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The story you’re about to read is a true one. It is a story of personal courage and a demonstration of leadership at its best. We have analysed the various leadership and personal lessons learnt from this authentic African leader, as discussed after this narrative.

The amazing thing about this story is that most people recognise elements of themselves in it. Most importantly, it is a story that emphasises what leadership is – it is of the spirit, that delicate balance between vision and personality; its practice is an art – as opposed to management, which is of the mind, that constant calculation of method, routine and statistics. Its practice is a science and managers are vital, but it is leaders who inspire effective managers to do important tasks.

This story will also emphasise that leadership is less taught than it is caught: by that I mean that effective leaders will seek out the opportunities they need to maximise their impact. One doesn’t become a leader by attending a leadership programme or studying leadership; there needs to be an inherent desire, a ‘want’ to lead. It is no longer believed that a person is ‘born’ to lead, but that everyone with the right personality, transferable skills, and inherent desire to lead can aspire to contextual leadership.

In the end, leadership is learned from experience with the greatest lessons emanating from hardship. We believe that it is only from hardship that there are gains in self-development. We also subscribe to Hollander’s Interactionist Theory in which three key elements: Trait Capacity, Needs of Followers, and Zeitgeist (the changing spirit of the time) combine to create a locus of leadership that propels leaders into real positions of power.

The year is 1966. Jacob Lebea is eight years old. He lives with his parents and five siblings in a small house in Soweto [1]. It is 4 AM and already Jacob is hurrying to get dressed as he has to join his father and brothers who are at the railway siding loading coal into bags and hoisting them onto a donkey cart. They will sell this coal on their early morning rounds, before school starts.

Even at this young age Jacob is aware of the sacrifice his father is making. Previously, his father was a school principal in Soweto . And to be a school principal in Soweto in 1966 was a highly-prized position of influence and stature.

Jacob’s father would be an important member of the community, with a wide influence, but he knew that respect would not be enough to educate his children. So he left his profession to become an entrepreneur in order to be able to afford to educate his children effectively.
I don’t think Jacob could, at such an early age, realise the value of having such incredible emotional mentors. Today we know that for success at the highest level, emotional intelligence is more important than intellect .

1Soweto is an urban area of the city of Johannesburg in Gauteng, South Africa, bordering the city’s mining belt in the south. Its name is an abbreviation for South Western Townships. Historically, the population of Soweto was made up of displaced non-white people who were dispossessed of their property, or migrant labourers working in the mining industry.
2UCLA research has indicated that only 7% of leadership success is attributed to intellect; whereas, 93% of leadership success comes from presence, honesty, authenticity, creativity, trust and integrity.


Jacob was lucky to have the emotional mentors he did; however, don’t forget that one can acquire these important emotional intelligence competencies at any age.

Later, Jacob recalled, his father diversified into the mortuary business. Many were the times that Jacob would be woken up in the middle of the night to assist his father in removing the deceased from their homes. The reason being that the houses were so small, often consisting of one room, that if a member of the family passed away, the rest of them could not get on with their normal lives, as they would be in the midst of a deceased person. I smiled at Jacob when he mentioned his discovery that there were no such things as ghosts; being naturally superstitious he honestly believed that, after all the time he’d spent with deceased members of his community, if he hadn’t seen a ghost by now he never would!

When Jacob was fourteen years old, he experienced a defining moment in his life. It was school holidays and what many of the boys in his neighbourhood would do at this time is rush down to the Willards crisp factory, which lay on the outskirts of the township. If they arrived before 5 AM the manager would select ten of them to work in the factory for the royal sum of R10 / $1 a day – which was a lot of money back then.

That day, Jacob was not selected. Despondent, but determined, Jacob wandered the streets looking for part-time work. He got picked up by a man who took him back to his house in a suburb called Triomf, previously known as Sophiatown . During the apartheid era the government had dispossessed the mixed ‘races’ living there at the time, and relocated them to townships in Soweto. They re-urbanised this area and repopulated it with white owners. So this white owner, who collected Jacob for part-time work, had about 40 square metres of tarred road in his backyard. He handed Jacob a pick and shovel and told him to dig it up if he wanted to earn his money for the day.

