“Tragic Optimism” with Dean and Director Jon Foster-Pedley in South Africa

 

It is easy to lose hope and faith in humanity in a world of crisis, chaos, and conflict.  However, as leaders, we should be the first to model optimism to inspire others, regardless of the uncertainty, tragedy, or adversity. In this episode of Leading Boldly into the Future, Anne Pratt is joined by Jon Foster-Pedley, Dean and Director of Henley Business in School Africa. Jon invites us to rethink who and how we educate the next generation and how “tragic optimism” is a powerful paradigm for leadership. He also talks about the lasting value of kindness, paying it forward, the importance of collective intelligence, and why Nelson Mandela’s anger inspired him. Tune in for more!

Listen to the podcast here.

 

“Tragic Optimism” with Dean and Director Jon Foster-Pedley in South Africa

Dismantle Despair and Transcend the Tragedy and Suffering in Your Environment

In this episode, our thoughtful, bold leader joins us from the economic hub of Johannesburg in South Africa. He started his adult life as an airplane pilot, including aerobatics, and became a corporate commercial executive before moving into academia. He is currently the Dean and Director of Henley Business School Africa, part of the Henley Business School of the University of Reading in the United Kingdom.

The school has campuses in Europe, China, Malaysia, and Africa. It has been accredited more than four times and is one of the oldest business schools in Europe. He’s a Board Member and Board Chair of the Association of African Business Schools, a visiting Professor in Strategy, Creativity, and Innovation, and a member of the faculty of the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, where he designed and launched their MBA and Executive Education programs.

His international career has taken him across the globe. He has lived and worked in the United Kingdom, France, New Zealand, and South Africa, harnessing more than 35 years of international experience. Stay tuned as he shares more with us about the lasting value of kindness and paying it forward. Why musicians, journalists, and sports stars often fuelled by ‘tragic optimism’ do well in the MBA, collective intelligence, and why Nelson Mandela’s anger inspired him. We warmly welcome my dear friend and colleague, Jon Foster-Pedley. Welcome to the show.

 

Leading Boldly into the Future: What the World Needs Now | Jonathan Foster-Pedley | Tragic Optimism

 

Jon, thank you so much for joining us. I am delighted to be having this conversation with you. Your colorful career from a professional commercial pilot into the executive business world, working internationally, and moving into academia in your current role struck me right up front. What for you is the common thread?

Thank you, Anne. It’s a pleasure to be here. For me, I think it’s more like a triple helix of curiosity, restlessness, and, to some extent, I believe, empathy. I’m hesitant to claim empathy for myself because we would all like to be empathetic. I don’t think I am very empathetic sometimes, but it matters when we have empathy. That curiosity about the world and the restlessness of not being entirely satisfied with oneself is partly what curiosity does to you, which is essential. I think those are the key elements.

When you say restlessness, please expand on that a little more. What was the restlessness that took you literally out of the skies into the commercial world and then onto academia?

Jon’s Journey

I think flying is a wonderful career. It’s exact and interactive. You’re very in tune with the elements, and it’s very analytically precise. You’re working with many instruments, and a particular flow goes with it. What academia gives you is an intellectual flow. It’s the satisfaction of looking at abstract objects and seeing how they connect with the real world. Flying gives you the real world. Academia gives you the big picture, but business or running a business school brings it all together, and you’re trying to make abstract ideas work in the concrete world for the common good.

I was pretty taken with the positioning statement, if you like, of Henley Business School. I know it’s connected to Reading University, and perhaps you can expand a little more on the size and scope of the business school. When you do that, I’d be curious to know what prompted the positioning of Henley as ‘building people to build businesses that build Africa.’

We’re part of a large university in the UK called the University of Reading. Henley Business School is one of the oldest business schools in Europe. Henley, established in 1945, is 75-plus years old and is part of this big university. That university has campuses around the world. It has several campuses in Europe and Malaysia and activities in China, the UK, and Africa, which is 30-plus years in the making. That international university, which is not triple-accredited but is now the first in Africa to be quadruple-accredited, credited by the Association of African Business Schools, has a purpose.

You would think an international university might come with its knowledge to distribute it to the world, and that’s probably the most evil aspiration of a university. I think what you must come to as a society is understand what that society needs to grow and thrive and use your knowledge to support it, not try and tell because the adaptation of that knowledge to that local context and local requirements is the crucial art of a good university. It’s not maintaining some global academic distance. It’s creating a local entrepreneurial, academic-supported impact.

In terms of the purpose, why is there an emphasis on your school ‘building the people’ when you say the people? Very often, in business, people talk about people as the most critical assets, but when you look at the reality on the ground and how many organizations treat people in day-to-day conduct behavior, values, policies, etc., isn’t necessarily an alignment between what those organizations say and what is happening on the ground. Why do you believe it is about building people, and what differentiates organizations from organizations that genuinely emphasize building their people?

You call people assets, and of course, that’s one way to look at them. People might object. I might object to being labeled as an asset. My daughter might object. I think, as people, we are complex contributors to a purpose. I think what makes a great organization work is a purpose that resonates in the context, not a mission statement that people will see in a book for the sake of it. South Africa has a vast difference between rich and poor people.

What makes a great organization work is a purpose that resonates in the context, not a mission statement that people will see in a book for the sake of it. Share on X

In South Africa, we have a damaged historical path through impacted colonialization, extracted wealth being taken overseas, and not much being left behind. Of course, in South Africa, apartheid and, more recently, post-1994 is state capture and the massive corruption we’ve been through. Several things deal with that.

Behind all that are the people that educators should educate. Whether you’re a business school or a university, we need to grow people for something. You could say, “I’m an MBA. I’m the smart person in a room.” It’s about positioning. In these societies, you’ve got the highest GINI coefficient in the world and the most significant gap between rich and poor. (Editor’s note: The Gini coefficient, Gini index, or Gini ratio is a statistical measure of economic inequality in a population. The coefficient measures the income or wealth distribution dispersion among a population’s members. A Gini coefficient of 0 reflects perfect equality, where all income or wealth values are the same. A Gini coefficient of 1 (or 100%) reflects maximal inequality among values, where a single individual has all the income while all others have none.) They are competent people, many of whom don’t believe they are, but when they’re educated, they have an epiphany and a burst of self-confidence that lets go of that talent that’s been choked.

