Leadership Journey: Embracing opportunities and leadership at Stellenbosch Business School Stellenbosch Business School Skip to main content
Johette Smuts
Leadership Journey: Embracing opportunities and leadership at Stellenbosch Business School

Timing in life is everything. I first went to an open day at the Stellenbosch Business School in 2017 or 2018 – pursuing an MBA has always been a dream of mine, but the timing just wasn’t right. It wasn’t until a rainy autumn day in 2021, when someone asked me “who do you want to be?” that I realised the timing might be right to dust off that dream. A few weeks later, I submitted my application and was accepted into the programme.

Stellenbosch Business School was the obvious choice for a few reasons. I vividly remembered feeling at home (and perhaps slightly out of my depth) during my visit years earlier. I chatted to a few alumni I knew through my circle of friends who had very positive experiences, and the school’s triple accreditation was, of course, also one of the deciding factors. I was also drawn to the leadership aspect of the programme.

The start of my leadership journey

Ironically, I have never considered myself a leader because I had almost no “traditional” leadership experience, and I was very self-conscious about it at the beginning of my journey. However, I also promised myself that I would say yes to all opportunities during my two years of studies, so when I was nominated as one of my cohort’s class representatives, I accepted. At the end of 2022, I was approached to join the Stellenbosch Business School Consulting Club Exco in 2023, and I also accepted this opportunity. Now in 2024, I have the privilege of chairing the Consulting Club.

Saying yes allowed me to embrace and develop my own authentic leadership style. In both roles, I received valuable feedback from my peers, and I had excellent leaders in the faculty whose examples I could learn from. The teamwork aspect of the MBA programme was another important forum because it taught me how to be a good follower. I am deeply grateful for the safe environment where I could hone my skills, and I am a better person because of that.

Responsible leadership

I think it is almost impossible to not grow immensely as a person during the MBA programme. You learn vast amounts of new knowledge, your horizons expand to new subjects and interests, and your thinking is constantly challenged through theory, class discussions and assignments. In the midst of all this is the opportunity to reflect on who you are, grow as a person, and adjust your mindset. Personally, this is my most cherished outcome from the programme.

To me, responsible leadership is more than just knowing yourself. It is embracing who you are and turning that into your own unique authentic leadership style while serving others. It comes down to integrity, courage and care.

In the corporate world, responsible leadership means considering the business, its people, and the society in which it operates. To do that well, leaders must know who they are and what values they live by, and then act according to what they believe is right for all stakeholders - not what is easy. I believe the world desperately needs more leaders who care deeply about the consequences of their decisions on others.

Overcoming challenges

Of course, no worthy path is without its challenges. Time constraints, work and personal commitments, and the occasional bouts of imposter syndrome are all too familiar to most part-time students. Luckily, that also means that others know what you are going through! One of my biggest personal obstacles was getting out of my own way and actually asking for help when I needed it, and I’m glad I did – trusting my friends from my cohort to help me saved me many times during the MBA.

It is also worth remembering that you are only human, you have limited hours in a day, most balls will bounce when you drop them, and what seems so significant in the moment won’t even matter in five years. My husband reminded me of this constantly and I appreciated the perspective it gave me.

From student to graduate

I have always believed that the right thing will happen at the right time and that we can choose how our experiences shape us. In my application essay, I said that waitressing has been one of the best jobs I’ve ever had - I still use the skills I learned daily and I’m still friends with many of my former colleagues. It was a really critical chapter in my life.

I feel the same way about my MBA journey. Looking back over my experience, I can clearly see how differently I think about things and how much more confident I am in who I am and the value I can bring to the table - and others can see it, too. I know that this journey changed the trajectory of my life (as cheesy as that sounds). It has already led to exciting new career opportunities, and I can’t wait to see what is next!

Top advice

If you can learn anything from my story, let it be this: just say yes. Do the scary thing. Lean into the discomfort of not knowing and be proud when you figure it out. It is ever too early or too late to achieve what you want - trust your life's timing. Stay curious – continue to learn new things, explore who you are, and try to get to know people beyond what you see at first glance. And lastly: if you are the smartest person in the room, find a new room!

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