The man who wants to change the world

Indipendent newspaper chairman Iqbal Surve at the Indipendent offices in by Simphiwe Mbokazi 8

Indipendent newspaper chairman Iqbal Surve at the Indipendent offices in by Simphiwe Mbokazi 8

Published Feb 13, 2014


Johannesburg - He has to be one of the least well-known South Africans, yet he is influential, wealthy and successful. He is well-read, well-travelled and well-connected, with a clear sense of purpose to make a difference.

His aspirations are: “To create a more just society in which one day I can say I played a role in its creation. I make no bones about my entrepreneurial drive, which has made me a very rich man, but I don’t want to die a very rich man, I want to die as a man who used his resources in a small way and changed the world.”

Dr Iqbal Survé, a medical doctor by training and businessman by profession, speaks boldly about how he practically incorporates these aspirations into his daily life. Every day he affords himself a few minutes of meditation – early in the morning and late in the evening. He then asks himself the following: “What good will I do today?” and then in the evening: “What could I have done differently?” At the end of his life, he wants to be proud of his answers to these two questions, and feel “that there is no deficit with respect to having made a difference in this country, the continent and the world”, he says.

Perhaps the most apt description of Survé is that of a “change agent”. He recently stitched together a deal to save Independent Newspapers from its downward spiral under the Irish rein. As a founding member of the Clinton Global Initiative, he often enjoys moments of reflection with leaders like Bill and Hillary Clinton and most recently with President Barack Obama when he visited South Africa last June.

Some may say his claim to fame is that he was Nelson Mandela’s medical doctor on and off Robben Island. But his profile goes deeper than that. Survé co-chairs the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) Global Growth Company board; is a founding member of the Brics Business Council; is a council member of the WEF’s Global Agenda Council for Emerging Multinationals and has accompanied all four South African presidents since the founding of democracy to global conferences and state visits.

Through all these engagements he has come to truly appreciate how special Africa is. Survé says being on the global stage sparks a feeling of hope for our continent and its potential. He and many others like him are not only talking about Africa’s promise, but are putting their money and energy where their mouths are.

Survé is not an ordinary leader and thinker. He cherishes a different mindset for leaders, which is probably what we need to take this country and continent to the next level.

The change of leadership at the UCT Graduate School of Business serves as an example of bucking the status quo. As its chair, Survé knew the school needed a director who would create a programme to enhance leaders’ capacity to manage complexity. This individual needed to understand the social relevance of teaching and content, as well as entrepreneurship and had to improve on the school’s ability to develop innovative thinking in leaders.

Professor Walter Baets was appointed in 2009, and what movement has occurred at UCT Graduate School of Business since then? It employs 25 more people; has more money than ever; has all the global accreditation that a business school needs; and the content ranks with the best out there, which is amazing considering the funding available to UCT compared with Harvard, for example.

The message to leaders is that what they needed the new director to reflect were those attributes that are crucial for leaders who want to be successful in our country and on our continent, which is in a transformation phase – politically, economically, structurally and socially – against the backdrop of a global, complex village. This is “contextual” leadership.

Leaders of today have to be schooled in complexity management, Survé believes. Many would not necessarily name former president Mandela as a brilliant complexity manager. According to Survé, who knew Mandela well from several angles, “his strength was that he was able to simplify complex issues so easily and disarm people in that simplicity because he was able to solve the relevant problem”.

South Africa needs leaders that understand our extremes and difficulties, but “who do not allow that to overwhelm their thinking, because the default position of all people is to choose a side you are most familiar with, based on where you come from, because that is how the brain naturally thinks”, he explains.

To perform in today’s increasingly complex world, a leader must train his mind to often choose the road that is opposite to his natural choice. We need leaders who can reframe the status quo rather than do what has always been done – “thinking through the noise, challenges and seeing the answer then working your way towards the answer through simple steps”. This, according to Survé, is where Mandela was so brilliant.

Survé, who celebrated his 51st birthday yesterday, has an interesting and unique background and career that prepared him well for the current role he plays in Africa. This journey included being a medical doctor as part of a support team for the late Madiba, together with being an entrepreneur and philanthropist friend to the icon; being a “mind-coach” for Bafana Bafana (when they did so well in the mid-1990s) and the SA Olympic team; developing post-traumatic stress disorder rehabilitation programmes in support of young people who were scarred by torture and imprisonment during apartheid; and being a serious entrepreneur as founder and chief executive of Sekunjalo; and much more.

With all his exposure and rich background, fortunately he is a leader who likes to share: “I am one of those people that like to share knowledge and information.” But, according to him, there is a tendency or belief that by keeping information exclusive one has a competitive edge.

“I actually don’t subscribe to that. I think we should open up information, even to your competitors, and that is going to make you far more effective.”

His advisers often become nervous when he publicly states what he plans to do. In his view, it boils down to confidence, really believing in what you are doing.

This confidence becomes almost indestructible when informed by an ability to think simply and universally, in a way that successfully navigates movement through a challenging, complex, fast-paced world, which can be compared to the merry-go-rounds that are still seen in some public parks. Children climb on the structure and spin it around, faster and faster. They then jump off, feel dazed and get back on again.

The environment can be compared to this – it spins around and is getting faster all the time – pace is picking up; everything had an impact on everything; and if leaders don’t discipline themselves to go to the centre, but remain on the periphery of this spinning environment, they will eventually be flung right off.

Survé agrees, and adds: “We all move away from the centre at times, be it when we buy a fancy sports car, a boat, becoming angry in times of stress. Holding the centre together is very important. Part of the movement I am trying to foster in South Africa is to get more leaders into that centre. There are those that become very wealthy and successful with their businesses, but in time they will suffer because they haven’t taken the time to go to the centre.”

In South Africa, and globally, going to the centre is not necessarily about holding a powerful position but rather about a powerful attitude that automatically manifests in certain behaviour, which in turn results in the development of certain attributes, which are eventually entrenched into the very character and being of a leader, forever. So called success becomes synonymous with such a character.

Survé describes this kind of character with reference to leaders like Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Patrice Lumumba (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Albert Luthuli: “These leaders have in common humanity, dignity and respect for all. They were fearless and were prepared to sacrifice their lives in pursuit of their beliefs. They were values-driven and committed to a society which treated people with equality and dignity. They shared more than just the resources, but also their thinking, and did not have a sense of personal entitlement. They were visionaries in that they crafted the future according to their principles and values no matter how difficult the journey to get to that perfect future and perfect world which had harmony and peace and dignity for all that lived in it.”

In short, this attitude is about a passionate desire to master universal principles and big-picture context that governs and maximises everyday life situations and experiences, relationships with people, decision-making (choices), confronting barriers (obstacles), and movement towards full potential of self, others and society. This is the attitude Mandela adopted; this is the attitude Survé adopted; this is the attitude all leaders in South Africa, Africa and beyond should adopt if we are going to move this continent forward successfully.


* Adriaan Groenewald, a lead contributor to the BR Leadership Platform, is a leadership expert and managing director and co-founder of Leadership Platform ( / or follow him on Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP). Send comments to [email protected] or to Business Report editor: [email protected] (@Ellis_Mnyandu).

This article marks the start of the 2014 series of the bi-weekly BR Leadership Platform.

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