In those societies, a business school is about building confidence, getting people’s intellectual and practical activities going, getting used to their Imposter Syndrome and sense of insecurity, and giving them the confidence to try things out, build organizations, and therefore build the economy. That’s what a business school should do.

That’s very compelling. I’m curious. You talk about building self-confidence. What was the tipping point in your own young life, Jon? I know you spent part of your childhood in the United Kingdom and some of it in Malaysia, but can you take us back to a more difficult moment for you?

Often, when asked, “When was the difficult moment,” I think they struggle to find just one. I have so many. Life seems complicated, and I wonder if most people don’t as well. A sense of epiphany, I think, there are many. I was raised in the family of a war hero, a Second World War fighter, a very military but service-orientated, apolitical family. I think there were early epiphanies in the sense of doing it for yourself, having self-reliance, and taking on a little bit of problem and pain, which was important. I remember that. I remember a significant epiphany when I decided to leave the Royal Air Force, grow my hair, and travel around Europe and the world for a while. It was terrifying to leave that background and launch myself into uncertainty.

Coming out of that where, I decided to work my way back into flying by doing all sorts of jobs, selling things and cleaning airplanes, and many other things to become a flying instructor, borrowing money from the bank, and building my career again from nothing because I put it behind. It was a potent moment for me when nobody was supporting me. I had very little, but you push to make it happen. I hope everyone has that experience because it teaches you that despite your apparent liability, so well, most of us have, maybe you don’t, but I imagine you do, that you can do things if you have the will. I suppose that sounds a bit trite, but I think that’s a powerful epiphany for everybody in a sense you must try.

How did you feel at the time?

I think I felt fear and a remarkable sense of adventure at the time, which I believe has always inspired me. I have a grand sense of adventure and a sense of growing capability. It was a mixture of all these negative and positive emotions coming together, but driven by a sense that you must make your destiny. That, for me, was important.

What was the lightbulb moment? When did the lightbulb come on for you when you understood there was a new and different way to navigate past that moment?

This may sound silly. I had no money and was a flying instructor living somewhere on nothing. I walked into a bank, Barclay’s Bank. I was in Jersey in the Channel Islands. I walked into this big bank. I think I had a guitar, a toolbox, and a few clothes in my name, and I was in my late twenties. I asked the manager, “Mr. Burman, can I borrow some money?” He said, “Yes, what’s your collateral?” I said, “What’s collateral?” He said, “Your property.” I said, “I have none.” There was something at that moment where Mr. Burman looked at me, and I looked at him where, for absolutely no reason in the world, he decided to give me lots of money to do my flying instructor rating, and he didn’t even know me.

Kindness – Paying it Forward: ‘I Gave My Taxi Driver A Scholarship’ 

There was something about doing that, and the kindness and that moment of him doing it has stayed with me forever. Why on earth did he do that? I understand it now because I do it for other people. I give a lot of scholarships away, and sometimes there’s a moment. I was in an Uber one day, and there was this Uber driver. We talked, and it turned out that he’d given his life. He’d gone into Yemen. He’d spent a year studying deep religious philosophy, came back, and was an entrepreneur, and there was something magical about him. I couldn’t help but give him a scholarship to study. He is thriving. I suppose sometimes you recognize that in other people, and if you respond to the instinct, you do good in the world. That person did ‘good’ for me. Mr. Burman. God bless him.

Did you ever return and discuss the significance of that impact with him?

I’m curious. I wish I could. It was a long time ago, but I try to tell that story as often as possible because many Mr. Burmans are out there, and I. Flying is a challenging game. You have to work hard and go all the way worldwide. I then went to South Africa to fly, bush fly, instruct, and be an airline pilot. I never got back to him. I returned to Jersey a few years ago and should have done that. I expect he’s passed on, but I would like to.

Yeah, but you certainly acknowledge him as you’re doing right now.

There was another person like that, a man I used to work for called Tom Saunders with British Aerospace. He was an ex-pilot. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched the Absolutely Fabulous television program. It’s about Eddie and Patsy. It’s a fantastic program. Jennifer Saunders was Tom Saunders’ daughter, so he used to talk about that quite a lot. He was my boss in British Aerospace, and I decided I wanted to do an MBA, so I’d leave British Aerospace. For some reason, he said, “No, don’t leave.” He sponsored me for one of the most expensive MBAs in Europe at the time with full salary and total payments and completely changed my life. Why did Tom Saunders do that? It’s no reason, but somehow, he did.

We possibly have the most extensive scholarship program of any business school in Africa now. I’m continually giving money to people I believe will grow into leaders. Whether they’re in creative arts like music or drummers, activist journalists, or sports people, where we give to NGO workers, whatever it is, we give these scholarships away without rhyme or reason. We think these people will become examples and build industries rather than themselves. There’s a natural affinity to those people who help us do it.

I think we all have that affinity. I believe that we all try. The world and the pressures of doing business and being important as a leader will distract you from that. I don’t think I’m a good leader at all. Plenty of people say I’m terrible, I’m sure. Other people might be kind enough to say I’m good. I think that’s how it is. However, I do know that leadership is about building other people. It’s about responding to that instinct to help people grow.

 

Leading Boldly into the Future: What the World Needs Now | Jonathan Foster-Pedley | Tragic Optimism

 

On the point, Jon, around that instinct, when you say for no rhyme or reason, I’m sure there was a rhyme and reason. In the same way, when you see that in other people, what is it that you see in people when you say, “I have a feeling about this person. This is a person I want to invest in support because I believe these are people who will build businesses and make an impact.” What is it you see, what is it you think people need to cultivate to track that energy, if you like?

This will sound terrible, but it’s not scars but an instinct to be willing to take on some scars (sacrifice) for something bigger. It’s an instinct to struggle. There’s a light in the eyes, which is not self-obsession. It probably comes from people being hurt sometimes. It’s a sense that I’ve been through this. I recognize that people are not perfect and that no leader is perfect. It is vital to embrace imperfection in your leadership; your people will tell you about it if you don’t. However, despite that pain, you have to push on in life.

Imperfection is a crucial thing to embrace in your leadership. If you don't, plenty of people will tell you about it. Share on X

I think Viktor Frankl talked about it a lot in the book Man’s Search for Meaning when he talked about ‘tragic optimism,’ pushing through hard times for something better. It’s not the evasion of hard times. It’s the willingness to endure some rocky times in your life and accept life’s ups and downs. If you are motivated to push it forward, you will likely get far further than you could imagine. Therefore, letting go of what you imagine you can be and continually frightening yourself is probably an excellent strategy.

