Purpose – our guiding ‘north star’ in early childhood

“I grew up in an anti-apartheid family in South Africa, with a purposeful, uncompromisingly principled, pioneering mother, who used her white privilege to teach and upskill to a new world class standard in Black medical education (then segregated), at King Edward Hospital. I experienced leadership excellence at age 7 in a rural mission hospital, Charles Johnson Memorial Hospital (Nqutu) in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa. I met Nelson Mandela, placed his CEO, interviewed 10 000 potential leaders, ‘blew the ‘whistle’ to the Central bank, survived ovarian cancer, and became a Harvard University fellow to work on a project to improve the world, all in less than four decades. Nelson Mandela taught me and modeled, shaped and inspired a new and better leadership way.”

“We are most effective to lead when we have seen it, felt it, and lived it. Get up close to things you want to change.” – Anne Pratt

Mandela (Madiba) was adjusting to his early years in prison in ‘lockdown’ isolation on Robben Island, South Africa’s version of Alcatraz, in his sparse 7 square foot prison cell. At this time I spent childhood time warmly embraced by my late mother’s trail-blazing nurses in King Edward Hospital, an African teaching hospital in Kwa-Zulu Natal. I reveled in my indelible, experiential school holiday at Nqutu rural mission hospital, at an impressionable age 7, where my mother worked pro bono during her ‘vacation’ time. This widely acclaimed pocket of excellence was run by a dedicated British couple, Doctors Anthony and Maggie Barker, who hailed from England, and were appreciative of the African warmth and sun. A remote rural space and place of success, happiness and unity within the hospital and broader community – the patients, the medical team and the community were a healing ‘Medicine’ in a hospital system redefined. It was healthy and fun too. Weekend entertainment was playing baseball with an old battered bat and a threadbare ball, random teams selected from off-duty nurses, enthralled visitors, joyful community members, and hopeful patients about to be discharged. Anthony and Maggie partnered well professionally and personally, with a seamless transition between the two. Their purpose and passion were clear and palpable. Being up close in this unexpected sanctuary, a harmonious, high performing and inclusive, multi-racial rural mission hospital, fueled a radiant light of hope. I experienced an intimacy with humanity, this became my guiding ‘north star’. We are most equipped and effective to lead when we have seen it up close, felt it, and lived it. We need to get up close to things we want to change. I also learned the innate power of our African spirit of Ubuntu, a collective bond that binds the human spirit. Mandela’s quote struck a cord in that early experience.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela

I was curious about Doctors Anthony and Maggie Barker. They lived happily and humbly – an old wooden tomato box for a lounge coffee table, and super worn floor cushions as a ‘lounge suite’. ‘Nqutu’ redefined leadership excellence. This was a blueprint modeled by my visionary late mother, embraced by my gracious, intelligent grandmother, and affirmed by my ‘larger than life’ late British father, who ‘loved the African people, its’ captivating wildlife, and Africa’s vast open plains’.

This ‘power of proximity’ (referenced by Harvard’s law graduate and Human Rights attorney Bryan Stevenson in ‘Just Mercy), first at King Edward hospital, and then in this humble and revered rural mission hospital, embedded this African spirit of Ubuntu, etched deeply in my heart and in my soul. This early childhood ‘crucible moment’ in the rural vast valleys of Kwa-Zulu Natal, ignited a young bright orange flame – holding a light for the collective power of authentic and inclusive leadership.

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