Jonathan Wilson

Writer, Speaker, Consultant

Jonathan Wilson is a writer, speaker and consultant specializing in leadership that makes a lasting difference. Jonathan has an extraordinary background of life, senior executive, board and consulting experience. It has taken him across four continents and into radically varied environments: from remote tribes in tropical rainforests to warlords and politicians in Africa; from nationwide multi-stakeholder projects to the boardrooms of global companies.

His work has never been boring: political mediation, socio-economic development, leadership development, business model innovation and developing strategy for global organizations. The scarlet thread has always been leadership: the company as a leader in the market, and the individual as an organizational leader.

Jonathan is the founder of the management consulting firm, Soul Systems, and consults to senior leaders in the areas of leadership effectiveness, strategy, business model improvement and innovation, and large-scale transformational processes.

Some of the highlights of Jonathan’s fascinating backstory are in the slideshow below.

All slideshow images by and © Jonathan Wilson, except where noted.

Jonathan is founder of Soul Systems, which works with boards and management teams in leadership, strategy and collaboration.

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  • Tribal Roots, 1970s & 80s

    Jonathan’s early years, right through to his teens, were ones of extraordinary life and adventure in the wilds of New Guinea, where his parents worked in the Yali tribe. These years formed in Jonathan a deep love for wilderness, a passion for exploring hidden valleys and forests, a realism in the face of hardship and natural disaster, and a keen awareness of the power of community.

  • Tribal Roots: Lessons

    In their approach to life in a world which always seemed larger than they, the Yali taught Jonathan about friendship and community in the face of odds, the power of story to root that community, and the need for humility before mystery — that not everything can be figured out and mastered.

  • Tribal Roots: Life & Death

    Life in a remote tribe, while rich in so many ways, was fraught with risk: disease, crop failure, natural calamities and more. Over the course of his first twenty years, Jonathan, his family and his friends had to cope with all these, including constant bouts of tropical disease, food shortages and major earthquakes that shattered the existence of thousands. Life — and death — taught Jonathan to be realistic about what we are up against when we want to change the world.

  • Baptism by Fire, 1998-2000

    After an educational detour through the UK and Canada, and in possession of two entirely unrelated degrees, Jonathan found himself in South Africa, and at the beginning of his career in serving leaders. He was thrown into the deep end of political mediation and facilitating large-scale change processes — including running secret negotiations with politicians embroiled in violent conflict (such as Sifiso Nkabinde, centre, photo above). The work was fraught with risk, strung with tension and constantly overshadowed by death.

    Photo © Karel Prinsloo/Beeld/Gallo Images. Used by permission

  • Baptism by Fire: Learning Leadership

    Too often leaders are driven by a narrow vision of victory, one focused on competitors and not on a comprehensive socio-economic legacy. Working with leaders bent on a hollow victory built on violence, Jonathan navigated the tricky path of multi-stakeholder engagement by means of the invaluable mentoring and support given him by his boss, Michael Cassidy. Michael demonstrated magnanimity with even the most seemingly bankrupt leaders, and in doing so often got the best out of them. Jonathan thus witnessed sometimes astonishing transformation. Michael led with tremendous wisdom and savvy that flowed from years of socially and politically transformative work with politicians and civic leaders around the world: including, in South Africa, with Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, F.W. de Klerk, Mangosuthu Butheleizi and many others.

  • Across Africa, 2001-2005

    As his skills in leadership consulting developed, Jonathan was tasked with developing leadership development processes that supported “nation-building”, initially in South Africa. With a team of in-house and outsourced first-class trainers and thinkers, Jonathan developed the Ascent leadership programme. This saw an exponential increase in intake over four years. They knew they were on the right track when a participant said, “I’m here because of what I saw happen to my boss who attended last year.” In 2003 Jonathan was appointed to the international executive and given oversight of leadership development initiatives in eleven countries spread across the vast African continent.

  • Across Africa: the African Marketplace

    Jonathan worked with (and regularly brought together in collaboration) leaders from various sectors: not-for-profit, aid and development, commercial and government. Travelling and engaging leaders across Africa convinced him more than ever that the bulk of aid and development work undermines socio-economic progress (as he also observed while growing up in SE Asia). It didn’t fit African culture and it was accountable to the wrong people — the donors instead of the end-users. Vision is often the result of a reaction, a reaction to what shouldn’t be. And thus began a vision for Jonathan.

  • Across Africa: Tribal Capitalism, Part 1

    Jonathan had always been passionate about African development in which the best of the world’s socio-economic systems were employed but retooled in authentically African terms. As he witnessed micro-enterprise (see photo) and other “sociopreneurial” initiatives, he became increasingly convinced that a crucial, central piece of authentic African development was commercial in nature. In particular, Jonathan envisioned the rise of leaders who understood that the marketplace is the primary vehicle by which society makes life work — it fosters innovation, scale and the proving (or failing) of useful services and products. Thus began his passion for Tribal Capitalism: the creation of value by people, for people, in a manner that is culturally rich, facilitates human flourishing (employee and customer), and which yields in lasting, constructive impact.

  • Across Africa: and Beyond

    Africa is an enormous landmass too often talked about in the West as if it were one country. It is diverse in landscape, cultures, ethnicities, lifestyles and more. It has first-world city centres as well as poor, slum-ridden urban sprawls. It possesses vast tracts of wilderness of many kinds — forests, deserts, mountains — and the wildlife in those regions ranges from the exquisite to the majestic. So it was very hard for Jonathan and his wife, who frequently explored these wilderness regions, to leave South Africa and the continent to move to Canada. But transitions are necessary for growth, and it soon proved to be that the vision for healthy commerce was as needed in the North of the globe as in the South.

  • The Wild West, 2006 - Present

    After taking on a temporary role as CEO for a Canada-based organization working on all five continents, Jonathan began a more intentional pursuit of the growth of authentic leadership practises and the building of a marketplace that enables and contributes to human flourishing. To do so he began the consulting practise, Soul Systems. He has since had the privilege of working with small, medium and Fortune 500 companies in Canada, the US and globally. Not long after Jonathan started Soul Systems, the “Great Recession” bit and opened up, through the crisis, a whole new horizon for business — the possibility for a complete rethink of how we make life work through the marketplace.

  • The Wild West: Tribal Capitalism, Part 2

    Through Soul Systems, Jonathan works to enable men and women to become Tribal Capitalists: to lead their organizations with soul and skill, releasing their teams to create value that extends far beyond the bottom line in both impact and duration.

    In the details this is nothing more than employing the tools of business model innovation, strategy, effective governance, identification and use of strategic information, stakeholder engagement and so on — but all within the framework of Jonathan’s Leadership by Soul™ model, where lasting change is achieved only by a team’s deep (soulful) self-understanding, clear and unwavering purpose, rigorous discipline, and constant nourishment of trust.

  • The Wild West: Soul Change

    Leadership ends with legacy. Between vision and legacy is unrelenting action — acting on your vision, again and again, day after day, with resolute focus, with dogged determination, relentlessly, for years. All great achievements — the building of value-creating companies, the abolition of the slave trade, the ending of Apartheid — were the result of what the philosopher Nietzsche called “a long obedience in the same direction”. In fact, they typically take 30-50 years. It’s early days on the road to a transformed marketplace, but it’s a road worth walking.

  • And the Journey Goes On

    P.S. When Jonathan can, he returns to his heart’s home and his tribe, among the Yali in Papua, Indonesia.