Leading With Optimism

Yeah, it’s a pretty exciting thought and a powerful process. Is that a process for you when Mr. Burman invested his faith in you?

Yes. I didn’t automatically. I was lucky that I’d had evidence that flying was a thing that came reasonably easy to me, and I carried on, did aerobatic flying later on, and loved all that thing. When somebody is committing to themselves, I think you recognize that, to acknowledge the willingness to go into the more challenging times of life for the sake of something great. When you see that in somebody, it’s almost impossible not to help them. When you see people holding back and covering and whatever, yes, you want to help them, but some people are willing to take on life’s challenges and pain for something big. Those are the people who are going to drive progress and will drive businesses.

Not all people like that because there are many types of leaders. It would be best if you had leaders who are methodical. It would help if you had leaders who are good at maintaining stability but also need people who will generate change—the provocateurs. The big thing about being a provocateur is that it sounds very sexy and exciting. I want to be a provocateur, but you can never be a provocateur if you think it’s sexy and exciting. It’s a painful process.

Pain is well worth the effort in terms of self-realization and the sense that you’ve escaped from the more significant limitations of yourself to something, and as you grow, you should never feel you are great. I think as you grow, you come to realize how deeply ordinary you are. Ordinary is a powerful thing. Why do we all be so extraordinary? We are gifted with more than everything we need to do well in life as we are – ordinary people if we apply it. I think that’s the way I see it.

 

 

To that point, Jon, I get that there are many different types of leaders, and of course, there are probably a plethora of leadership models and frameworks. Having a bridge to a professional, a commercial, and an academic life, what is your definition of leadership?

I envy those people who can come up with the perfect soundbites. I admire them because they must keep so many contradictory soundbites in their heads to manage leadership. After all, there are so many different definitions. I think leadership is defined by a cause. For me, I’m a late dad. I don’t know if you’re a parent, but a lot of people will be who are reading, I suppose. I think that something happens, and then you start to want to do something for them and, by extension, all those other children in the world and the society behind you.

Leadership is defined by a cause, by a sense of something you believe is worth. Share on X

It’s not because you’re a noble or pure or a saint; it’s like a profoundly hardwired instinct that you should respond to for the world. It would be best if you weren’t so terrified that you want to acquire everything because the acquisition of having a mission is far more significant in the end than the acquisition of building an entity or something. It’s scary, but it’s worth doing it. Funny enough, there’s probably more stability in having a mission than not having a lot of property. It’s undoubtedly a little bit more scary, I would say. That’s for me. I wouldn’t presume instantly to say what it is for somebody else.

You mentioned the importance of imperfection earlier, and so often, people in powerful positions are confused with leadership because they may intersect but are not the same thing. Still, depending on their culture, it’s hard for people to show their vulnerable, imperfect side. What do you think is the value of understanding and exposing our imperfections?

If you don’t expose your imperfections, you are doomed to live in a facade or an artificial environment. I don’t think it’s because you’re trying to be noble or humble when exposing your imperfections. If you’re trying to lead, your imperfections stick out all over you. They come out. If you try to manage that, hold them down, and create this wonderful image, another human being can resonate with that fantasy, but they’re never going to resonate as a human being about it.

You can’t do good work without pushing yourself to the limits often. When you push yourself to the limits, your other side shows maybe it’s your Dark Triad, your tendency to sociopathy or neuroses or narcissism. All of these have a beneficial aspect in moderate amounts, but in extreme cases, they do not. Those things will pop out.

I think you have to if you want to lead well and you want to lead on a significant scale, a scale not just for an institutional organization for profit, which is a contained form of leadership. Imagine if we were passionate about the environments and the world we’re living in the climate and we had to think this is our most significant thing we have to do, how do we lead in that? What do we give up? There is a calling in there that all must respond to differently. It doesn’t mean you’ve got to give up your career, but you have to think beyond the consequences of a company’s profit, the boundary of a company into society, and your impact on society.

You must know that that’s unacceptable and that I should be part of that. Face the horror that there’s very little you can do, and it’s excellent impotence, but you’ve still got to do something and start doing it. I think that is an integral part of leadership these days. You’ve got to stand out. You’ve got to be vocal and not be embarrassed or humiliated because it’s so insignificant when you look at somebody else who’s done so much. Everybody started with that.

If everybody gets on that path, we will make positive societal changes to make the world more liveable. Save the climate a little bit more, save the species a little bit more, have the seasonal nature that we want our children to experience and feel part of in a deep connection as well as building great enterprises, great science, great institutions understanding what democracy and other ways of management mean and exploring humanity.

That’s a big part of what we do. Indeed, we shouldn’t separate ourselves from those big ideas because we are in a business or an institution. Those things should be serving something beneficial in the world. I think we need to be part of, in our tiny ways, looking for the real benefit that whatever we do does in life. Please do not be trapped by making material benefits for ourselves because we don’t want our children to live like that. Why should we want to live like that? That sounds like a lot of truisms and whatever, but we have to take action in the world we’re facing.

The truth is, Jon, there are also many people sitting in power or positions who have successfully presented the facade, and sometimes it’s perilous to break through the facade for people, depending on the organization’s culture. For those who have witnessed people’s success, what would you say to them about packaging this veneer of so-called perfection? What would you say to those people, given that it appears to be successful and they seem to have all the trappings of success, albeit very often in the material world? What would you say to those people?

I think it’s tough to generalize. One of the things about when you become more senior is what I believe, and I can’t speak for people who have broader scope ideas than I do because I think you realize that you didn’t know how complicated things were until you got there. It’s effortless to project a simplified view of life onto leaders or management and trivialize them as demonic or polarize them in a maccium way of black and white. A lot of people are dealing with enormous levels of complexity. It’s tough to make the right decision when dealing with those levels of complexity and senior positions. What happens is you’ve got to make some decisions in the face of enormous uncertainty. The consequences, potential disaster, are much more significant; therefore, you have to have a sense of accountability.

