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From the admin chair

What we can learn from great leaders

Through my work, I hope I am contributing in a small way to building a more inclusive and equitable society.


Recently, I was interviewed on my role as an Indigenous leader in university education. I was asked a number of questions about my views on leadership and my own leadership style. It was a good conversation in that it allowed me to reflect on the role of those leaders who inspired me.

One such leader was the late Nelson Mandela. Shortly before my interview, I had listened to Barack Obama deliver the Nelson Mandela Lecture. It was a significant celebration, as 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Mandela, one the world’s great leaders. Mandela, known to many South Africans by his Xhosa clan name Madiba, spent his life working towards dismantling the systems of racial apartheid and, as result of his commitment to bring forth change, he was imprisoned for 27 years. When he was released, he continued his work to end apartheid and launched a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to expose abuses and human rights violations in South Africa.

Reflecting on the life of Mandela, I was reminded of his resilience and tenacity. Not only did he devote his life to justice and equality, but he inspired people all over the world, including me.

One of the deep insights that Mandela put forward and stood for was his view on education as a tool to empower change. One of his famous quotes, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” stands out. He believed in the power of education as a tool for liberation, peace, justice and equity. He also espoused that education extended beyond the development of skills and knowledge to include the betterment of the nation and building reconciliation.

As I reflect on my own leadership in education, there is much to learn from great leaders. Mandela taught the world about bringing together people of all nations. Here I focus on three aspects: values, resiliency and his view that education can be a tool to bring about change.

Values are underlying beliefs that we hold and these often guide our behaviours. In leadership they are referred to as core values. Core values are important as they define what is important to us and they can help us to establish our priorities in life and work, and in decision-making. Mandela exuded values of fairness and justice, equality, dignity and freedom. We know these are his core values because, in trying times, he remained true to them.

In leadership, it is important to understand your own personal core values as well as those of the institution you are working at. What are the core values in your institution? I encourage you to reflect on how these values inform how your organization functions, and how they in form how you work with your students, faculty and staff. Are these core values enacted and visible in your organization?

Resiliency is another trait that leaders aspire to, especially when confronted with challenges. Simply put, resiliency is the ability to keep moving forward, or to get back up when faced with barriers or challenges. There is no doubt that Mandela was a resilient leader. Having resilience as a leader means recognizing that things do not always go the way we expect or hope. When faced with a crisis, which in evitably happens to all of us, leaders need to draw on their inner strength to remain optimistic and find a path forward.

In my own work, I have found myself challenged many times, and what I have found helpful to my resiliency is going back to my core values and reflecting on why I am here doing this work and what is my purpose? When I answer these questions, I find myself quickly focusing on solutions.

Finally, Mandela left us with a lot of wisdom and insights – I call them jewels of knowledge. His words about education as tool for change are particularly important to me. It begs the question of the role of education in society. We have an enormous responsibility in education to build the next generation of leaders. I believe that we can affect societal change through education by building citizens who are responsible, have a solid understanding of the world around them, and can work and interact in diverse systems and communities.

Mandela’s leadership was in his strength and ability to tell the world about the injustices in South Africa, and motivate others to assist with bringing about transformative change to build a better place for all. That’s the kind of world I want, and through my work at the university I hope I am contributing in a small way to building a more inclusive and equitable society.

Sheila Cote-Meek
Sheila Cote-Meek is vice-president, equity, people and culture, at York University. Her column appears in every second issue.
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