Komala Pillay on developing conscious leaders for society and business


CEO of the Citizen Leader Lab, Komala Pillay, shares her journey from being an engineer to becoming a pioneer in using HR for good, with the goal of improving the lives of the country’s most vulnerable communities.

After working in the private sector for nearly 20 years, Komala Pillay followed yet another one of her many callings. In 2020, she left a lucrative job as an engineer at a JSE and NYSE listed global chemicals and energy company to take up the role of CEO of the Citizen Leader Lab, a non-governmental organisation that grows conscious citizen leaders.

Komala wanted to make a greater contribution towards our country’s progress, recognising that the current socio-economic inequalities in South Africa must be addressed to create a more peaceful, stable and prosperous country for all its citizens. She joined Citizen Leader Lab, an organisation that understands the critical need for capable leadership across all sectors and all levels of society.

“Our purpose is to develop conscious leadership that builds social cohesion, uplifts communities, and works towards achieving a just society. Our mission is to develop leaders who can catalyse positive change in their institutions, communities and broader society,” Komala explains.

Before joining Citizen Leader Lab, Komala was inspired by the work they were doing, especially in bridging the gap between the public and private sectors through their flagship programme Leaders for Education. Through this programme, Citizen Leader Lab pairs public school principals with business leaders from the private sector in a year-long, immersive leadership development experience. The programme strengthens leadership capacity in schools, supporting school principals to become effective and conscious agents of change, and it fosters a strong and effective public-private partnership that brings new knowledge, skills and networks into public schools.

Empowering principals from quintile 1 to quintile 4 schools - -schools that are classified as poor and under-resourced – has been nothing short of revolutionary. The Citizen Leader Lab works with a network of business leaders and education districts across the country. Business leaders are matched with school principals, all of whom volunteer to partake in the programme, sparking a partnership characterised by the exchange of ideas, the sharing of viewpoints, experiences and solutions over the period of the partnership.

Personal development

Komala points out that the programme does not follow the typical mentorship top-down approach. Instead, the business leaders and the school principals are co-collaborators in a journey of problem solving, skills and leadership development and social awareness.

For the school principals, the Leaders for Education programme helps them develop their leadership skills. They graduate from the programme with increased confidence and resilience, improved communication and team management skills, and with enhanced capabilities in bringing teachers, parents and other stakeholders along to support a common vision. The business leaders bring to the mix a different perspective based on their management experiences and expertise in the private sector. The leaders also expose the school principals to their vast network of other professional experts, who are sometimes roped in to support the school principals in areas where they need backing.

“The business leaders bring their knowledge, they bring networks, and they bring a fresh perspective to the education system. School principals have often been battling with the challenges within their schools for years. Business leaders come in as thinking partners to the principal, and this partnership often sparks creative new ideas and solutions,” Komala notes.

An effective school principal plays a pivotal role in nurturing and supporting teachers, boosting morale, inspiring motivation and fostering innovation. This creates an environment that is conducive to learning and inspires positive changes within the education system as a whole.

There is a benefit for the business leaders as well, who get an opportunity to flex their leadership muscles in an environment where they have no positional power, and where they have to learn to influence to achieve results. Through their interactions with the school principals and visits to the school, they inevitably become exposed to the community as well. This leads to better understanding of the context within under-resourced communities, which can help build stronger relationships with communities surrounding their business. Besides the obvious communal and national contribution, the programme is also a platform for personal growth.

HR for good

The collective social benefits of these personal development engagements are immeasurable. Businesses are part of the societies they operate in, and the people who work for and run organisations are citizens of the said society. So it only makes sense that partnerships between the private and public sectors, as well as civil society and communities be fostered and bolstered.

Komala believes it is critical for society in its entirety to find the solutions that will spark social renewal, reignite hope and self-belief, as well as grow capacity. Executives and other leaders in organisations occupy positions of power, which allow them to bring others along and unlock human potential and capacity. Programmes such as Leaders for Education offer a platform for business leaders to try new approaches that they would not ordinarily be exposed to. In these spaces of unlocking growth, capacity, development and of power and influence, catalysing positive change – leaders have the space to be partners who co-create and lead alongside their teams.

“I think our work can completely support business to achieve what they want to achieve in terms of leadership development and also make a contribution towards improving our country. Our aim really is to foster a culture of strong leadership in our country where we prioritise conscious leadership, where people are aware of the impact of their leadership on society,” she says.

As part of their wellness strategies, organisations that are seeking to inspire their teams differently can look at the partner programmes offered at Citizen Leader Lab. Participating business leaders do so on a voluntary basis, a practice that has been found to have a positive impact on employees. With a programme such as Leaders for Education, business leaders get to make a meaningful and lasting contribution that will ultimately benefit society as a whole.

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