Jacob toiled away at a feverish pace, determined to earn his stipend. And he’s successful, come the end of the day, but at a price: his hands are blistered and painful. By 6 PM the owner returned and paid him his money and Jacob began his long walk home.

On his way home Jacob encountered a group of labourers beside the road, singing in unison as they swung their picks to open a trench where there was a burst water pipe. Jacob looked at their hands and realised that the blisters and callouses they had had become a way of life. And so he made a promise to himself at that point: that he would not neglect his education, as he did not want to labour like that for the rest of his life.

So Jacob worked hard and earned his exemption to be accepted at university. But come the time to enter university, Jacob did so with a heavy heart. His father wanted him to be a doctor. There weren’t many doctors in Soweto at that time – in fact, the statistics show that there was only one doctor to every hundred thousand people. Jacob had no interest in medicine; he fainted at the sight of blood. He had his heart settled on studying computer science, but his father didn’t begin to understand the concept, so a compromise had to be reached and Jacob entered university to study accountancy.

3Sophiatown is a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa. It was a legendary black cultural hub that was destroyed under apartheid, rebuilt under the name of Triomf, and in 2006 officially returned to its original name.
4In South Africa, matriculation (or matric) is a term commonly used to refer to the final year of high school (Secondary schooling). Should adequate marks be achieved, an exemption is awarded as a minimum university entrance requirement

However, it was 1976 and violent demonstrations erupted on the campus; in the ensuing chaos Jacob was shot in the stomach. He suffered massive injuries and took a long time to recover. Upon his recovery, he became despondent with the repressive apartheid system, and so decided to leave for London to continue his studies there.

But the unrest had affected the family business and precious little money was left to support Jacob. He managed to get to London, but had to pay his own way. He got a job in a hotel working nights – washing dishes, making beds and so on, and he studied during the day. He said that when he thinks back on those experiences he doesn’t know how he survived on precious little sleep, sometimes just two or three hours a night, but he said the experience toughened him.

To get around, Jacob bought a bicycle and cycled the streets of London flat! There are few people we know today who have a more intimate knowledge of the streets of London than Jacob Lebea.

It was also at this time that he experienced real tragedy.

His father, who may have had a premonition about what was going to happen, went to Germany to visit his oldest son and then stopped off in London to see how Jacob was doing.

In those days, as a new South African in London, you would almost certainly find yourself in Soho enjoying a good curry for dinner, and so, too, do Jacob and his father spend a very enjoyable evening together. However, shortly after this, Jacob’s father suddenly and unexpectedly died. In spite of the shock and grief of having lost not only his best friend, but also his emotional mentor, Jacob pulled himself together and accompanied his father’s body home for burial.

One of the most difficult things that Jacob ever had to do was to leave his grieving mother and siblings behind. Being one of the eldest, there was an expectation that Jacob had to support the family. But by now Jacob’s vision had changed forever: he had experienced a life, and was aware of the opportunities that were available to someone as a qualified chartered accountant. And so Jacob returned to London to finish his studies.

On completion, Jacob returned to South Africa to serve his articles and then joined a transport company of luxury coaches. And it is there that his leadership abilities began to shine.

Shortly after joining this company, Jacob realised that it was going one way: out of business. So he used his extraordinary interpersonal competence to build trust relationships with his team, people who previously could not even be in the same room together, but are now working and collaborating together. He also managed to negotiate a contract with the Independent Electoral Commission. At that time, the IEC had no internal controls, so Jacob offered to work weekends to provide them with the necessary internal control systems, if they reciprocated with a contract.

Slowly but surely Jacob was instrumental in turning this company around: it became really profitable and, much later on, Jacob was rewarded by being appointed as CEO.

Then Jacob did something quite fearless. He joined a financial services company dominated by white executives. At first he said he was terrified and kept his head down, stayed out of trouble, and worked like a demon .

5The Soweto race riots of 1976 were the most brutal and violent riots against the South African Apartheid administration.
6‘Demon’ is a South African slang word referring to a person who takes their discipline/sport/work to extreme levels of competence and commitment.

