Gareth Cliff Shapes A New Kind Of Follower

On 18 July 2013 my leadership session with the leader of a large law firm was interrupted because he needed to go down to the lobby of their building to lead his colleagues in holding hands for Nelson Mandela, for 67 seconds. Of course they followed what seemed to be the rest of South Africa in an initiative referred to as Hands Across South Africa driven by Gareth Cliff of 5fm and SA Idols.

The response to this call to all South Africans was overwhelming, to the point that Cliff, together with legendary Professor Jonathan Jansen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Freestate, decided to take it to the next level.

Often when I show a slide to an audience of some of the leaders I have engaged and the name of Gareth Cliff appears a debate ensues as to whether he is in fact a leader. Let us settle this once and for all. He has over 2 million listeners on his national morning show on 5Fm; he is a judge on SA Idols with millions of viewers; he has 400 000 friends on Facebook; he has over 500 000 followers on Twitter; he is an ambassador for the “Step Up Let’s Lead” initiative; and much more.

Is he a leader? Of course he is.

These days not only the young but even many “older” individuals are influenced by his opinions and views, which he makes known on a regular basis. Even hard core lawyers followed his call for holding hands on Mandela Day. He does not lead a formal structure, like a political party, or a large corporate listed on the JSE, or even a SOE. He is somehow surrounding himself with a following through another structure called social media.

We believe leaders are in the business of creating movement. Cliff creates movement. Question is, what movement, and does his latest initiative #HandsAcrossSA answer this question?

On his blog, 12 July, he asked this question: “Imagine a South Africa where everyone joined forces to work together towards a vibrant, integrated country?” Truth is that the level of unity equals the level of movement, or performance. Based on this principle alone our countries performance seems to indicate low levels of unity. Any initiative to improve this is therefore a good one.

The #HandsAcrossSA call in July was “Let’s make some ‘Madiba Magic’ happen! Whatever your age, race, gender or colour…wherever you are…whether you’re at home or work, at school, college, university, shopping, or even in the car or taxi…join hands across South Africa on Mandela Day, Thursday 18th July at 8:45 am for 67 seconds.”

Now, in September, following a more formal launch of #HandsAcrossSA, to take it to another level, the call is: “We felt the euphoria on Mandela Day, now let’s give everybody a chance to keep talking; tell us what you are doing; we must all share in this responsibility. First of all take responsibility for yourself, and then we can start looking at how we can spread good messages, make positive changes, join projects that are already doing good things. And, everybody, let’s just be part of a family that is moving forward rather than a family that is retrogressing.”

According to Cliff South Africans have a desire to be part of something positive, as seen on Mandela Day. But, a barrier to us uniting is in fact individual cultures that separate us rather than a homogenous South “Africanness” where we appreciate the diversity. It is a barrier “because it has become something one cannot criticise,” explains Cliff.

Another barrier according to Cliff is “the fact that we are not honest with one another. In some cultures it is about not wanting to upset others, or feel awkward about a specific topic.” He feels many prefer to be diplomatic rather than honest, pretending all is okay rather than confront the relevant issue.

Cliff seems to be a leader in the new reality, where the so called “follower’s” attitude is changing, or to a large degree has already changed dramatically. It is my observation that many leaders are struggling to lead this ‘new follower’; to really understand them. And how can you lead effectively when you don’t understand your follower and his/her attitude, outlook to life?

Who is this new follower that seems to emerge at an alarming pace; competing for a voice for change and a new way of living, doing, leading? It is someone that is more informed than ever, on an ‘access to information, and even knowledge’ level; someone with a view and opinion, even though at times it may be void of wisdom; someone that does not just respect authority blindly; someone that wants to be involved in decision making, yet also wants their leader to be strong and decisive; someone that may still be in the process of defining their own identity within an environment that moves forward at an ever increasing pace; someone that wants to be successful ‘yesterday’; someone that understands the world of social media, which creates a feeling and often reality of empowerment; someone that will never again be blindly mobilized by a politician, and perhaps any leader.

This new follower is being shaped by societal leaders like Cliff.

He is on the fringe of influencing the “new” attitude of those that you as a CEO or politician attempt to lead. As an example, when Cliff proclaims assertively that the days of people accessing daily information through reading newspapers are over, then, whether this is true or not may very well become a reality because societal leaders like him says so. Thousands of followers who may still be reading newspapers daily start believing they are out dated and need to get with the times, start tweeting. Or, if he states publicly that Julius Malema has become irrelevant, then this may very well become the reality. Cliff may argue that he simply reiterates what happens out there or are already discussed privately around dinner tables and around the braai. But, the mere fact that he confidently raises these views on to powerful platforms changes the game, takes the trend to another level and momentum that leads to societal change.

Understand that his views are not only expressed on air to disappear as soon as he walks out of the studio. It trends on Twitter and becomes a topic of discussion on Facebook and then even finds its way into what used to be the main platforms for influencing, like newspapers and magazines. In short, as a leader you may want to consider following someone like Gareth Cliff in order to gain a better understanding of your own followers.

His personal aspiration is this: “Show off the good and let them know they are not alone; and change the minds of the bad.” And then he adds this plea: “Let’s join hands and make it get better. The symbolism and feeling of what we did on Mandela Day was great! The feeling is what makes people get married. It is the feeling that makes people stand up for what they believe. Let’s not poo-poo something like a bunch of people joining hands for a couple of seconds as a once of gesture, that it does not have staying power. It stays in your head, it stays on your Facebook profile, it stays in your opinion on Twitter, and in the conversations you have with your own family, your teachers, students and friends”.

You may not listen to Cliff’s show in the mornings, or follow him on Twitter, or you may not agree with his sense of humour and even views on some issues. But, you have to start taking him serious as a leader and influencer in South Africa. He is becoming a real game changer on several fronts.

One thing is sure; that with the influence he has all South Africans can be grateful for his burning desire for our country to be successful; that he wants to positively influence the future of this nation, which he believes is a wonderful one.

This article was featured in the





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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