Leadership is about creating an authentic vision for change, says South Africa’s former leader, Mr. F.W. De Klerk.

22 september 2017

Suzanne Keatinge, CEO of Dóchas, shares some reflections from Mr. F.W. De Klerk's recent talk in Dublin.

Effective leadership is essential if we are to navigate change and rise up to both the challenges and opportunities.  Dóchas had the privilege of asking former South African President, F.W. de Klerk, during a recent visit to Dublin, what he had learned about leadership during his time overseeing one of the most historic transitions of the 1990s, the dismantling of apartheid South Africa. 

Mr. De Klerk was in Dublin to raise awareness of The Global Leadership Foundation, an organisation which he founded in 2004, which aims to make available, discreetly and in confidence, the experience of former leaders to today’s national leaders.

In his open and frank exchange on 12 September, kindly hosted by Davy Group in the Dawson Street Offices, Mr De Klerk spoke of the need for a consultative style of leadership to manage the challenges in today’s world.

“In my day leadership was mostly top-down”, he recounted. “I used to have bosses that would bang their fists on tables and point fingers to get things done!”  But today, effective leadership has to be about consensus building and consultation, he said.  It is also about gathering a strong team of experts around you. 

Alas, he did not pretend that the main political leaders today, both in South Africa or on the global stage, are stepping up to the plate.  Asked for his view on the Security Council today, he said simply that they had to stop playing their own national politics, and start focusing on the urgent needs of tackling the root causes of conflict. 

He also didn’t hold back on what he saw as a deficit of leadership and honesty that has led to the destructive rise of populism, Trumpism, and indeed the dearth of conviction politicians. 

However, asked then how we can tackle this deficit, he stressed there were no quick fixes.  But he did keep coming back to the importance of communication: “We must communicate what we stand for in a reasonable way – with less shouting and less protest.”

He also spoke of the importance of empathy, and the need to strike a balance between seemingly conflicting realities. In his negotiations with Nelson Mandela, for example, each of them had to put themselves in the other’s shoes. He considered what Mandela had to achieve for his own supporters to bring them along with him, and Mandela had to do the same for him.  This became the basis on which they were able to negotiate – and ultimately - compromise in order to bring about the dismantling of apartheid.  He was to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with Mandela, in 1993, for his efforts.   

It was refreshing also to hear of Mr de Klerk’s strong belief in an active and strong civil society, including networks like Dóchas.  To him, civil society remains a vital pillar of a free democracy, together with a free press and an independent judiciary.   Civil society needs to be the conscience of the nation, he said, and “the pebble in the shoe” of governments.

However, in taking on this responsibility, civil society needed also to take a good strong look at itself in order to develop and communicate an authentic vision of change that will inspire and motivate people.  It also needed to be willing to compromise, not just protest, he cautioned.   

It was striking that a man who has done so much – taken the decision to release Nelson Mandela from prison, and then led a government that ended apartheid – could remain so humble.  His humility and decency did not escape the participants at the Dochas event.  And when asked what has inspired him to keep going, the answer came strong and clear – a heart-felt conviction about the importance of justice, justice, justice. 


Mr. De Klerk currently heads the Global Leadership Foundation which aims to make available, discreetly and in confidence, the experience of former leaders to today’s national leaders.  For more information, go to:  http://www.g-l-f.org/.