Martin Luther King Jr. Picture: SUPPLIED
Martin Luther King Jr was an example of a charismatic leader who was able to articulate a vision for the US in speeches such as the ‘I have a dream’ address in Washington that inspired many followers from all walks of life. Picture: SUPPLIED

"WHY should people follow leaders who cannot lead themselves?" is a question I have been pondering.

The effect of leadership is often measured by the extent to which people can convince others to follow them. In an election year, this is very relevant, as political leaders will be criss-crossing the country in an attempt to retain and grow their followers.

It is the same in organisations. Executives in a corporate organisation have an important role to play in getting their staff to throw their full weight behind its products and services.

The job of leaders in corporates is made easier by the fact that people — across the different levels of society — are looking for leadership to provide inspiration for their personal aspirations and those they have for the organisation, as well as guidance on what needs to be done to achieve the aspirations.

Followers, supporters, staff and volunteers have an important role to play in organisations. Leaders must get followers behind them.

But here is the thing: what is there to follow beyond the personality and charisma of the leader? What should followers look for in their leaders?

Followers have the responsibility of interrogating the validity and basis of an individual’s leadership, before they follow. And the leaders themselves have to get certain things in order before embarking on the journey of leadership.

Before they lead others, great leaders know that they must first lead themselves. You cannot effectively lead others if you have not mastered the art of leading yourself.

Before you can lead others, there has to be a strong conviction and a compelling sense of clarity about where the organisation or institution needs to go. This requires a vision that the leader is convinced is the right path.

Vision speaks of the ability to see what the future looks like, and the role of the organisation in that future and its effect on it.

Great visionaries have an ability not only to see the future, but to experience it before it arrives. Leaders go ahead of their followers. They live in the future, and excel in the art of interpreting for their followers what they see and experience there.

This is the trademark of great leaders: a clear understanding of what has been (hindsight); projecting into the future to see what it could be (foresight); and then using the two to determine what must be done today (insight).

This was the case with Martin Luther King Jr, whose vision for the US was captured well in the "I have a dream" speech he made in Washington a little more than 50 years ago. A crowd of more than 200,000 people from all walks of life had gathered for what King predicted would be "the greatest demonstration for freedom".

Many things we take for granted now were only a dream in the 1960s. It was just a dream — and perhaps inconceivable to many — that one day "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers".

This is not just a combination of King’s magnificent oratory skills and powerful imagination. This is experiencing the future before it happens.

Leaders must be visionaries: see the future before others and go ahead and pave the way. They must experience the future before it becomes real and then inspire their followers to pursue it.

In going ahead of the rest, leaders have the ability to anticipate and plan for the obstacles they see, well ahead of time. They cannot lead others where they have not already been, they can only lead people to a future that they have experienced, where they have gone themselves.

Leaders should always keep growing, because organisations can only grow to the extent that the leader has grown. If the leader stops growing, it is only a matter of time before the organisation starts to grind to a halt. Change in leadership is not merely a rotation to give others a chance, but is required to ensure that when a leader has taken the organisation as far as he or she can see, the next-generation leader — defined not by age or experience, but as the ability of the new leader to see farther than the previous incumbent — comes in to move the organisation to the next milestone ensuring that the organisation is not stuck in the past.

Travel, education, reading and forming new relationships are some examples of activities that contribute towards leaders being exposed to the future.

If vision is so critical, what about the visionary? People follow both a vision and the visionary. The character of visionaries should be valued more highly than their charisma. While charisma can move people and organisations forward in the short term, the leader’s character — more than charisma — is what will sustain the credibility of the leader and the organisation in the long term.

Before leaders can be masters over others, it is important that they are able to master themselves. Leaders who cannot be responsible for themselves should not be trusted with responsibility for others. If a leader cannot account for his or her personal affairs, he or she should not be trusted to be accountable for what happens in an organisation or institution.

When a person with no sense of clarity and mastery in his or her own life is given a leadership role, it is usual that the role is reduced to a mere co-ordination of processes and activities to avoid regression and maintain the status quo, as opposed to a visionary who propels the organisation into its brighter future.

Before you lead others, lead yourself.

• Kula, a medical doctor with an MBA, is an executive at Discovery Health