fwdk podiumIt is an honour and a pleasure for me to address you today on the question of “history and leadership”.

There is much debate about the role of individual leaders in history. Is history the product of impersonal social, demographic and economic forces – or is it driven by individual leaders?

And here we must consider that history is much more frequently determined by the stupidity and inability of leaders than it is by those few individuals who through their brilliance steer it in a better direction.

Just think about the folly of those who allowed the First World War and the second Gulf War to take place.Would the British, French and Russian revolutions have occurred if their countries had been led by more competent leaders than Charles I, Louis XVI and Nicholas II? Their combination of folly, weakness, good intentions and unpopular foreign wives changed history.

What would have happened to French and European history if there had been no Bonaparte – or if he had not allowed his insatiable ambition to drive him to self-destruction? And if the leaders who drafted the Treaty of Versailles had not been so implacable and short-sighted, would there have been a Hitler and a World War II?

We do not know: all we can surmise is that individual leaders do play a significant role, for better or for worse – but within the framework of the social and economic forces of their times.

Within this context I would like to share with you some of my own ideas and experiences of leadership.

The art, in the first place, is to succeed in the very arduous process of becoming the leader.  Only then can you really have an impact on events and steer them into what you believe is the right direction. History awards no prizes to armchair experts. History recognises only those who have the ability to translate their vision of what is right into reality.

I am often asked whether the decision that I took after I became President in September 1989 to initiate the constitutional transformation of South Africa was the result of some or other Damascus Road experience.

It wasn’t. Neither was it a sudden change of direction. It was, in fact, the culmination of a long process of introspection and reform that started in 1978 when my predecessor, PW Botha, became Prime Minister.

For me the key point was simply the realisation that the policies that we had adopted, and that I had supported as a young man, had absolutely no chance of solving the critical problems that confronted us – and that they had led to a situation of manifest injustice.

Introspection and the dispassionate assessment of one’s situation is the first requirement of leadership. The next requirements are, where necessary, the acceptance of the need to change and the ability to manage change.