They threw more challenges his way but he says he was too ignorant to notice that he was placed into a dysfunctional division. He worked feverishly to make it work and more challenges came that he steadily overcame one after the other. He began to hear whisperings of approval. He pushed himself even further and then one evening, very late, sitting in his office, Jacob realised that he had achieved success in this division. He had turned the division around and the results were now irrefutable.

And of course his efforts were noticed and ultimately rewarded when two of his white superiors said: ‘Let’s give him a real opportunity and see what he does’, which of course propelled Jacob into a real position of power.

Jacob ultimately progressed to the position of Chief Operating Officer for one of South Africa’s national banks before he retired to serve on the executive boards of some of South Africa’s major corporations.

Jacob Lebea and Authentic African Leadership

When Jacob came to the IE Group for coaching he was already a senior manager in a leading financial services institution in South Africa, and had been identified as a high potential candidate whose leadership ability was to be accelerated.

His programme initially focused on enhancing his personal impact power: visually, building his personal brand; vocally, to develop his voice and speech skills so that he could communicate with confidence in any public forum, and psychologically, to enhance his leadership communication to influence and inspire others.

During his coaching journey at the IE Group, Jacob also worked hard to develop his primacy effect, which is what psychologists call that critical impression one makes when you meet people who don’t know you. It has also been called the language of influence: those visual (personal brand), vocal (the way in which you utilise a responsive and flexible voice and speech mechanism to hold listener attention), and the psychological impactors, driven by emotional and social intelligence, by which others judge us.

We have worked as leadership and communication coaches with Jacob over many years, and have watched him grow in confidence.

Jacob was one of the few black executives to be appointed as Chief Operating Officer at one of the large four banks in southern Africa. It was a position that he earned through talent, perseverance and extraordinary emotional and social intelligence competencies that he acquired from his equally extraordinary family and mentors. Jacob is currently retired and serves on the executive board of several South African corporations.

The Duality in South African Leadership: Afrocentric or Eurocentric (adapted and re-printed with permission from Professor Liz Booysen SA Institute of Management Scientists 12th Annual Conference in 2000). Studies indicate that cultural differences influence leadership behaviour and management philosophies.

  • South Africa is a complex amalgam of several cultures; dominant management practices are, for historical reasons, Anglo-American.
  • Business success requires integration of opposites; critical opposites must be embraced and managed.
  • There is a call for synergy, or an emergent ‘best of both worlds’ hybrid between the two styles and approaches – formally termed ‘pragmatic humanism’ by Albert Koopman – that would aim to build trust and respect for different values and common values and foster learning.
  • Differences of the two cultural groups could be valuable assets and strengths in a diverse workforce, leading to higher levels of competitive advantage. However, if not correctly managed, could lead to major conflict and failure.

The following represent Jacob Lebea’s strengths and growth areas in terms of the cultural dimensions researched above:


His humanism enabled Jacob to create harmony within diverse teams and coach and develop weaker members of the team. Human orientation reflects the degree to which society encourages individuals to be fair, and rewards them for being altruistic, generous, gentle and kind to others.

Black managers scored above average and ranked this in second place in terms of importance. Black managers also felt a shared responsibility in order to protect and assist the non-performer, as opposed to white managers who scored below average and ranked this in seventh place and who are less accommodating than black managers and are more task-focused than people oriented.


Collectivism is reflected in teamwork, a lack of competition among individuals and the encouragement of conformity, consensus decision making, co-operation, collaboration and interdependence of activities. This also finds expression in Ubuntu, which is putting the interests of the group ahead of your own needs.

Eurocentric leadership styles prefer individualism that is reflected in the encouragement of employees to work independently, competition among employees for recognition and rewards, and a lack of social relationships among employees and tolerance for individuality. The individual is more important than the group. This can create disharmony in teams and result in fragmentation.


