My leadership journey of crossroads
My time since has indeed been a journey of crossroads. Having spent the best part of my career in the corporate healthcare environment, I have strived every day to remember what our role as healthcare leaders in South Africa should be. My particular passion for maternal and child health helps me to never lose sight of the goal of caring for and bringing healthcare to the broader population of our country.
I have also understood increasingly that a substantial part of leadership is about drawing from your past and thinking about how these stories have shaped one’s life. In the words of one of my all-time favorite leaders, Steve Jobs: “Everyone has a usable past, leaders just use theirs better and you can only connect the dots looking back and not forward”. Life is a series of happenings and they all lead up to events that you cannot always foresee.
I have always been fascinated by how our individual life paths are created as we make our decisions at one point or another. If I connect the dots and think about my own stories, I see clearly how my decision to apply for a position in Saudi Arabia in the 90s turned out to be one of the major crossroads that brought about a turning point in my life. My world opened up and once I started travelling, my original one-year commitment turned into four and a half years of discovery as an expatriate in a foreign land. The team working at the King Fahad National Guard hospital was diverse and had as many as fifty-two different nationalities interacting at any given time. I returned to South Africa with a sincere appreciation of the benefits of diversity and an ability to leverage off the strength of a dynamic team. This has stood me in good stead over the years as, together with my team, I navigated the various amalgamations and business restructures that came our way.
The lessons from this time led me to always encourage my teams to break down silos and collaborate. Learnings from emergencies within a hospital setting, show that it is always the team effort and how various skills come together that enable one to save a life. It’s about the power of the collective; being stronger than one individual. We are blessed to live in a country as diverse as South Africa, where every day you can learn something new about a fellow countryman/woman. All you have to do is stop, ask a question, listen and appreciate the colourful backgrounds and languages that represent our rainbow nation. In that lies our strength and as leaders we are privileged to be able to tap into this.
My second great learning is about how hardship in life alters one. It is a fact that certain life-changing events, the crossroads, can throw you off balance. At the same time, these tough moments can also positively influence your leadership style if you allow yourself to work through the difficulties and think about the choices you’ve made. These reflections and lessons learned in turn feed into the development of others. As a leader, I believe it is imperative to share these learnings when appropriate. You cannot be an emotionless leader – you have to have a heart and passion that shows authenticity and a vulnerability which people can and do relate to. Reflection has therefore become one of the most important leadership tools I have put into practice over the years, as I live and learn every day.
My next cherished learning is taken from one of the world’s greatest leaders: Madiba. He tells the story of how as a child he herded cattle. He walked behind the herd and allowed the “clever” cattle to lead at the front as the herd followed. This great man’s servant leadership style has been an enormous inspiration over the years as I learned the critical importance of leading from the back. Nothing is beneath a leader and at times it is important to know when to jump in and get your hands dirty. Dedicating time to your team and developing them should be one of our key aspirations. As Tom Peters stated, “Leaders do not create followers but they create more leaders”. Madiba’s legacy lives on for me, not just because of his words, but because he lived his values publically through his humble and forgiving nature. This is integral to the leadership mantra I strive to live by.
In the words of Anne Lamott, “Almost anything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes – even you.” This captures my fourth important story – one of taking care of yourself and in turn of others. I realised the benefits of time out last year when I made the decision to take a five-month sabbatical. I had reached a point in my career and personal life where I had lost my passion and had no energy left to give back. Once again, this was a decision which led to a crossroads that I believe changed the thought process and direction of my life. In these pivotal months, I not only successfully completed a five-day hike at altitude to Machu Picchu, I also spent time volunteering in Lima, Peru. The fulfillment of giving back and sense of personal achievement opened my eyes to the reason why we are called human beings and not human doings. We cannot stand still and listen to others when we are traveling at 120km/hour either on a highway or in our racing minds. So important was this to me that I once again volunteered earlier this year, this time for an Eco-Marine programme in Mozambique. These weeks were extremely rewarding and took me forward on my personal goal of ensuring that I stop, breathe and give back.
I tell these stories as I contemplate the dire need for strong leadership in our healthcare environment at the moment. We are indeed at a crossroads and we have an opportunity to drive the right agendas and influence the broader direction that healthcare will take. The successful implementation of the National Health Insurance (NHI) will achieve universal healthcare coverage for all our citizens, but we need leaders who are passionate, compassionate, collaborative and not burnt out. Leaders who can lead from the front but who can also see the potential of allowing others to lead.
We need leaders that are guided not only by their heads but also by their hearts and who understand that change in the healthcare environment is inevitable. The leadership of our companies should realise that it is imperative that their teams are encouraged to consider the opportunities that could arise from the future landscape and that out of the box thinking is critical. There are considerable needs in the healthcare environment and not all of them center on the payment of claims or management of administrative processes.
Globally, the demand for healthcare is driven by an ever-increasing trend in patient empowerment and burden of disease. In the South African context this has never been more relevant than today, since the low satisfaction with the quality of our fragmented healthcare system and the quadruple burden of disease have resulted in very unique challenges that have to be addressed. A speaker at the World Economic Forum said that the health of a mother and child is a more telling measure of a nation’s state than economic indicators; sadly as a country we continue to lag on this front.
Meaningful progress cannot come from government alone, it requires the collective buy-in of all stakeholders to drive change. I believe that one of the leadership dilemmas we face is how to navigate the future roadmap to ensure that healthcare legislation and processes are reviewed and in place. Financial outcomes must be achieved without forgetting that the basic healthcare needs of every man, woman and child is at the core of what should be driving this change.
As I consider the ideal future of the healthcare landscape in our beautiful country at this crossroads, my wish is for authentic leadership that considers and thinks hard about the legacy that will be left behind. This change will impact at the heart of every citizen’s wellbeing and quality of life. It cannot be underestimated. I hope with all my heart that as a leadership collective, we will one day look back on this period in time and be proud of the change we brought about. I will therefore continue to tell my stories, to empower my team and to serve the greater community as I believe that with every discussion and every step I take, I will have done my bit along the way.
I am grateful for the opportunity to tell my stories as I reflect on my leadership journey and what the last few years in the dynamic private healthcare sector of our country has taught me. I conclude with the words of Robert Fritz:
“The future is ours to create. And your future is yours to create in a large degree. None of us have a crystal ball. But we don’t need one. We have something better, we have a creative spirit, we have a dynamic urge to take matters into our own hands; we have imagination, discipline and great possibilities. The good news is that we are given the raw materials to create a better life”