Taking the high road: Thuli Madonsela has been unflinching in her investigations of allegations of misconduct © AFP

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Leadership is as much about the way that you lead as the results that you deliver. Advocate Thuli Madonsela embodies both sides of that equation as South Africa’s public protector, responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct in public life to the highest levels.

Consider her recent victory in the Constitutional Court against President Jacob Zuma over the long-running saga of whether he should repay some of the millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money spent upgrading his private home. Through her leadership she has positively shaped the future of this nation — that is a significant impact.

I have met her twice and what I found remarkable, despite her near cult-like status with so many South Africans across business, government and civil society, was her unassuming posture and willingness to engage. She does not have the physical stature nor does she radiate the energy often associated with leadership.

For all her obvious thorough preparation for every engagement, Madonsela is very human and willing to speak off-the-cuff. As she begins to talk, she is soft-spoken and quite slow. The first time I heard her, I thought that the audience might lose interest. The reverse is true; she is like a magnet and people are drawn in and engage with her and the inevitably intelligent content of her discourse.

Admirers point to her past as a trade unionist and as one of the team that drafted the new constitution in the mid-1990s. No doubt that gave her a strong sense of purpose, which any great leader needs. But what I find interesting are the assignments she has declined.

For example, Madonsela has repeatedly said no to political office. She is not an attention seeker and I believe that she would have preferred to have had a low profile as public protector, as that would have meant that there was little need for protection. But, when called upon to act, she rose to — and beyond — the job. She has certainly put her office on the map and epitomises the notion of responsible leadership.

The battle with President Zuma over public money spent on his home continued for several years, during which she endured much abuse, even from cabinet ministers. Great leadership cannot be a flash in the pan and those who go down in history as iconic leaders have inevitably shown their mettle over long periods, in good times and in bad. The critical issue here is resilience.

Madonsela was for many years a loyal, card-carrying member of the African National Congress. To go against such an organisation, one with which you have had a deep affiliation, cannot be easy. Yet she navigated this by standing for what she believes is right. She has always looked beyond influential figures in the ANC and towards the greater good. Ultimately, that is what leaders must think about: they cannot just serve the masters of the day. Madonsela also offers some important lessons for managers and the business world.

When we consider her record and attributes, she epitomises so many of the traits that we associate with good leaders. Put simply, she practises what she preaches, although she has done so in her own way, which is important in an environment where we acknowledge diversity, look beyond leadership stereotypes and value authenticity.

Business leaders talk frequently about the importance of being strategic, which means sticking with your choices through thick and thin. She has certainly done that and also managed to deploy her energy in an underfunded, under-resourced office facing extraordinary demand. She has chosen to focus on issues integral to South Africa’s future.

She says of Nelson Mandela: “We will always admire him for gladly submitting his administration to the scrutiny of checks and balances such as the courts and institutions supporting democracy when its actions came into question.”

This demonstrates her grasp of the importance of balancing effective decision-making with the need to assess those decisions. This applies to us all, whether in higher education or business. We need to welcome input from multiple stakeholders. The importance of good governance has been a source of inspiration for me in my role as dean.

More importantly, we live in environments where it is easy to put the short term above the long term.

Thuli Madonsela reminds me of the courage it takes to lead, to expect times when it is going to be lonely and tough, but at the end of the day to be able to inspire those working with you to serve the greater good — an often understated imperative.

Professor Nicola Kleyn is dean of Pretoria University’s Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs)

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