in person except at the grocery store.  I think think leaders have become better at being human beings.

MM: We have learned to be okay with seeing people’s lives beyond corporate walls. What would be your concluding messages to anyone listening to this show?

SSR: There are three things. The first is to believe in yourself.  It’s always important to know that you have something extraordinary to offer those that you impact in whatever way.  Believe in yourself always, and develop yourself. The second thing is be mentored. Have a mentor. Try to have a mentor – a parent, a teacher, a boss, a colleague – and mentor others.  Finally, continually be willing to learn and develop yourself. Develop self-awareness as you go.

By Sunny Stout-Rostron Associates

Sunny coaches at senior executive and board level in corporate organizations and educational institutions. She has a wide range of experience in leadership and management development,  business strategy and executive coaching. With over 20 years’ international  experience as an executive coach, Sunny believes that there is a strong link between emotional intelligence and business results – she works with leaders and their  teams to help them achieve individual, team and organizational goals, gaining  wisdom and knowledge through their own experience.

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