At the organisational level, assertiveness is reflected in the way in which individual opinions are projected without fear and in a non-destructive way. Many of the black leaders we have worked with have a need to enhance this skill, particularly when communicating upwards. The best coaching explores assertive expression, with the candidate participating in role play simulations during which they are ‘pressure tested’ in complex communications: these are videotaped to allow the candidate to evaluate their own performance. If necessary, thereafter, the repair strategies such as advanced assertive expression and the language of persuasion and diplomacy are introduced and role played again in simulation. Through this practical exploration, the candidate’s awareness of style is heightened and improvement in choices is made thereafter. It goes without saying that because of the repressive nature of Apartheid, many black leaders emerging in the early eighties and nineties measured low on assertiveness. We have, however, noted an increase in assertiveness in the emerging younger black leaders we have coached since 2000.

Uncertainty Avoidance

Uncertainty avoidance, which pertains to the degree to which society reduces uncertainty by the use of social interventions rather than tolerating and coping with uncertainty, can also be seen as the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations. Cultures that score low on uncertainty avoidance accept uncertainty, do not find it upsetting, and therefore readily take risks. Cultures that score high on uncertainty avoidance favour structured organisations, rules, and promote security and are characterised by higher levels of stress and anxiety because individuals are uncomfortable in unstructured situations and therefore focus on planning to ensure stability to deal with life’s uncertainties.

White managers scored significantly higher than black managers on uncertainty avoidance. Whites are more business-like, formal, inflexible and restrictive, ranking this second, while blacks ranked it fourth.

Black managers have a significantly higher tolerance for uncertainty than whites. Black managers want flexibility and freedom.

At the time that I was coaching Jacob, our political landscape was in turmoil. Our President, Thabo Mbeki, had suspended his deputy, Jacob Zuma, as he was not only being investigated for rape charges, but was also dealing with fraud and corruption charges brought against him by the National Prosecuting Authority. I recall some very anxious moments being experienced by many South Africans as the rivalry between two powerful and distinct political forces played out. I also distinctly recall having many conversations with Jacob at the time, who seemed to be rather unperturbed by the unfolding events and believed that all would be resolved in the best way.

Future Orientation – a skill that Jacob learnt

Future orientation reflects the degree to which cultures encourage and reward future-orientated behaviours such as planning, preparing for future events, investing in the future, and the delaying of gratification. In contrast, a present orientation encourages spontaneity, immediate action and gratification, and does not place much emphasis on planning.

White managers take time commitments seriously. Time is seen as a narrow line of discrete, consecutive points. Planning and control, once made, are important. It is also clear that different perceptions of time have implications for organisational practices for running meetings with culturally diverse groups. Sequential cultures like the white group in South Africa are likely to upset synchronic cultures like the black African group in South Africa when running meeting agendas like clockwork.

Black managers tend to have a preference for past and present orientation and do not necessarily focus on planning future events. Black managers are regarded as synchronic, cyclical or polychronic people who will frustrate sequential people who seem unable to stay focused on specific issues and when relations are seen as more important than time. Whereas in the white culture, managers tend to be linear, sequential, or monochronic time orientated. Time is linear and is more event-related than continuum-related. Time is tangible and divisible in this view.

Having worked with Jacob over a long period, I observed a tendency that he always took time commitments seriously.

Performance Orientation – another skill Jacob acquired from an early age

High performance orientated societies emphasise education, moderate risk taking, and reward outstanding scientific achievements and entrepreneurial behaviour as opposed to tradition, convention, the saving of face, social reciprocation and encouragement, and the rewarding of aesthetic and artistic achievement.

In highly individualistic societies like South African white society, performance orientation manifests on the individual level – individuals strive for their own achievement in life.

In collectivistic societies like South African black society, performance orientation is more evident at the group level. At the organisational level, performance orientation is manifested by incentives for performance excellence, challenging assignments, the use of performance appraisals with a provision for performance feedback, the selection of high achievers, and recognition and rewards for high performance. Generally, blacks are not as results-driven as whites. Blacks focus on people instead of skills. Whites are performance orientated with the focus on profit margin and are bottom-line driven: if you do not perform you are out.

Jacob had a preference for being performance orientated. He told me that his father, an intrepid entrepreneur, encouraged this quality in his children and he recalled an incident where his father gave him R5 (about half a dollar) to purchase a box of apples for resale at a soccer stadium, and his first experience in making a tidy profit from the sale served only to deepen his high performance orientation.

For more information, contact Kiley Van Bosch at IE Group (011) 781 1444

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