 

 

While that will attract some people who are pathologically not very pleasant, it will attract many people who are pathologically driven and very positive in life. I think we tend to underrate that. It’s tough to understand what it’s like to be in a very senior position to have been there and the trade-offs and the balances you have to make. It’s a bit like watching a Netflix movie in terms of all the things you have to go on. One has to realize that if you go into a senior position, it will be learning, and you will have to make some big decisions that will not leave you comfortable. That means that you won’t be popular sometimes, and that’s hard for most people.

In this very turbulent world, we live in, what in your mind, from a strategic point of view, do you think are the most significant leadership challenges and opportunities? What are leaders being called to do? I know that’s a broad question, but within your world and sphere of influence, what do you think are the significant challenges people face?

We’re living in a world that we are trying to make better and panicking about, and for some reason, we shouldn’t panic because now, the tools we have and we are making are more powerful and potentially more destructive, but of course, more able to do things as well. I think it’s crucial to have a measured optimism. I think cynicism is a significant failure of perception. Your chronic cynicism is looking at the world, and that beautiful picture behind you will be dark, and things will be monochrome and like looking at life through a very depressive state in some ways. Also, trivializing people means that everybody has base motives, but everyone has noble motives, too. I think what we have to do as leaders is to stop trying to find sanity and security within the boundaries of organizations.

It's imperative to have a measured optimism. Share on X

Becoming a leader gives you a more profound sense of causality. You’re pulling more giant levers with more uncertain outcomes. You get a massive positive effect if you can pull the right combination of the big levers. One of the things that leadership needs to do is have big ideas for the world but not get lost in those big ideas because the moment we do that, the most important thing, which is I’m here talking to you and maybe have a family, I have a family, don’t we want to get back to them—holding those thoughts as well. Bringing the human being and the personal human being into the business world is also essential, but not in a way to base it on because business serves that. I think the significant challenges for leaders are being human, developing their minds to see big ideas, and understanding that most of the big decisions, somehow collective, will see the world in such a sophisticated way that’s different from mine.

Imagine connecting our perceptions to a brilliant big brain hanging up there and another ten people in Boston and a couple in London. Imagine the wisdom in that brain if we could connect those multiple but different insights. That collective mind, that collective thinking, has a much deeper, richer understanding of a context than any of our individual ones. I think good leaders have to start getting that collective insight going. In Denmark, the Law of Jante, which means Jon’s Law, is all about the power of orderliness. Namely, I cannot be greater than the group because how can my perception be better than the group’s perception? It’s powerful.

I think leaders need to do that. I also believe we have to be very articulate. I think you need to be very technically capable. It would help if you had a good financial understanding. It would be best if you were a pretty reasonable psychologist and had almost the spiritual insight of a devout monk. Of course, none of that will happen. Still, we need multiple capabilities, some of which are very clear and linear, and some of which are much more about understanding the world as it could be—not hiding, not seeking a future away from politics and significant geopolitical issues in the narrowness of a particular institutional leadership role.

That’s an exciting combination, and a friend of mine said that even using the word spiritual in business is often virgin territory for many. What would you say to group chief and company executives who haven’t navigated that more metaphysical space? How would you approach that?

I don’t think they necessarily navigated there. I think what happens is that the world and education drive people away from it very often. The great late Clayton Christensen was a solid Mormon Christian with a mighty faith and a brilliant strategist. There are other people I know who are devout Muslims or Hindus or other forms of Christianity who have that belief system. For some, religion is a barrier and a blockade to thinking. For other people, it’s a liberation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with discussing spirituality in business. I think the language of business has naturally become about agency, finance, and investment. Those are important things. Why would investment in that beautiful building behind you or looking after that lake, which somebody is doing, be somehow unspiritual?

I think we mystify the spiritual thing. We create this domain as if you’re in some transcendental position. I think any of those people would tell you that spirituality is a very average, ordinary, genuine sense of presence in the sense of something more than you are, which you can live with daily. You don’t have to be lost on a mountain to do that. It’s presence. It’s being there. It’s not trying to be noble and glorious.

Most of the time, it’s grappling with your demons; when you push yourself into leadership, your demons are there, and you must overcome your ego. You will make big mistakes sometimes and be called to account, but you’ve got to carry on despite it. I don’t think there’s anything weird about putting spirituality in business. I think the way we describe spirituality is the problem.

Dealing With Tough Challenges

I’m curious: in your commercial executive life, I know you’ve lived and worked, I think, on six different continents, and you’ve held senior executive positions in sales and marketing. Can you take us back to a specific time when you were dealing with a tough challenge within your environment? What was that occasion, and how did you navigate it, particularly understanding the importance of building the people to help work through and solve the problem?

I think there’s a number. My more recent experience at Henley is an example; we started with five people who have grown into a pretty powerful business school that’s been accredited in its own right. We’ve done it with no investment. We were technically insolvent when we started and had a lot of debts I didn’t know about. We built it entirely without investment, loans, or subsidies into a thriving and influential business school. We’ve done that through COVID. We switched during COVID to entirely online. I think that required a lot of change. For that, we created a model using a system, thinking about how we would build an enterprise. The first thing we would have to do is define our context. We would have to redefine what Africa means, away from the world’s definition, and turn it into something more full of potential.

We would then have to make purpose our driving force before considering money. That would attract talented people to us. We have to create that community. We must teach them how to design excellent education using different design tools and methods. They would have to create education that had an impact and made people better at doing something rather than talking about it. When they were better at doing something, they would try it out and get confidence, saying, “That’s pretty good.” The moment they were confident they would get results, making them even more confident. People would then notice them and say, “Where did you get that from?” They would say, “We got it from Henley,” and then people would come to us because of that.

Most people you try and drive at the top end of that, but you’ve got to work out the systemic drivers, the 3 or 4 systemic drivers of your business model work. Part of that was dealing with people in a certain way, building people’s confidence, but also being very candid and dispassionate about human capability.

Looking somebody in the eyes and seeing them for the capability that they believe they have and not being very sympathetic at all. Saying, “I’m not listening to your Imposter Syndrome, or your self-generated sense of you can’t do it. Here, we learn to do it. It’s a great feeling for you, but I’m not going to spend a lot of time with you, and you sense you can’t because time isn’t on our side, and we have to get good at doing things.” We push people like that.

