“THE most vital ingredient for the next generation of leaders to succeed in the world today is agility … They must adapt, move quickly and set the pace in this crazy, fast-moving world.”

That was the key message shared by Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Chancellor Santie Botha – one of South Africa’s most successful businesswomen and, at 49, the youngest chancellor at any South African university – in a talk on leadership to NMMU’s brightest students recently.

“The current business environment requires a constant state of innovation. Next generation leaders must be able to handle any curveball and respond with actions that are focussed, fast and flexible.  They must be able to drive performance all the time.”

Botha’s talk was a highlight on the leadership development programme tailor-made by the university for the 79 academically-selected students, who are recipients of NMMU’s prestigious Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarships.

The former group executive director of Absa is perhaps best known as the marketing guru behind the 2010 success of MTN and its Ayoba brand campaign, which saw the telecoms giant become the only African global sponsor of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Today, Botha is chairman of Curro Holdings, the parent company of Curro private schools. She is also the chairman of Famous Brands as well as a non-executive director of Tiger Brands, Telkom and Liberty Holdings. In 2012, the Intellidex “Rich List” placed her among South Africa’s top 10 richest women.

In her talk on Tuesday night (22 July), she shared an example of agility in action – which was Tesla Motors’ head Elon Musk announcing to the world that he would set the company’s patents [for electric cars] free. Rather than holding on to patents, as most companies do, Musk’s motivation was to accelerate the electric vehicle industry by allowing people to build on existing information.

“This is brand new thinking – and people are wondering what to do.”

In addition to agility, Botha said curiosity and honesty were also vital for leadership success.

 “Be curious about life, people and what’s going on around you … If you are curious, you will find solutions.”

She cited a South African survey, which revealed that the most important characteristic employees were looking for in leaders was honesty. “Why something as basic as honesty? In our society, where nothing is a surprise, most people want to believe what they are told, they want to work towards common goals and make a contribution to something significant.”

She said the ability to communicate clearly – and the ability to actively listen – was also critical.

Asked about the challenges of being a woman in the male-dominated corporate world, Botha said: “I always say: you don’t have to be aggressive, you just have to be clear … Be a specialist in your field and be better than everyone else around you. If you’re clear and you’re a specialist, it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. And don’t keep quiet: only keep quiet if you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Advising the students on how to get a head-start in the corporate world, she said: “You have to survey the landscape you’re in and identify the top achievers – and then you have to find a way to be part of their teams. If you work in a deadbeat team that doesn’t have the ideals of changing the business or the world, move quickly, or you won’t go anywhere … My personal biggest victories were when my people excelled.

“You don’t get ahead with wishful thinking. It takes hard work and being brilliant [at what you do].”

NMMU Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Institutional Support, Dr Sibongile Muthwa, said Botha was a “game changer for a woman leader”. “She is a living example of how talent and humility can be combined to devastating effect.”

BUSINESS GURU … Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Chancellor Santie Botha, a leading South African businesswoman, shares leadership advice with first-year engineering student Sinakho Calata (left) and fourth-year education student Tarryn Lovemore.

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