Lessons in life and leadership

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How do we learn about leadership? We read books and articles, go on leadership courses, get feedback from colleagues, find ourselves a coach. We absorb “hacks” like “Seven Habits of..” or “Eight things all great CEOs do”. They are all helpful sources of insight and practice. Perhaps we should also spend more time looking around us and absorbing lessons from those who just happen to be truly talented leaders. This is where we can absorb insights beyond the formulae and rules that we find in consultant-led sessions and journal articles.

I had the privilege, over more than two decades, of learning from a truly great human being. I doubt very much whether he even thought of himself as a leader – but if leadership means getting many very important things done by mobilising resources and people, then Herbert (“Herb”) Sturz was a truly great leader.

He certainly got great things done – whether revitalising Times Square as head of New York City Planning Commission in the 1980s, or raising hundreds of millions of dollars for after school programmes for marginalised school children across the United States, building affordable rental apartments in the borough of Queens, or initiating more than twenty social justice organisations from the 1970s onwards, the size of his contribution was matched only by his almost total lack of public profile. In recent years he picked up a campaign he had started forty years earlier – to have Rikers Island prison closed. By the time Herb died in June this year at the age of 90, he had extracted a commitment that this will indeed happen. He got more done after his seventieth birthday than most of us achieve in a lifetime.

And from this comes the first of many lessons I learnt from him:

Life is about getting things done, not talking about them – or just talking

and it’s never about taking credit.

In describing time spent with him, I will highlight (as above) some leadership insights that I gained. But this piece is primarily about Herb Sturz the person who led – not about Herb Sturz “the leader”.

I met Herb in 1994 when George Soros asked him to come to South Africa to evaluate a proposal for a substantial grant to a non-profit housing finance company. This became Nurcha, a joint venture of the SA Government and the Open Society Foundations, that helped hundreds of small contractors with bridging finance for the construction of RDP houses. Already in his mid-sixties, Herb insisted on visiting the poorest areas, rural and urban, to see the circumstances in which people lived. We visited places where there was still conflict between communities and hostel dwellers, watched a land invasion unfold south of Johannesburg, and met the widest variety of bankers, builders and others involved in the housing sector.

Looking back, I realise that Herb’s evaluation was unlike any other. He was not looking at whether something could or could not be done, listing the pros and cons. On the contrary, he was immersing himself in the context, so that he could work out what needed to be done, and how to get it done. That was not his brief, but that is the person he was.

In any situation, look for a way to make a positive contribution

Herb’s positive recommendation led to Nurcha’s founding in January 1995. I was the youngish founding CEO and over the next decade, or so, he sat on our board, and became my guide, mentor, and friend over his many visits to South Africa, and my trips to New York. In South Africa he was always happiest visiting housing projects, meeting the contractors and talking to people who lived in the houses. They would receive the same attention and respect and gratitude as the billionaire bankers, housing ministers and powerful politicians that he met on these visits.

From him I learnt the real meaning of “being in the moment.” He was always focused on the business (or people) at hand. I never saw him take a phone call while talking to anyone, I never saw him look at his watch, or stare into the distance. He was always right there, and nothing was more important than what was happening right in front of him.  It always made you feel important and embraced. He got more done than anyone I know, but he was never “busy”.

Honour everyone with your full attention

Herb helped to raise the funds, shape the board, establish the governance, and even recruit some of the senior leadership. But afterwards, it was as if he wasn’t there. And somewhere in this illusion lies the quality for which he is best known. He gave exuberant praise where it was due, and gave other people credit for what he had helped them to do or even done himself. Because if you give people praise and credit, they will be very happy and do it again. And as life is all about getting things done, this is just the best way to make things happen. It sounds almost manipulative, but in Herb it was just a way of being.

Giving praise and credit reaps surprisingly rich rewards

He never once, that I can remember, told me what to do. He would ask questions, make suggestions, explore options, and listen to responses. He was genuinely good at listening. Out of the conversation would come the obvious course of action. He personified the saying, “of the best leaders, the people all say: ‘we have done it ourselves’”.

Dialogue is more productive than instruction

I never saw him angry – not even once. He greatly disliked injustice, bullies, and unkindness, and was disdainful of too much talk and inefficiency. But his response, as far as I could tell, would be to absorb himself in how best to deal with any situation in front of him. Anger seemed like a waste of energy, and even worse, something that could provoke opposition and so make it more difficult to get things done.

Emotions are to be controlled, not vented

Whenever I visited Herb in New York, he would be on the phone when I arrived. He would be cajoling or recruiting a newspaper editor, city official, or national politician to support some cause, or arranging to meet them for dinner. I remember once complaining about someone important who had not replied to several emails. “Have you phoned him?” he asked me. “No” I replied, a bit surprised. “Well call them” he said. “It’s harder to say no when you are on the line. But more important, you can build your relationship with them on the phone, so that they want to help you. Email doesn’t work for that, it’s for confirming in writing what they have agreed to do – wisdom from the pre-digital era.

It’s always about people and real communication

There were Italian lunches and Mexican dinners, visits to theatres, and lessons in the incomprehensible rules of baseball. He tasted Mopani worms in South Africa and enjoyed the Ricoffy served to him by a small contractor in her tiny office. And there were conversations about how to change the world. With Herb you always had this suspicion that if a really good idea came up, he would be working on it in the morning.

Nurcha was truly only a sliver of his life. Three years ago, he visited South Africa after more than a decade – and this time he did give me an instruction. He wanted to visit a Nurcha housing project, and I was to arrange it for him. And of course, I did. And of course, at the age of eighty-seven he treated everyone with the utmost respect and enthusiasm. Because the work was important, and he had played a role.

We are in it for the long haul

With Herb there was not life and then work and leadership. There was just life, and “life is predicated on the doing”.  If you are to do it well, then you need others to work alongside you, and you will find ways to get them on board. His enthusiasm for your well-being was as genuine as his enthusiasm for the work he was doing – they were all of a piece, making a difference in the world.

Herb phoned me about a week before he died. I thought he was just phoning to say hello after some months of no contact. I realised later that he was phoning to say good-bye. Just being Herb, moving on without making a fuss.

What lessons have you learnt from watching a great leader at work?

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