I think that’s created a dynamic, a sense of honesty, and it’s often very conflictual that has created an organization that mostly works and sometimes doesn’t. Sometimes, I’m the problem, sometimes we are not. This is how it is. I think that sense of engaging people candidly to what they can do and a sense of what people can do is a critical thing in development. We tend to work with an abstract idea, talent framework or a whole set of competencies we don’t fully understand. Here, we want people to be better at business straight away, try that and see results straight away because our society can’t support less than that. That creates a dynamic that is almost scarily performative.

The 3 to 4 strategic levers for Henley, can you share what those are?

Yeah, easily. We care and that’s not a bleeding-heart care. We care when we have a lot of issues that are coming up. I won’t share with people who are sick or whatever we engage with that, we don’t try and hide it. That’s one big thing. The other thing is we think about purpose without being grandiose about it. We try to normalize a sense of purpose because frankly, it’s okay to have a sense of purpose, but the other thing that’s not okay is having a completely polarized sense of purpose, which bothers people. If you have an ideology on this type of sect or personal-ism, you obviously can only survive by making other people the other ism. There’s a real sense in business and organizations that you take people as they come and that we all have the same potential capability. That’s important for us.

The other thing is we don’t give up. We live in a society in South Africa where it’s so easy to give up, but we have such huge rewards when we push because you see what people are capable of. I wonder if some society is a point of development that got you there, that it’s very hard to do that. The social norms keep you in a particular set of beliefs about yourself, which actually are fiction in some ways. Very often you can break out. Maybe it’s easier for us to do that here and we get more positive reinforcement about the potential of people because you see so many people growing in the work we do. It teaches you a bit about humanity a little bit and maybe and other countries you have more. It makes me sound like a straight trite, but this is all genuine. This is our experience.

In those tough moments, Jon, very briefly, we all have those days where it’s more difficult to push through. What has been the impetus during those particularly tough moments to push through and keep the faith strong and a sense of I can, you can, we can? What has been the impetus to get through those more difficult barriers?

I’m of an age that I was born after Second World War with the father who went through the war. In England, I remember it wasn’t very easy for many years. I wasn’t conscious of it, but it was a way of being that you don’t have a lot of luxuries, even though I’d born into a middle-class family with much. We were also a family that would make you do things. I think that early conditioning of that you have to somehow push on and carry on you, you can’t easily give up. Conditioned also by the lost people we had in that war was very powerful for people. I think that the lucky ones would’ve got a benefit from that, although lost too. I think more recently we’ve got actually much bigger problems facing us. Until Ukraine, we’ve had very little invasions of other countries by major powers. Now we’re sitting on a different idea.

We have climate, we have social dissipation, we have the potential of so many challenges facing us now with, with wildlife. Why would we not engage with that? If you are of an age, you don’t give up when you’re 60 or 70 or 50 and say, “I’m going to leave it to the next generation.” That’s when you’re most needed. That’s when you need to show leadership and show up and put yourself on the line because you are now setting the scene for your children and a generation to come. I think that’s very normal. It’s not a heroic thing at all. I think it’s deeply hardwired into us. We should act like that.

I think that leaders now need to understand and serve the coming generations and not their own generation. Just understand that that’s not what you’re here for. We actually have to make a change in the world. We’ve got to step up into it. That’s scary mainly because we mostly feel so insignificant and useless and fraudulent and self-inflated in our importance. “Why me? How can I have those aspirations?

Actually, if you look behind you, there’s nobody else. You might as well have a go. I think we are in that phase now that, yes, we build institutions, we make our careers, we do our arts, we build our families, but actually, we’re living in a world that needs our attention. Unless we put our attention to that world, it’s not going to change. Tiny though it is, we need to keep collectively making that effort. Even though we might stumble or get it wrong, we have to try. Whatever that means to you in whatever way that means to make the effort and the rewards of doing that will not be great glory or affirmation from other people. It will be quite an important sense of dignity, self-worth and pain. Pain comes with achievements. You must never try and avoid it. That’s not a very good gospel, is it? Nobody’s going to do that.

We're living in a world that needs our attention. Unless we put our attention to that world, it's not going to change. Share on X

As a former chairman of mine once used to say to me, “No pain, no gain.” In life, our growing pains, growth comes with its pain. There’s also, I think, the paradox of that when we have the darkness, the light looks so much lighter. Sometimes we need that contrast to appreciate the better times. It is an interesting perspective.                                                                                                                         

Some fun facts about yourself. I know you love playing the guitar. What brought you to the guitar and what’s your favourite place to play?

I think other people’s favourite for me to play is far away from them. I’ve been trying to play for many years. Being an a very average guitarist is a gift because it teaches you great appreciation for the great musicians. It opens the door to understand levels of music. It gives you some friends as well. However you are in that, if your aspiration is to be a pro musician or concert guitarist and all that, it’ll be very hard for you. There’s nothing like playing in a small band with other people and making music. It’s an experience. I think music has so much to offer us. We give scholarships to musicians to do MBA’s here and they are some of our best students. They’re rock stars.

Investigative journalists who put their life on the line to try and fight corruption, we give them scholarships to the MBA or comedians. We’ve had hip-hop artists, reggae artists. It’s amazing how good these people are because they don’t think they’re academic. They’ve been working and hustling and managing life for so long and know so much that when you structure that with some good knowledge taught the proper way, it empowers them to become leaders. I love music although I’m not playing much for the moment. That’s something I do. I used to love doing aerobatic competition. That’s a lot of fun.

It’s a very pure. It looks very scary and dangerous, but it’s not. You progress it. It’s very clinical and with the shapes and lines and it’s very interesting to try and paint your aircraft in the sky like that and have the purity and balance of doing routines. It’s a pure thing. I love doing education design and I love teaching. I love being part of a group of people who are exploring a concept, a subject. My area is strategy. I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed trying to build strategists and not teach strategy, which is quite a different thing. Those are some things; and my family, of course.

What would your children say about you in terms of the coolest part of you as a dad?

I don’t think anything. I don’t think it’s very much cool about me and my kids’ idea of a dad. I think we love each other. I don’t know. Maybe when they see me in my gowns on an academic presentation or something or we go walking in the bush in the park together with wild lions and elephants around. I think the fact that we do those things, probably. When I cook a decent meal or something, who knows? Probably, when I’m nice to my wife, when I’m particularly nice to my wife, I think they probably think that’s very cool. I’m going to try and do more of that, of course. I think they’re very good kids. They’re children who are learning not to be too pretentious and to build their own life. It’s very hard to raise kids. I wish I knew how to do better, but we’re certainly trying.

