This is Part I in a series on my experiences in South Africa.
I left for South Africa just three weeks ago, flying from Denver to Frankfurt to Cape Town for a three-week stay. The trip was the zenith of a ten-month journey into the subject of leadership, which I started as part of a sabbatical.
I’ve worked with leaders my entire career, partnering with them and their teams to solve big problems and achieve big goals. In the last few years, I’d noticed that many of the principles that are core to my work – strategic thinking and big vision, broad collaboration and innovative governance, and the idea that working toward the greater good can be profitable in ways a balance sheet can’t count – seem to be gaining traction in our increasingly complex and changing world. I set out on sabbatical, in part, to validate this impression.
The sabbatical would involve travel to a wide range of leadership enclaves: the World
Business Forum in New York, the Aspen Ideas Festival in the high mountains of Colorado and the Management of Change Conference in Washington DC. But I also hankered for an international component to add a global perspective to my study. Then, on a phone call a month or so into it, the invitation to South Africa was presented.
In that moment, South Africa sounded at the same time ideal and impossible. Ideal because it involved spending a week with world leaders exploring my very topic. Impossible because I had no previous experience of South Africa, no connections to it, and not even much of a desire to go – or at least, not at the time.
The invitation came from the Aspen Institute. It involved joining a group of fellows from the Institute’s global leadership network for a week’s exploration into leading in this age of globalization. An opportunity ideal for me, to which I said yes.
As the months passed, I went on the other trips and heard all kinds of people talking about leadership. Big names like Bill Clinton, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, media monarch Arianna Huffington, and many others less well known, but just as passionate and articulate. At each leadership forum, I’d mention South Africa, and from this, the trip began to plan itself. One person led to another and then more,
sprouting opportunities, ideas and connections that steadily grew into an itinerary.
The first week was spent with Aspen Institute in Stellenbosch, famed wine country known for its Mediterranean-like climate. The seminar was hosted by Spier, a wine farm and conference center with an ecological mission. In that spirit, Spier donates land to two conservation projects: a Cheetah protection effort and a Raptor Sanctuary.
During the seminar, we took time out for an excursion to Robben Island, where we toured the island and then the prison in which Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, and many more anti-apartheid activists were incarcerated up until the early 1990s.
The second week I was in Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg for meetings with prominent South African leaders, whom I interviewed about their road to leadership and their challenges as leaders today. Interspersed with these were various tours, through which I gained a deeper understanding of the rich history and culture of South Africa.
My travel consultant, Sandy Salle of Hills of Africa, provided exceptional tour experiences with guides who were the perfect combination of knowledgeable and personable. Visits to Table Mountain, Cape Point, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, the townships and Constitution Hill in Johannesburg were all memorable and meaningful.
The final week was for safari. Two different bush camps adjacent to Kruger National Park were the base for forays into the wild of wilds, to experience life at its most essential. In just five days, I saw, not only the big five, but many more species ranging in size from dung beetle to leopard to hippopotamus.
Careening down tawny dirt roads through brush as green as green can be, with intoxicating fragrance and the music of a thousand birds filling the air, I felt life’s magic bursting all around me.
And most magical of all was the reminder that, for all humans have accomplished, we are still children of the veld, so vast and mighty it dwarfs us with its presence. Now that’s a leadership lesson worth traveling half way round the world for.