HR Indaba Conversation explores what leadership really means

Panellists discussed whether leaders are born or made, and why self-awareness is key.

An interactive HR Indaba Conversation on leadership featured panellists Pamela Xaba, human capital head at Netstar, Steven Teasdale, Discovery group head of organisational development, change and transformation, and Tshidi Anya, regional HR director: Africa & Middle East at Weir Minerals who all contributed valuable insights on the role HR professionals play in leadership.

The conversation was kicked off by CHRO’s Georgina Guedes, who posed the age-old question, “Are leaders born or made?”
For most of the participants, it was a bit of both. But there was overwhelming agreement that anyone can be a leader if the right support is in place – and if the person is willing to take ownership of their development journey.

A manager versus a leader
Pamela shared that leadership goes beyond management; for her, it’s a selfless calling not focused on power and control. “One doesn’t need a title to lead; it’s about how you show up,” said Pamela.

For Pamela, effective leadership requires specific skills, experience, and, most importantly, self-development. She added that career coaches teach that leaders must be comfortable giving up the limelight to let others shine – something she fully agrees with.

“We stand on the shoulders of giants”
For Tshidi, leadership is a skill that can be developed and learnt. She shared four key points that HR leaders should consider when nurturing leadership potential in others, namely: be intentional when creating leadership training, help employees create career paths, give emerging leaders opportunities to grow, and create an environment of mentorship. “After all,” said Tshidi, “We all stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Tshidi added that, while a natural ability to lead can’t be ignored, it’s more important how HR leaders build on that talent – and how they nurture talent that hasn’t been realised yet.

Steven dug deeper into what leadership really means, and how leaders can now be found across multiple levels in organisations. In a hybrid world, the notion of leadership is broader and more encompassing, and there are now more diverse teams solving highly complex problems.

“We’re also seeing people taking leadership roles who aren’t formal leaders – they are leaders of disciplines,” said Steven.
“The modern leader has a far greater role in mentoring people, but that doesn’t necessarily come naturally, and it needs to be developed.”

Leadership isn’t linear, and it’s a privilege
The participants discussed how becoming a leader doesn’t always express itself in a clear career trajectory. Tshidi shared a personal story illustrating this: “If you talked to my teachers, they’d tell you I am a born leader; I was a prefect. But I needed training and hard work to become the leader I am today.”

For Tshidi, leaders should always be learning, and undergoing formal leadership training was pivotal for her development. “In HR, we think we can’t lead change, but we can – if we develop the skills,” she added.

Pamela discussed leadership as a privilege, how leadership is a journey, and that no one is entitled to the position they have. She emphasised that, as a leader, people place their trust in you, which is a huge responsibility, and leaders must remain humble.

“You started somewhere. At some point, someone gave you a chance. It may have been through hard work, but in business someone usually sees the potential in you,” said Pamela. “Once you’re there, you need to consistently look at those who are behind you; you need to constantly carry them forward.”

Self-awareness, empathy, and conversations that matter
Steven shared that his leadership journey has been tough, but along the way he discovered that self-awareness is fundamental. And once he realised that he didn’t know everything, there was a shift.

“Maybe someone who is younger than you, who has less experience than you, has something very important to offer,” said Steven. He added that as a leader, one must ask tough questions that are uncomfortable, and the best leaders are willing to accept they’re wrong and leave their ego at the door.

“In meetings, I often find that when someone says something I’m automatically composing an answer; I’m not listening,” admitted Steven. “I’m trying to demonstrate my own intellect and competence and that’s my ego at play. We do this unconsciously, but we need to have far more control over ourselves to embrace the wisdom of others.”

The audience then explored the topic in break-away rooms, where additional questions and thoughts about leadership prompted fruitful discussions. Many felt that to be a leader takes courage: there are often difficult conversations to initiate, and people must be held accountable – including those who lead the HR leaders.

Steven summed up the audience’s thoughts by noting that leaders must step into difficult moments and not ignore them. He added that the pandemic has resulted in leaders having to create moments for people to step forward, like asking team members how they are coping in Zoom meetings.

“We’re getting it right more often,” said Steven. “We’ve always known that leaders need to be empathetic, but we’ve finally realised that conversations that don’t matter, matter the most.”

In the chat

Janine Conrad, Old Mutual Finance: “The pandemic brought out the best in people. I saw it across our business: people achieved greatness through this stressful time, and leaders started to emerge – a call centre agent became a leader, for example. People learnt new skills; millennials who are tech-savvy showed Gen X employees how to use Zoom. It was wonderful.”

Steve Teasdale, Discovery: “When the pandemic hit, we gathered a group of leaders in a room and gave them the title of SteerCo. We were asking basic questions about the virus, as it was still very new. We had a nurse who was part of the group: she stopped the discussion and guided us on the clinical nature of what was going on, and how it should change our business. As leaders we stepped back – we realised we didn’t know. Two years later she’s leading webinars and guiding businesses through this crisis.”

Tshidi Dabula, DPS: Self-awareness and the awareness of others is so important. I lead from a place of empathy, but empathy is lacking in business; the bottom line is of course a factor, but you can still make a profit while driving your workforce using empathy.”