There is a popular quote by Mark Twain that says: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why”.
The quote forms the basis for a meaningful discussion on what I believe makes a leader great. Some of my most admired leaders have all started out with the “why” and not with the “what” (or even the “how”).
Nelson Mandela’s purpose was to liberate Black South Africans from apartheid and to re-unite a divided nation. His approach to leadership was exemplified in how he handled the new national anthem when he was appointed as the first president of the new South Africa.
Madiba knew he had to navigate a tricky balance to ensure lasting national harmony and fulfill his own sense of purpose for the country. But as his country entered a new era in 1994, and as he made the choice of what anthem would ultimately symbolise the hopes of the new country, Mandela ran the risk of jeopardising the vision for which he had worked his whole life.
The wrong choice on his part could have meant the death of his purpose while the right decision would cement his legacy for decades to come.
He chose to ignore the instant gratification of immediately making Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa), a song sung at black protest rallies during the apartheid years, the country’s national anthem.
Also acutely aware that an outright ban of the country’s existing anthem Die Stem (The Call) – which celebrated the colonisation of South Africa – would also not unify the country, he made a choice that symbolised his purpose to unite the two facets and herald a new dawn. He created a hybrid anthem that combined the two songs.
For another great leader, Mahatma Gandhi, his purpose was captured in his mindset. Gandhi saw his purpose as easing poverty, expanding women’s rights, building religious and ethnic amity, ending untouchability, but above all achieving self-rule.
He hoped to create transformative change in the lives of those he led. Like no other leader before him, his decision to practice non-violence and his quest for the truth inspired others to follow his lead.
For many business leaders, purpose must be a mix of the factors that drove Mr Mandela and Mr Gandhi. In my case, my anthem has become my mindset, and it’s easily captured in two words: Transforming lives.
As one of the emerging telecom success stories in Africa, my company works hard to serve more than 23 million customers and 700,000 shareholders. Through over 300,000 touch points and 90,000 agents we offer more than 100 different products under our portfolio.
We have a wider ecosystem of about 4,800 staff who all understand that the secret to our continued success lies in our ability to make a positive impact on the lives of our communities.
Transforming Lives is a grand vision, and one that can only be justifiable in a country where mobile phones have become the connective tissue for so many facets of life, and where mobiles have the unique ability to fundamentally change the way we work, play and live.
Transforming Lives is a vision that has become not only a passion for us at Safaricom, but also an obsession. It’s the driving force of my purpose. The reason why I exist, and why I lead.