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On Changing Direction: What FW De Klerk Taught Me About Leadership

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I had the opportunity to spend time with South Africa's ex President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate FW De Klerk in 2010 to talk about leadership. He told me that successful leaders know how to read the winds of change and know when to change course. Importantly, leaders know failure when they see it and acknowledge that "failure cannot be improved". When that happens, transformational change is the only viable option.

I must admit that as a student of leadership, I always had great admiration for Nelson Mandela, for his moral compass and his focus on reconciliation, non racial bias and multiculturalism as the only possible ways for peace. In my ignorance, FW had been an actor in a supporting role to the great protagonist, Mandela. My preparation for our meetings gave me a more comprehensive view of FW and his role in history. Mandela's long journey to freedom will probably be the most remembered chapter in this story but I believe that FW's ability to lead and change course at a critical historical moment was instrumental for South Africa's peaceful transition.

In February 1990, FW dramatically altered the course of history in a surprising 30 minute speech that stunned the world. In his first speech as president, the man who Mandela described as "trapped in apartheid" dismantled the system in one clean sweep. The death penalty was suspended; political prisoners were freed; all political parties, including the African National Congress (ANC) and the Communist party were allowed; trade unions were authorized and he promised the formulation of a new constitution anchored in the principles of full democracy and total representation. He also freed Mandela. He ended with an invitation for all to "walk through the open doors and take your place at the negotiating table". That speech was the launch of the peace platform that was carried through by the commitment and hard work of both Mandela and FW. It ended apartheid; developed the framework for a democratic South Africa and made Mandela president.

For his countrymen and the world this moment was a scene out of a movie, unexpected and uplifting. The fact that it came from FW was almost unbelievable. FW was, after all, a tried and true Afrikaner from a distinguished political family that made its name during the Boers Wars fighting against the British Empire. He was a self proclaimed conservative and was never a member of the enlightened or accommodating to blacks group of the National Party.

Yet he dared to assume his role in history and he did it alone. Only a few of his closest associates knew what he was about to do that day. Even his wife was kept in the dark until the morning of his speech. What does it take for a man to be able to renounce his ways and to put his reputation on the line? The tangible possibility of progress.

In his youth FW felt that a separate state solution would provide blacks with the opportunity to determine "their own life in their own state". But he had to abandon that idea in the late 80's, when he realized that the white minority would have never allowed a fair and equitable distribution of the land. Without it there was no moral foundation for the separate states solution and without moral foundations, principles cannot exist.

Other factors affected his thinking. Violence, civil unrest and disobedience were rampant; the human and economic cost of maintaining security was escalating and the international embargo continued to place a burden on the economy. He also recognized that the country was headed towards a full blown civil war that would destroy millions of lives and could never be won. His trigger for immediate change, though, was the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1989. With that, one of the most critical obstacles to full democracy was removed: the historical fear of a soviet takeover among the white population.

"When history opens a window of opportunity, it is important that we jump through it. We knew that the circumstances for a reasonable settlement would never again be so favorable." With his speech, FW opened the door to a long negotiation process that ended with Mandela's presidency in 1994. FW retired from politics in 1997 after serving as deputy president to Mandela. He left power mistrusted by both the black majority and the Afrikaners; the former because all his actions and reactions were judged through the prism of his past and the Afrikaners because they felt betrayed by the principles, process and timing of full democratic rule. Today, eighteen years later, FW lives at peace with himself, his role in history and dedicates his time to promoting reconciliation initiatives in multicultural environments.

FW's process exemplifies the concept of "Fluid Intelligence": the ability to understand trends, analyze options and change course when required. A lot has been said about a leader's ability to stay true to core principles. FW De Klerk's history shows that integrity also means changing direction when those principles are no longer valid and that having evolving views are prerequisite for progress.