Thuli Madonsela On Leadership

We are working on a booklet “Thuli on Leadership”, so this article is a taste of some principles she shared during our recent weekly Leadership Master Class on CliffCentral.

I started off our conversation with Adv Thuli Madonsela by sharing this thought: “You are gracious, kind, strong; you radiate integrity; you are loved and respected; you are real, authentic; and much more. People like you – in positions of influence – are truly few and far between in today’s world; they are often envied by those that would actually want to be like them, but they can’t because they are caught up in themselves, in a downward spiral of selfish enrichment and wanting to please others, wealth creation and sometimes unethical, immoral behaviour. So, because they don’t have the courage to change and become like you they choose to envy and destroy you. This is not easy for you. However, because you are the above and more, you also have the character and ability to get through this successfully and grow from it, become stronger. While this should convert those that are envious – and it does some – their hearts grow harder instead. But you keep walking down the right path, courageously. How do you do this?” Her answer was: “Firstly thank you for that very gracious take on my life. But from where I’m sitting, firstly I wouldn’t say that I am the epitome of right doing. The label I would claim would be one of authentically trying to do what I consider to be right. I just try to be “in integrity” with my own values and “in integrity” with what I consider to be right.”

It was an interesting leadership lesson in “deflecting recognition away from oneself”. Great and humble leaders do this as a matter of course. She has always done this in my presence.

Madonsela is driven by a vision of the world: “I have a sense of what is the best world where we could all live peacefully regardless of what our differences are in terms of race, gender and ethnicity. And I have a sense that that ideal world is where the peace is based on mutual respect, affirming each other’s Ubuntu, and a world where opportunities are equalized and nobody is destitute or desperate”.

I argued that most people and organisations start out wanting to achieve this kind of world, but somehow things go wrong. Madonsela distinguished between “people who aim to make a difference and people who actually make a difference”. For her it is about “systems thinking – always understanding the impact of my actions on the goal I am trying to achieve. If I’m thinking transactionally I could do things that are sabotaging my world. It’s about understanding the interconnectedness of life, that if I engage in a transaction that is harmful but I think I’m solving a small problem here, I have to understand that that transaction that looks localized has impact on life as a system”.

She has been vilified and insulted by powerful individuals and has somehow dealt with it very effectively, in a manner that has dramatically strengthened her reputation and societies respect for her. How did she handle this? She offered some steps: First acknowledge that it is painful. She explains: “If you don’t acknowledge that its painful it can come back and you hurt somebody else other than the one who has hurt you. Then, forgive the person – you acknowledge and then forgive. According to Madonsela her belief that “the person is doing the best they can and when they know better they will do better” helps to forgive. It is about managing the gap between what the person does or says and trying to respond afterwards. Following the forgiveness step it is about approaching the specific person or party with the intent to first understand their world, followed then only by making yourself understood – The late Dr Stephen R Covey principle of “seeking first to understand before seeking to be understood”.

Madonsela has also learnt the value of trying to hear what is not being said – in parental or positional leadership. She comments: “There are things that are never said, but because they are never said it doesn’t mean they are not being said silently, and you need to be perceptive and see what the impact of your life or things you do or don’t do on other people. Regardless of what you ask of fellow human beings they will start doing things based on how you interact with them as opposed to what you tell them.”

Finally, Madonsela also learnt that leadership starts at home. She says: “We seek not to lead and we seek to be significant, but the main leadership lessons you will have will be learnt by being a parent, because leading your children is not only the most important task but the most trying task.”

It was a rich conversation and can be listened to here and here

For more on what we do to empower individual leaders, teams and organisations – read here

Adriaan Groenewald is a leadership expert and commentator. Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation. Follow him on Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP or @LeadershipPform.




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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