Learning to be better leaders

[Image] Participants on Common Purpose
leadership development courses are
asked to use their skills and experience
to tackle real problems faced by
communities and organisations.
(Image: Common Purpose)

Dr Elsbeth Dixon
  CEO, Common Purpose SA
  +27 11 836 6348 or +27 83 200 1578

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The South African chapter of leadership development organisation Common Purpose is helping the country’s leaders to be more effective by giving them a deeper understanding of people, places and other organisations.

Established in 2000, Common Purpose South Africa belongs to a worldwide network that operates in 12 countries.

“Its purpose is to create stronger leaders, because we can achieve more and work better together when we understand each other,” said the organisation’s CEO Elsbeth Dixon.

To achieve this, Common Purpose courses are run on a group structure. Each group is hand-picked so as to include a wide range of personalities and careers. Potential participants must fill in an application, which is then scrutinised by an advisory panel made up of an equally diverse mix of volunteers.

The selection process ensures that the group will not be dominated by people from any particular community, sector or organisation. In their own environments, members of advisory panels encourage eligible individuals to apply, which helps to maintain the diversity.

“Diversity helps our participants to see the bigger picture around them, to recognise new possibilities, and to look at their surroundings with a fresh and optimistic eye,” added Dixon.

Finding common ground

Participants are drawn from all levels of society and stages of life, from school level up to retirement age and from communities to corporates. A representative mix of people from the non-profit, public and private sectors is selected.

For instance, said Dixon, a traditional healer might find themselves sitting beside an engineer, or a chef will rub shoulders with an NGO manager. She added that the idea is to help people of different backgrounds and cultures to find common ground as leaders, and gain a greater understanding of how other organisational structures work.

In this way participants get to work with positive role models, expand their professional connections, become more tolerant of the views of others, and learn to see diversity as a strength rather than a weakness.

Common Purpose courses take participants out of the classroom and into the community. Here they will visit places they may not normally go to, such as prisons; housing developments; government departments; hospices; or corporate headquarters. As a group they use their leadership abilities to tackle real-life problems experienced by these places, working to find practical solutions.

Once the course is over, postgraduate events such as dinners, refresher courses or short get-togethers, help to maintain the connections made and keep the motivation levels high.

Events are posted on the dedicated website for alumni, the Common Purpose 360, for which Common Purpose graduates may register. A mailing list helps to ensure that all registered users are kept informed of new developments and upcoming events.

Results of a 2009 survey conducted by the organisation revealed that 74.1% of respondents now felt they had gained a new, better way of looking at society, while 60.3% considered themselves to be a better leader because of their experience. The majority – 82.8% – felt it had exceeded their expectations.

Bringing together South Africa’s leaders

Courses are of varying duration and take place in Johannesburg and Cape Town. They are aimed at people of specific ages and at different stages in their careers.

The Navigator, Meridian and International Navigator courses are on offer for rising leaders, established leaders and early to mid-level leaders respectively.

The latter course brings together people from different countries as well as backgrounds.

Customised and in-house courses are also available.

The Navigator course runs for runs for six weeks, beginning and ending with two compulsory sets of three days. For those with busy schedules, there is an extended version that runs for five months. Before being allowed to graduate, all participants must have put in 50-60 hours of attendance.

The Meridian course runs over five months and requires participants to attend three sets of three days at the beginning, middle and end, with between 60 and 90 hours of attendance required for graduation.

For both courses, in between the meeting days, the leaders work in small groups on real-life situations such as a casualty unit, a radio station or a rehab centre, finding ways to address problems that may exist.

Common Purpose board member Kuben Naidoo, of South Africa’s National Planning Commission, attended a course in 2002 and said that it opened his eyes to the different challenges faced by different facilities.

“We went to visit a recycling plant in Soweto, a police emergency call centre, a prison and a stock exchange where we got to see how markets work,” he commented on the Common Purpose website.

“During my time on the course I learned about the Starfish Foundation which runs Aids hospices in South Africa. I was very interested in what they were doing and I subsequently decided to help by attending their strategic planning meetings, helping them to become more efficient.”

This is what Common Purpose hopes to achieve – that South Africa’s leaders share their skills and experience to improve the lives of their fellow citizens.

Looking to the future

Common Purpose also offers a leadership course for Zimbabweans in the South African and UK diaspora. This allows Zimbabwean leaders to continue to develop their skills and connections so that when the time comes, they will be able to make a difference to their country’s growth.

“We’re laying the groundwork for future changes,” said Dixon.

This course is not available in Cape Town.

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