Inspired Leadership: Engagement

Article written by: Saskia Wustefeld

The vision he [Mandela] painted of a united and prosperous South Africa energised us all. He breathed life and hope into the tired and fearful hearts of a ragged South Africa. Mandela stood by the principle of radical inclusion and engaged all of sectors South African society.

The days after Mandela died on 5 December 2013 I bought every copy of every newspaper and read every Mandela story. I still have them all. I had never met Nelson Mandela, and yet he had and still engages my heart and mind. I am one of the millions of people around the world who were inspired and drawn into the slipstream of the ‘Madiba Magic’. He had courted us all, and we fell in love with him, happily engaged. How did he do this?

Mandela’s engagement style

  • The vision he painted of a united and prosperous South Africa energised us all. He breathed life and hope into the tired and fearful hearts of a ragged South Africa. Mandela stood by the principle of radical inclusion and engaged all sectors of South African society.
  • He engaged the disengaged. By learning Afrikaans and so spoke to people’s hearts, had tea with Betsie Verwoerd, wife of the architect of Apartheid, and gave a speeches in Afrikaans. He was intensely interested in all whom he met, irrespective of social standing, race, age, language, or political persuasion.
  • He used visionary foresight to guide his actions. In seeking to understand worldviews that he did not share, he took an active interest in rugby, a predominantly white sport, and went further by wearing the hotly debated Springbok jersey during the 1995 world cup. This “changed South Africa forever” rugby captain Francois Pienaar recalls.
  • He had a full appreciation of humanity and saw all people having equal value. Having fought for the disenfranchised, he challenged injustice and inequality. Even during his imprisonment on Robben Island, he was outspoken in his struggles for “sunglasses, long trousers, study privileges, equalized food” (The Long Walk to Freedom), so that all prisoners would be treated equally. Mandela’s personal assistant, Zelda La Grange wrote in her memoir, that Mandela’s “entire being was based on respect. Respect for your friends, respect for the enemy, for those poorer than you…those who harmed you... those more powerful...”
  • He wanted sufficient/enough information to guide his decision making. The Guardian noted well that “He wanted more and not less debate, more engagement, less introversion”. He asked questions, listened intently and learned. He listened and learned, and willingly changed his opinions where needed, for South Africa’s good.
  • Madiba operated in a volatile and uncertain context, and it’s no different to the world we currently live in. In order to be and remain agile in the face of global challenges and new drivers of change such as the 4th Industrial Revolution (WEF, 2017), engagement is a great skill to have.

Engagement in the workplace

Quite simply, engagement at work is the connection an employee feels to the goals of an organisation. The deeper the connection, the more dedicated employees will be to help the organisation succeed through inspired effort. So how are organisations doing? “A staggering 87% of employees worldwide are not engaged, and therefore not invested. Many companies are experiencing a crisis of engagement and aren't aware of it”, says Gallup. “The level of employee engagement among Gallup's best clients is more than 21 times the rate of workforces globally”.

So how do leaders engage employees, and how do employees engage in turn? There are many layers of engagement that lead to positive outcomes. (Khan, Hewitt, Gallup).

What can leaders do?

Engagement experts such as Hewitt, Khan, Gallup, Temkin, Zenger & Folkman’s research singles out critical engagement skills you can use. In summary, such a leader:

  1. Establishes and communicates a clear direction, shared purpose and strategy. All have clarity about how their roles add value. Leaders may need support and training on how to translate complexity into understandable language. Such transparency makes employees feel involved. It inspires ownership of “my” team, “my” company.
  2. Engages personally by interacting with all levels formally and informally, paying close attention and holding inclusive meetings. Uses an “outdoor” approach rather than an open door policy that keep leaders in the office. It both inspires and motivates.
  3. Provides clear objectives and expectations and establishes stretch goals to keep people growing and inspired.
  4. Has high integrity, inspires trust, and lives company values.
  5. Develops others according to skill and enjoyment requirements, and the tools to be successful, so as to promote from within and retain talent.
  6. Is coachable, teachable, and continues learning.
  7. Uses a number of tools to continuously interact on all levels to ask for and acts on feedback from all parts of the organisation.
  8. Includes engagement in the measurement of leaders and staff alike, starting with leaders because generally, people won’t work towards something that is not measured.
  9. Starts engagement at the point of onboarding and don’t stop.

The skills interestingly, correlate well with Madiba’s Magic and are building blocks for “building an irresistible organization” (Josh Bersin: Deloitte).

What can we all do?

As a leader, you might be asking, “surely it’s not up to us alone?” Mandela once said that “There is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” He was not only engaging for others but actively chose to engage himself. He brought his best self to the fore. As a result, he inspired and affected change not only in South Africa but across the world.

William Khan, a founding father of “engagement”, expresses it as such “Our real selves show up when we say what we think and feel in service of doing the work the best way we know how. When we care deeply about what we are doing, and are committed to doing the best we can, we feel compelled to speak rather than remain silent.”

As citizens and employees setting our dreams and visions, we are the leaders of our lives and destinies. We can build our skill sets through reading, formal learning, seeking mentors, and engaging in debate. We can contribute to our communities and the less fortunate. We can engage.


You might well wonder whether engagement a nice to have or just the new flavour of the month. Gallup states that “companies with highly engaged workforces outperform their peers by 147% in earnings per share” proving it’s not just a new trend, but that successful engagement positively affects business results and people management.

Aon Hewitt’s global research cites quantifiable business outcomes. Engagement drives up revenue/sales growth, operating income, productivity, and total shareholder return. From a talent perspective engagement increases staff retention, internal promotions, wellness, and reduces absenteeism. Customer satisfaction, connectedness, and loyalty and retention scores are also boosted.

In conclusion:

By using the magic combination of engaging and choosing to be engaged, we will be better prepared for what comes next in our companies and country. Let’s engage the gears that need changing so that together, we can flourish.

Thank you for the inspiration!

Happy birthday Nelson Mandela.