A few weeks ago I met with a very impressive, very humble, and extremely dedicated leader: Her name is Elsbeth Dixon, the CEO of Common Purpose South Africa.
In 1983 she completed a BSc in Applied Mathematics at the University of Stellenbosch. She then dedicated even more time to a Honours degree in Operations Research.
Deciding that she was in it for the long haul, Elsbeth (as she guided me to address her) then joined the Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics Department at the prestigious Cambridge University in the UK, and completed both her Masters and Doctorate degrees in Applied Mathematics.
This places her firmly in the upper echelons of measureable intelligence and IQ.
After completing her academic studies, Elsbeth returned to South Africa and decided to join the CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research), a leading scientific and technology research, development and implementation organisation where they study and develop everything from Water Sustainability initiatives to Nanotechnology and Synthetic Biology.
Her contribution there culminated in the founding of the CSIR Innovation, Leadership and Learning Academy (CiLLA), which she headed for the first three years.
Elsbeth then moved into the private sector where she co-founded a private education institution, the Da-Vinci Institute, which specializes in post-graduate management education. She also ran the Technology Top 100 Awards Programme (TT100) for a number of years.
She has done all this while raising three children with her husband, holding a number of other community roles over and above those placed on her professionally, and keeping fit as a road runner.
Finally, she joined Common Purpose in 2006 as the CEO of their South African operation.
Most of the very impressive academic and professional accomplishments I have listed above were passed over very quickly by Elsbeth as I invited her to share a little of her background with me. I had to do a little more digging and persuading to have her share her early background and achievements with me in greater detail. Because of this I quickly came to see, understand and admire the incredible character that is Elsbeth.
But to gain even further insight into her character, we must understand what she is now doing as CEO of Common Purpose. Who and what is Common Purpose?
“Common Purpose started in the United Kingdom in 1989 and to date, more than 30,000 people have participated in [their] leadership development courses internationally.
The idea spread and Common Purpose courses are currently run in France, Germany, Ghana, India, Sweden, Turkey, Ireland, Hungary and [here in] South Africa.
Common Purpose South Africa was launched in 2000 with the backing of Cyril Ramaphosa and Nicky Oppenheimer both of whom are [their] Patrons.”
CPSA is a registered non-profit organisation.
“The objective of Common Purpose South Africa is the advancement of education for the public benefit.”
It is very interesting to note that a woman who would most likely have the ability to pick and choose between companies she could work for, earning a large salary with many benefits, chooses instead to work for a NPO where she undoubtedly earns much less and where recognition and reward is seldom offered or even felt.
I approached some of the CPSA alumni asking them for their insight, and a few words and phrases they used to describe Elsbeth and her team, include: “Humble, professional and non-judgmental; passionate and displays incredible integrity; they helped me to feel so comfortable, it feels like I have known them my whole life.”
So what drives an individual who makes decisions such as she does and who is regarded so highly by others?
I believe half of the answer can be found in Elsbeth’s definition of leadership:
“The ability to inspire people to travel with you on a journey – the direction of travel may be your suggestion or arrived at by mutual agreement, the destination may be known or only vaguely felt, but the bottom line is that something about who you are and what you do makes people prepared to walk the road with you.
“Leadership has little to do with formal authority and everything to do with inspiration and trust.”
What I believe we can take from her answer is that she has been molded, shaped and inspired by those around her and those she feels she can trust.
Early influencers included the leadership of her parents: “My parents were community people. They were always doing things for others, always involved in some way in our community. The values they displayed then have had a great impact on me.”
Other leaders for whom Elsbeth has a high regards include “Ahmed Kathrada for his humility, Bobby Godsell for his ability to cross boundaries, Nelson Mandela for his greatness of spirit and superb relationship building skills, Barak Obama for his eloquence, Jacob Zuma for his savvy, Trevor Manuel for his drive and ability to get things done, Mark Cutifani for his ability to see the big picture, Thea Jarvis (and many other women) for their courage, Thabo Mopasi for his enthusiasm, Victor Sekese for his humanity, and I could go on and on!”
And so we need to ask ourselves the following telling questions: Who is it that we admire? Who are those individuals that inspire us? Our answers to these questions will, in part, tell us who or what we are likely to become.
One of my final questions in exploring her desire to work for Common Purpose was what she had given up in order to do so. She smiled quietly as she explored the answer to this question and then shared that she doesn’t feel like she has given up anything. She feels that what she has done to assist others through her work goes far and beyond any joy she might have gained in a higher paying, more ‘powerful’ position elsewhere.
“It comes down to what you value and what fulfills you.”
A stand out characteristic and something remarkable about top leaders the world over, is their ability to inspire and lift others without meaning to do so. It is a seeming byproduct of their natures.
After sitting with Elsbeth Dixon for a little over an hour, she had done this for me.
Time and time again, in spite of the myriad of books and models that tell us what leaders do and what we should do to be like them, I am faced with the realization and re-confirmation that to enact leadership in its highest and truest form, it is who we are that truly matters.
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