Leadership Lessons From Mandela

Shifting to a character that we both have a lot of admiration for, Nelson Mandela. Could you share with us a particular moment in time when something about Mandela’s life or leadership, or legacy struck a chord? Can you take us back to that moment? Where were you? What was the context?

I think there are so many things that for me and for you, I know, because I know that you have a huge passion and love for Mandela’s work and the person and inspiration. I think there’s something about his anger that inspires me, that he would be willing to be outspoken in high stakes situations and take on the possibility of being deeply unpopular, even hated for a cause with his opponents. He would do it in such a way that the quality of his purpose was clear. It wasn’t about his egotistic anger. Nelson Mandela, I imagine he was a very interesting and mixed man. Some people say very negative things about him now because the way he did the transition and they suggest ‘he sold out’ to White monopoly capital or whatever. Other people would think differently. I like the fact that he would be angry in that way.

 

 

Of course, the mere fact that he could play and be joyful. I’m very lucky to know some people from the Johnny Clegg Band, which I don’t suppose you necessarily know in the United States, but they’re lovely people. Barry Van Zyl, the drummer, actually got a scholarship and did extremely well on the MBA, studying his strategy on his drums, touring the United States as the guitarist and musical director. He is a very good musician. He was probably one of our best ever research students, remarkable, with no business background. They were on stage. It was in Paris, I think. It was Barry’s first-ever gig as a Johnny Clegg drummer. Johnny Clegg was singing and they sang that lovely powerful song about Mandela in exile.

What happened? Mandela walked out on stage smiling as he was being helped up and sang with him. It was that magic of that moment of him lifting a crowd through music, with music. This was not a man who was trying to be a glorified prophet or anything. He was being human and yet a leader. I think the greatest thing about him is that in that great leadership was a person, somebody that you or I could relate to as a decent person, a whole person with many aspects to him.

He wasn’t filtered. He wasn’t hiding behind facades. He was himself. I think that aspiration to be fully active and fully yourself is a powerful one. You are going to get a lot of pain if you’re going to be in that position. The payoff for that is way beyond it, because of course you’re going to get a lot of purpose and a lot of sense of doing something worthwhile in your life, which I think he got a lot of. I’m sure he went through a lot. What is your most compelling moment, Anne, if I may ask you? I know you’re interviewing me, but I’m curious.

Actually, like you, there are many, but I think for me, the most powerful moment was in 2003. We were celebrating ten years of democracy in South Africa. I had been invited by a very dear friend of mine, who went on to become a business partner, to come to a business event at the Johannesburg Country Club down in Auckland Park. It was Women’s Month, August 2003. I wasn’t quite sure exactly the specifics of the event, but I knew that my friend wanted me there. It was a business event and it was celebrating ten years of democracy and women in South Africa. I arrived. It was a beautiful day. The lawns were magnificent and all of a sudden, I noticed there were a lot of a lot of guys walking around in dark suits with dark sunglasses. I thought, “Something feels a little amiss here.”

There was this formal presence of them. Anyway, I walked in. I saw Gill Marcus, the Governor of the Reserve Bank. It was the ‘who’s who’ of South African business. Suddenly, there was a deathly silence. Everyone looked towards the door of the ballroom and that massive big radiant smile appeared and in walked Nelson Mandela. It had always been a childhood dream to meet him. He came in his imitable style. He was warm and gracious.

They auctioned off a suit that he wore the second day after he came out of prison. It was a fundraiser for rural woman. After that, I met him personally and he was so warm and affirming. He asked what I did. I shared it with him and in his true style, he said, “Keep up your good work. Leadership is  apowerful leverage to change the world. We need more people like you doing this work in leadership not only for South Africa and our continent, but for the world.” It was remarkable. That moment lives with me every day.

It sounds like that’s inspired you and makes you do the current work you’re doing now in these interviews Do you want that image of Mandela or that quality of Mandela to be understood or practiced?

Jon, I think we’re in this global pivotal moment where we have existential chaos, conflict and crisis. I think that having lived through the trauma of South Africa and lived through the transformation, which was not straightforward and easy, but delivering the impossible. I think that if we are to deal with the current big threats of this time, I think that so much of the military and the industrial world has created an incredible sense of abundance and wealth for the world.

To deal with these big threats in this moment in time, we need to give the world a more human face.

I think that apart from the humanity of it, I think as a former head hunter who cofounded and ran one of the top international aligned executive search firms, it is critical to bring this professional industry approach around what kind of leadership blueprint is going to crack it.

In these turbulent times, I truly believe Mandela’s Blueprint is the future of leadership. I believe that. If we have a look at the impossibility of so many of the threats we’re facing, we need a different way of thinking. We need a different way of acting and a different way of leading. It’s not just about Mandela. It’s about the forefathers of the ANC. It’s about how Mandela and his humanity not only changed the nation, he inspired the world and there was a global collective movement that got behind the anti-apartheid movement. I think that history has shown us what is possible. In summary, I think Mandela and his example of leadership and his blueprint is an empirical case of hope for the world now.

Mandela's blueprint is the future of leadership. It’s an empirical case of hope for the world today. Share on X

It’s a very powerful set of ideas. I love the way you talked about the idea of a movement because you asked earlier what is a leader? Perhaps for me, building on what you said, is the person who creates a movement, rather an institution. People move that the movement happens. It somehow makes that idea move forward. It tells a different story that unites, we would hope in the end, hundreds of millions of people towards a new direction.

That sounds impossible, but surely that is what we need. Somebody who can make these people move together voluntarily rather than compulsorily. We’ve seen actions like Extinction Rebellion for all its positive and negative press. That’s an effort to make a movement. You are trying to create a movement around Mandela’s ideas, which I think is a fantastic idea. Obviously, I would support that hugely. I think it’s a great idea. (Editor’s note: Extinction Rebellion is a UK-founded global environmental movement, founded October 31, 2018, with the stated aim of using nonviolent civil disobedience to compel government action to avoid tipping points in the climate system, biodiversity loss, and the risk of social and ecological collapse.) 

