Issue 2.8 | March 2011

In this Article: how leadership that influences is the result of persistent initiative.

by Jonathan Wilson

“The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is … that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”  Friedrich Nietsche

When I first heard my former boss speak in 1996 at a leadership conference, I realized that I was listening to one of the great leaders of our time.  Michael Cassidy was born in the tiny African kingdom of Lesotho and eventually established himself in South Africa.  After attending university in the UK and then the US, he founded African Enterprise, which was to become Africa’s largest home-grown not-for-profit organization.  This remarkable organization went on to conduct significant work in peace and reconciliation and socio-economic development in numerous countries across this vast and often troubled continent – including hot-spots such as Rwanda, the Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Liberia.  Michael’s work has brought him alongside many of contemporary history’s most famous African leaders.  He has appeared before parliaments in the Western world and his advice has been sought in the conflicts of Northern Ireland and Israel-Palestine.

When I met Michael in 1996, his most recent accomplishment had been his instrumental involvement in the behind-the-scenes negotiations that enabled South Africa’s first democratic election to take place without violence.  After the West’s great negotiators, Henry Kissinger and Lord Carrington, threw their hands in the air and left South Africa to what they predicted would be its descent into a bloody civil war, Michael worked with Kenyan negotiator Washington Okumu to bring Nelson Mandela, FW de Klerk and Mangosuthu Buthelezi together into an agreement which no outsiders had thought possible.

Michael is a man who carries with him an air of tremendous gravitas and spiritual authority, which has consistently generated a cooperative response towards him.   Just a few months after starting work with Michael as a kind of liaison officer in 1998, I sat with him in a secret meeting with a warlord who had a fearsome reputation.  We were in the early stages of a peace process.  What astonished me was Michael’s instant rapport with this man of violence (who moved about in secret because he was a target of his enemies).  Michael did not establish rapport by means of compromise or fawning.  He maintained his own moral integrity even as he reached out to the humanity in the warlord.  Although the meeting was a success in terms of gaining the warlord’s agreement to participate in the peace process, the part I cannot forget was seeing this powerful man weep as Michael gently but authoritatively spoke to the fear and guilt that weighed on the fellow: something I suspect only Michael, among all those who sat in the room that day, had discerned.

A Thirty-Year Obedience

From his early twenties at least, Michael’s leadership potential was seen and acknowledged.  Respected leaders in America and the UK gave him financial assistance, in terms of both start-up capital and ongoing support.  His network into the spheres of the privileged and influential gave him an unusual leg-up wherever he went.  Putting together his skills, his character and his network, one might assume that Michael’s leadership success was both instantaneous and constant.  It was neither.

In spite of occasional successes, and in spite of the affirmation of a few friends, the first ten years or so of Michael’s work were marked by routine discouragement.  After years of slogging he felt he was not moving any closer to achieving his dream of an African-wide impact.  Furthermore, he quickly developed opponents across the ideological spectrum who vilified him as either a communist or a conservative.  As it turned out, the work he is best known for took place some thirty years after he started.

In the previous article (Issue 2.7)I wrote that while leadership is known by its influence, it begins with obedience: obedience to what is right.  As observed by the troubled philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, “things worth living for” require “a long obedience in the same direction.”  Nietzsche had a rather narcissistic and exploitative view of what is “worth living for.”  Nevertheless, I believe the overall principle he states is correct.  Influence may begin with a leader’s courageous initiative to do the right thing, but it is unlikely to reach its potential unless the leader practises “a long obedience in the same direction.”  Leadership that influences does not only begin with courageous initiative: it is the long, arduous and often wearisome repetition of multiple acts of courageous initiative.  To succeed, leaders have to persevere unstintingly; and to the end.

All the truly great leaders – whose leadership has resulted in substantial and long-term yields of well-being for many people – have exemplified this.  In the realm of politics, think of William Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade; Nelson Mandela and the end of Apartheid; Elizabeth Fry and the transformation of Britain’s prison system; or Winston Churchill, who persevered through a political career characterized more often than not by public unpopularity and the contempt of his peers, only to become Britain’s leader in “its finest hour.”   For each of them, their leadership reached its pinnacle of influence only after decades of “a long obedience in the same direction.”

It is not likely that many of us reading this have a Churchillian leadership destiny.  And it is a false picture of leadership that assumes that only a Churchillian influence is “worth living for”.  Nevertheless, we are likely one day to be surprised by just how many people are grateful recipients of our leadership influence, if only we are prepared to repeat a thousand, cumulative acts of obedience, for a long time, in the same direction.

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