On July 18 my session with the leader of a large law firm was interrupted because he had to lead his colleagues in holding hands for Nelson Mandela. They followed what seemed to be the rest of South Africa in an initiative referred to as Hands Across South Africa, led by Gareth Cliff of 5FM and SA Idols.
The response to this call was overwhelming, to the point that Cliff – together with Professor Jonathan Jansen, the rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State – decided to take it to the next level.
Often when I present a slideshow to an audience of some of the leaders I have engaged and the name Gareth Cliff appears, a debate follows about whether he is a leader.
Let us settle this once and for all. He has more than 2 million listeners on his national morning show on 5FM; he is a judge on SA Idols, which has millions of viewers countrywide; he has 400 000 friends on Facebook; he has about 500 000 followers on Twitter; he is an ambassador for the Step Up Let’s Lead initiative. 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 regularly. 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 a state-owned enterprise. He surrounds himself with a following through another structure called social media.
We believe leaders are in the business of creating movement. Cliff creates movement. The question is: what movement? And does his latest, initiative, #HandsAcrossSA, answer this question?
On his blog of July 12 he asked: “Imagine a South Africa where everyone joined forces to work together towards a vibrant, integrated country.”
The truth is, the level of unity equals the level of movement, or performance. Based on this principle, our country’s performance seems to indicate low levels of unity. Any initiative to improve this is 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”.
Following a more formal launch of #HandsAcrossSA, to take it to another level, the call is now: “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 the 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”, he explains.
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 that many prefer to be diplomatic rather than honest, pretending all is fine rather than confronting the issue.
Cliff seems to be a leader in the new reality, where the attitude of the so-called “followers” 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”; they are struggling to understand. And how can you lead effectively when you don’t understand your follower and his or her attitude and outlook on 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 who 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 who does not respect authority blindly; someone who wants to be involved in decision-making yet also wants his or her leader to be strong and decisive; someone who may be in the process of defining an identity in an environment that moves forward at an ever-increasing pace; someone who wants to be successful “yesterday”; someone who understands the world of social media, which creates a feeling and a reality of empowerment; someone who will never again be blindly mobilised by a politician, and perhaps by any leader.
This new follower is being shaped by societal leaders such as Cliff. He is on the fringe of influencing the “new” attitude of those who you, as a chief executive or politician, attempt to lead.
When Cliff proclaims assertively that the days of people accessing daily information through reading newspapers are over, then – whether this is true or not – it may become a reality because societal leaders like him say so. Thousands of followers, who may still be reading newspapers daily, start believing they are outdated and start tweeting. Or, if he states publicly that Julius Malema has become irrelevant, then this may become the reality.
Cliff may argue that he reiterates what happens out there and what is discussed privately at dinner tables or the braai. But the fact that he confidently raises these views on a powerful platform changes the game, takes the trend to another level and momentum that leads to societal change.
His views are not only expressed on air, to disappear as soon as he walks out the studio. They trend on Twitter and become a topic of discussion on Facebook and even find their way into what used to be the main platforms for influence, such as 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 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 pooh-pooh something like a bunch of people joining hands for a couple of seconds as a once-off 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 family, your teachers, students and friends.”
You may not listen to Cliff’s show in the mornings or follow him on Twitter. You may not agree with his sense of humour and his views on some issues. But you have to start taking him seriously as a leader and influencer in South Africa. He is becoming a real game-changer on several fronts.
One thing is sure: with the influence he has, all South Africans can be grateful for his burning desire for our country to succeed – that he wants to positively influence the future of this nation, which he believes is a wonderful one.
* Adriaan Groenewald, a lead contributor to the BRLeadership Platform, is a leadership expert and managing director and co-founder of Leadership Platform (www.leadershipplatform.com). Follow him on Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP, or send comments to adriaan@leadershipplatform. com or to Business Report editor Ellis Mnyandu at email@example.com.