I think we’re in this twin pillar moment of despair and hope, Jon. That’s why I was so interested about what some things you were saying earlier and how do we navigate through these more difficult times and moments. It is about self-belief and it is about something greater than ourselves. I think even in these troubled times and troubled waters, there is an empirical case of hope. I think the victory for Mandela and for South Africa was a global victory.

I think the world needs that because if we have a look at some of these big threats, I know you’re a conservation lover. If we think of climate change and if we have a look at what’s happening in the world, we’re in a world on fire right now, these are challenges that go way beyond populist national thinking. We are not going to solve these problems with a populist nationalist mindset. In my humble opinion, the global collective movement that Mandela and his forefathers inspired is the collective leadership movement that we need to deal with the current existential threats of this time.

 

Leading Boldly into the Future: What the World Needs Now | Jonathan Foster-Pedley | Tragic Optimism

 

I think it’s inspiring opinion. I love the way you expressed that. I often think that people say, “Mandela’s gone. That’s the end of that.” What’s the point of a life like that if the person’s gone? Didn’t Mandela and other great leaders leave tiny bits of themselves in everybody to nourish? The gift was a seed of that which he would’ve learned from somewhere else. Surely, we’ve got to have the guts to try and build that and not try and be some heroes. He was very human person and that’s what inspired people. There was a sense of, “I could do some of that.”

I love what you shared about his moment of anger. It’s perceived as a negative emotion very often and yet, there is a role for all of these emotions, for every emotion. I love what you shared about his moment of anger and his courage around that, because anger is a great important signal to people. You’re right. He revealed that humanity about him. I guess I have evoked my own feelings about him, but I’m curious to hear, as a Dean and Director of a top business school, in your honest view, do you think there is a role for Mandela’s leadership in the world now? Do you think it is still relevant?

I think when you attach leadership to a person, it’s a useful code. The point of it, it’s got to be ‘catchy,’ isn’t it? An idea is something that should catch you in live people and make and put people into action. Great leaders are often codified through religions, movements, books or whatever. They don’t necessarily translate always into action. I think there is a huge role for the type of leadership that Nelson Mandela exemplified. I think having that example to illustrate that leadership, it’s hugely important.

Making it just about Nelson Mandela is a big mistake. It’s a very good way to get people to understand it. It’s a story. When Yuval Harari writes the books, he talks about the meta-narratives in life, the millions of people surrounding, whether this is more religion, whatever. We need something new that brings people together. I think there’s a lot to be said. There’s a lot of qualities in that need to be explored, not just become about Mandela, because time and age will make him into an iconic figure. The vitality of that may lapse.

How do we take that into young people and to link it with even new ideas and take the common threads and demonstrate them? I suppose any way for leadership to spread is through example and it’ll spread as an idea, but it won’t spread into action without example. I question myself, what example am I showing? Sometimes I show a terrible example of leadership. Sometimes I show a good example of leadership. I’m sure we are all the same, but it’s understanding the times you do it badly. I think that matter. I’m quite sure that Mandela, with his 27 years of reflection and his times of dealing with himself, would’ve been through a lot of issues in himself.

The only way for leadership to spread is through example. Share on X

We know he went through a lot in himself and yet he was able to come through that. It’s that pervasive sense of being activists, being engaged and human and not being glorious or vain and glorious. Just doing it in the sense that life was worth living. That’s so catching.  We need more of that. We need more leaders like that. We don’t need leaders who are cynical. They’ll create a faction, but they won’t improve. They won’t move us all towards something that we can achieve. Having any perfectionist ideas are a terrible thing for a leader to have because perfectionism is a quite unachievable thing. Attracting that yourself makes a myth. I think if Mandela means anything, we have to try out what he taught us. We can’t just worship it. We have to act it because after all, that’s what he wanted, isn’t it? He absolutely wanted the world to be different and so scary.

In our final moments, Jon, you’ve shared such wonderful pearls of wisdom. Any other final thoughts around leading boldly and leading boldly into the future?

I admire so many people who are taking example who lead. There are so many people one picks that up from I can only say what attracts me. I would hate to be an example of anything. I don’t think I ever will be, but I can say what I think we ought to do as far as I understand. The first thing is that it is good to learn about leadership in the abstracts and then try and practice it. The trouble with that is it doesn’t tell you how to transition the hard times. Real leadership is a continuing movement through difficult circumstances. A great leader I knew said, “Make reality your friend.” To make reality your friend is a hard thing to do because what is reality? We see the world as we are not as it is.

That’s a one of the useful metaphors, I think. You have to understand this reality is different from ours. I think great leaders are always seeking for countrary opinions, different views, but only in the process of doing things. There are leaders who are leaders of thought only. Some of those are fantastic, but the leaders we get in business or the world and politics are trying to make things move on. Sometimes, the complexities of doing big challenges, make people look like they’re doing nothing.

Every leader, if they’re going to be leader, needs to emulate the fact that I’m doing something. I’m trying to make something different. I’m putting myself out there and attract criticism. There’s a great thing about leaders. If you are going to be a leader, I think you are going to get criticized sometimes very rightly and sometimes very unfairly. I think being able to absorb that, walk through it, and grow through it is probably the strongest characters of the leadership.

If you keep doing that, you are going to get somewhere. Try, get hurt, understand it, move forward, try again. While you might have the ups and downs, that pathway, on average, is always upwards and all lives then. We know that’s going to happen. You will push the life on and have the sense of doing something worthwhile. I think we have a big calling now to do our jobs, to do our jobs fairly, to use money well, to consider the impact on the environment species, to think about fairness and prosperity rather than just profit and inequality. To never think that you can get rid of those things. You can’t not get rid of corruption. It’s always going to be there. What is the appropriate balance to make a satisfactory way forward.

To be surprised by Ukraine or by this or by that is to be in denial about the nature of the world. Those things will happen. How do we all give resilience to the people around us to follow on and have that optimism you talked about that is not some dreamy optimism, but an optimism that sustains itself in the face of quite a lot of challenges and quite a lot of things you don’t want to happen in your life. You still know that life is somehow worth living. Love exists, music exists, nature exists, happy moments exist and then you carry on trying and that’s probably the best you can do and take lots of advice.

These are not world-shattering bits of advice and people don’t want to hear them anymore. They want to have the 3 or 5 models of this or some great complex idea. The world has always moved through human beings who are driven by a sense of purpose and about humanity in the world around us. That’s what we have to do. We can and the point is, we can. We all can. Keep trying wherever you’re at, see what you will make some progress more than likely than not. That’s a hard enough journey.

