As an African, there is a saying: “I was not born in Africa… Africa was born in me”. I know that no matter where we are from, we each feel a huge affinity for the land of our birth, but for those in whom Africa was born, it does not seem to ever diminish with time or distance. As far away as we may live across the seas, and as long as we might have been away from her, Africa beats inside us like a drum.
Some unique things and memories stir us up – sports, wildlife, the taste of her unique foods, scenery, sunsets, the broadness of an African smile.
And her music. Ah, her music. Mbaqanga, Isicathamiya, they all call our hearts home whenever those strident bass lines and soaring voices, and the body rippling rhythms, are heard. It is deeply soulful and stridently stirring.
Perhaps one of our great icons growing up in South Africa, was Johnny Clegg, and his bands Juluka (it means “Sweat”), and later Savuka (“We are awakened”). Those of us who are far from our Africa resonate with his song “Scatterlings of Africa”, for that is who, and what, we are. He wrote another song, some lyrics of which I want to share with you as a prelude to a short musing on leadership. From a song called “Great Heart”
Every man has to be his own saviour
I know I can make it on my own if I try
But I’m searching for a Great Heart to stand me by
Underneath the African sky
A Great Heart to stand me by…
Perhaps my standards are impossibly high… you tell me. I believe that every person who stands in leadership or who finds themselves, by whatever path, in the public eye and regarded as an icon, or an example, has a responsibility to be “a Great Heart”.
What is a great heart? A great heart is an inspiration, a thing to hunger after, and to emulate. As a member of a team, it is hugely reassuring to be led by a great heart. One whose morals, convictions, passions, vision and values are so deep they are an anchor, and a North Star, for everyone in the team.
Great hearts are hard to find. They are jewels, a surprising rich find, in the dusty clay of most organisational cultures. Jewels are not formed in surface mud and spring rains, and they do not emerge from the earth cut and polished. It’s a tired analogy but its true… Jewels are forged. Crushed by an inexorable weight, seared by incredible heat, a jewel is beautiful precisely because of the time and effort that has gone into its creation, and the rarity that accompanies that.
A great heart, truly, is a jewel. In my career in HR, I have worked for many leaders. And I have met many more leaders. I have probably, as an HR Manager and consultant, been intimately related to about eighty or one hundred, over time. In all that time, I am comfortable in saying that I have worked for only two “great hearts”. A man called “HCJ”, and a man called “TPA”. (Not their real initials.)
Let me say that at this stage of my career, if I were to look for another job, I would only look for a job where I could work with a great hearted person. Life is too short to work for any other kind of person. I would interview themas much as they interviewed me, and ask questions that showed me their heart. Because a leader always reveals their heart when they lead.
“HCJ” is – was – my first real manager. Much older than me. When I met him, he was already cut and polished. Quiet, articulate, and loyal. Visionary, firm and exceptionally capable. He has a real connection with his teams, and we went willingly – and often – into battle for him. We would travel far, make huge commitments, achieve impossible goals. In my first 6 months on the job, he personally took the heat for all my many failings as I figured out what an HR Manager did and then how I was supposed to do it. Many times my naïve failures cost him credibility, but he stood by me as I grew in the role and learned how to be his right hand man. And then his patient and faithful investment in me paid off and I began to enhance his credibility through my work.
“TPA” is a very different person. Younger than me and full of fire and passion. He grabs the future and drags it into the present. Absolutely at peace with who he is, he is a work in progress and proud of it. Not content just to have a dream, he forges it and makes it real. Equal parts sure-footed and tentative; bold and cautious, demanding and considerate. As much as he is open to being refined by the fires of leadership, he expects no less from those around him. And there is a resilience to his relationships, an ability to cross swords, challenge and debate in both directions. He is somewhat of an enigma to me, but he is also deeply familiar.
That’s the thing with great hearts. They are instantly recognisable. And they are thrilling to be near.
Find a great heart, to stand you by. And BE a great heart, to stand others by.