I remember listening to John Kabat-Zinn once talking about meditation. (Editor’s note: Jon Kabat-Zinn is an American professor emeritus of medicine and the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.) He was teaching some people. He said, “Breathe in and breathe out and do that for twenty years and then you’ll get somewhere.” It’s a bit like leadership. Breathe in, breathe out, try again. Learn, try, keep that up for twenty years and see where you go. Don’t limit yourself and allow yourself to go in unexpected directions because that’s probably what’s calling you from inside or your brain might rebel. If you have that calling, take the risk and go with it. It’s probably something that’s going to help a lot of people and yourself if you do.

You’re a living legend of somebody who goes in the unexpected direction and I think Henley and the African continent are lucky to have you. Thank you for sharing those very candid, authentic, honest thoughts and wisdom.

Frankly, when I was listening to you, I was inspired. I think the best part of this interview has been your bit. Thank you very much for that. That was absolutely marvellous. I appreciate it. I’m inspired by the work you do. Thank you for doing it.

Thank you so much

Talking to my good friend, Jon Foster-Pedley, Director and Dean of Henley Business School Africa and Board Chair of the Association of African Business Schools, helps us rethink this concept of ‘tragic optimism,’ which the world-acclaimed Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl illuminated in his 1946 bestselling book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist, helps us answer some big questions, like how do we find optimism, amidst tragedy? Tragedies like losing a loved one, losing one’s livelihood, dealing with a difficult diagnosis like cancer, or suffering the hardships of Mandela’s 27 years in prison, or Victor Frankl’s three years in Nazi concentration camps. (Editor’s note: the Oxford dictionary defines tragedy as ‘an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress.)’ 

Frankl first formulated the foundation of his existential approach to psychotherapy before World War II. However, it was the harsh realities and daily brutalities in those Nazi concentration camps, coupled with meaningful, magical moments, that put his theory to test in practice. In times of tragedy, we often ask ourselves questions like, “How do I make sense of this? How did this happen? Why now? Why me?” It begs the question, what is Frankl’s definition of ‘tragic optimism?’

He defined it as ‘our search for meaning in times of tragedy that gives us the motivation and the will to live through it.’ It is premised on his belief that our search for meaning is a primary motivation in life. In times of tragedy, how do we transcend that tragedy and find tragic optimism? What did Viktor Frankl and others do to find purpose and meaning in those Nazi concentration camps?

Subsequent researchers have highlighted a number of different strategies and I will share three of those. Firstly, they used creative distractions. They kept themselves distracted, meaningfully distracted and entertained by creatively finding ways for children and artists to paint, for actors to perform and for musicians to improvise and play uplifting music.

The second strategy was acts of kindness and service to others. Viktor Frankl gave public talks, much-needed talks to fellow prisoners on topics like medicine and psychotherapy. He and his team ran suicide prevention programs and he helped depressed prisoners with logotherapy to find meaning and purpose in their lives, thinking about people, loved ones, something or someone they could live for.

The third was meaningful spiritual connections. Frankl, in the gas chambers, was instructed by the guards to pick up the jacket of a deceased prisoner. He found a prayer in the pocket of that jacket and that prayer, that message to him, became a meaningful spiritual connection. It was a message to him to live and practice what he wrote and preached. It was also a message for him to rewrite the book Man’s Search for Meaning, which had been taken from him during his time in Auschwitz. That prayer, that message, that spiritual connection kept him alive.

In my own young life, my late mother imprinted this concept when she said to me, “Anne, with every adversity in life, there is meaning and opportunity.” That opportunity typically presents itself somewhere in the messy middle. The difference between winners and losers are those who find that meaning and opportunity and travel North. Those who stay stuck in despair travel South.”                   

Viktor Frankl’s theory was dramatically tested in a life amidst tragedy in those concentration camps, his internment, the untimely loss of his wife, Tilly, and the passing of his 81-year-old father, Gabriel. It was amidst those tragedies and tragic optimism that gave birth to a whole new school of existential psychotherapy called logotherapy.

Despite the critics, Frankl shaped modern psychological thinking. He went on to speak and teach at 200 universities. He published and authored 40 books in 50 languages and was awarded 29 honorary Doctorate degrees. Viktor Frankl led an extraordinary life until his passing in 1997, at age 92 but it was the work in those Nazi concentration camps, Man’s Search For Meaning and tragic optimism that lives on and captured the hearts and minds of theorists, practitioners, researchers and everyday people worldwide.

 

 

You, too, have the motivation, the will and the power to find meaning amidst any tragedy, to transcend that tragedy and find tragic optimism and to achieve a positive outcome no matter what the circumstances in life, in leadership and in our chaotic world.                                                                 

Until next time, remember that leading boldly is about making meaningful, bold choices. Bold leadership is about taking bold action just one small step at a time. One step for you, and like Viktor Frankl, a giant step for humanity. Take care and take meaningful, bold action.

 

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About Jonathan Foster-Pedley

Leading Boldly into the Future: What the World Needs Now | Jonathan Foster-Pedley | Tragic OptimismJonathan is Dean and Director of Henley Business School Africa, part of the internationally triple accredited Henley Business School of the University of Reading, UK.

He has been a visiting professor in strategy, creativity and innovation. He was the faculty member for strategy at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (GSB) for the MBA and other programmes and has held significant leadership positions there, including that of designer and launch director of the Executive MBA, head of executive education etc.

He has lived in France, UK, New Zealand, South Africa and has over 35 years of international business experience in demanding environments, including 6 years as a sales manager with UK’s largest exporter on complex and high value international sales in the aerospace industry and for 5 years as a marketing director of a European collaboration with airbus, Aerospatiale and other partners.

He has worked in many countries in Europe, Africa, Australasia and the Middle East. He has contributed in leadership positions on a number of government and business committees and ventures in Africa, Australia and the UK. Starting his career as a scholarship winner to military academy and an officer in the Royal Air Force.

He is also a dedicated family man with two young children, and is interested in wildlife, conservation, guitar and education.

His career has three key threads – one professional thread as a commercial pilot; one commercial and corporate thread as an international executive, business starter, change agent, and business winner; and one academic thread as a dean, academic, teacher, education designer and programme director. These three threads give him an interesting breadth of insights for the education industry

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