TSiBA’s Leadership Development Perspectives: Ilana Wetzler, CEO, LUCCA Leadership South Africa

By Karen Leroux, based on an interview by Anna Morris.

In addition to training passionate and driven individuals, it is essential to focus on individuals who occupy existing leadership roles to really have a positive and enduring impact on global society, claims social architect, transformational leadership activist, CEO of Lucca Leadership South Africa, and international course director, Ilana Wetzler.

The potential reach or ripple effect of those already disseminating information and life skills in education, business and politics should be harnessed and enhanced so that they too have the tools and ability to teach leadership development. By training the trainer, Wetzler believes the overriding influence of positive social change will have a greater spread, with a drip-down effect reaching more and more individuals within the structures themselves. “It is all good and well there are leadership programmes for social entrepreneurs and public innovators,” maintains Wetzler, “but a factor I think is most important in South Africa, and the entire world, is training the trainers. “Instead of a teacher coming on a leadership programme, send the principal who will train his teachers, who, in turn, will train the kids. Instead of simply giving them the leadership skills, give them some of the abilities to be able to teach the skills,” expounds Wetzler. “I am more interested in giving it to them so they can hand it on.”

Wetzler is a passionate exponent of transformational leadership, a development process she describes as couched in unconditional love. The idea of transformational leadership is leadership that shifts things at a causal level to create positive change. Wetzler particularly embraces unconditional love as a critical component of leadership development, “because you can use it for everything.” “I think people who do our courses get to experience it from me and the people I work with. It is an experience.” It is also the basic framework around which the various courses are designed. “The courses talk a lot about service, about us all being part of one family, that we can co-operate, that everybody has potential,” enthuses Wetzler. “So the values the courses are based on are about the human being as whole and wonderful. If we see everybody like that, we can treat them with love and respect. We can understand that however they are behaving is coming from another story. We can look past all of that and rather speak to the human being and not the behaviour.”

Wetzler was naturally galvanised into action at a young age, action that manifested in an ambitious, participative child and later a successful social entrepreneur. Her journey to leader, however, was largely accidental. “I have always been very driven, although I did not realise I was being driven. I simply thought it was how things got done – to do and be a part of things. “In my second year at university I started my own company called Serotonin Productions. I made events, products and networks and all of a sudden I had people working with me and for me, and I was the boss. I only realised in retrospect I was leading them or I was being with them, or whichever way I thought was appropriate. “Then, over the last three years while running this organisation, and especially when I run programmes because I work with so many people, it has all fallen into place. I did not wake up and say, ‘Today I will be a leader.’” explains Wetzler.

A major influence in the development of her leadership style was when she experienced someone with status who showed her the value of personal acknowledgment, availability and informality. “He was a high powered, quite successful, phenomenal individual, and I was one of many people attending a course he was running. During the coffee break he said, ‘Ilana, can I get you some coffee?’ He used my name, he looked me in the eye and he offered to make me coffee. I was young, a late teenager, and I thought it was the most incredible thing that this man knew my name and offered me coffee. It was such a simple thing and I knew from then on it was the type of person and leader I was going to be – displaying no hierarchy,” recalls Wetzler.

Significant others include co-founder of Lucca Leadership, Tim Munden, who played “a very big part in my development,” and Robert Mulhall “who invested in me, got me to go on lots of different experiences” and offered her invaluable practical guidance. “Rob was the CEO of Lucca Leadership Ireland, and he now works in India. He is a phenomenal human being. Simply watching him taught me, watching how he is and how he does things.” It is, however, her mother who best embodies all the values Wetzler holds close to her heart. “I think my biggest teacher – which I have only realised in the last couple of months or year – is my Mom. Not from a leadership perspective, but as a human being, she represents everything. I did not realise until I was older that my Mom represented all of the things I believe in most.”

Wetzler is an enthusiastic advocate of awareness in leadership development. “The fundamental aspects of the course are based on awareness and being aware of yourself and others – really developing your awareness muscle so you can see what is needed. Instead of simply taking your trident and enforcing your way as the only way, it is essential to assess what is actually needed to succeed.” Wetzler sees herself as an optimist who accepts what happens around her. “If I’m in the wrong venue for a meeting or my car tyre is flat or somebody has treated me badly, I don’t see it as a negative or that the world is out to get me. It is simply what has happened. “So when I’m on a programme and my coaches don’t arrive for whatever reason or the equipment doesn’t arrive or the food is an hour late, there’s no real problem, that’s just how it is. I value that I am at peace with any circumstance.”

Wetzler is particularly enamoured by holistic, well-rounded leaders. “I’ve started admiring people who are able to look after themselves as well as do their work. My experience has been that people who are really committed to doing things either smoke or drink a lot or don’t sleep or eat. When I was young, I didn’t care about myself. I just wanted to do it. All my attention was focussed outwards and I wasn’t resting, I was working twenty-hour days, I wasn’t eating properly,” ruminates Wetzler. “I have a lot of respect for people who are really able to look after themselves so they can accomplish their tasks, which is a rare thing. I used to really respect people whose sole purpose was about doing stuff, now I’m starting to appreciate people who are being ‘the stuff’ too.”

A similar quality she holds in high regard is calm consistency, where people provide a safe haven in the eye of the proverbial storm, “where they can respond from a place of peace, rather than fire.” The essence of leadership within the organisation is service to others. “Every sector – environment, poverty, HIV/ Aids, health, even people who work in corporate worlds – who want to start doing good,” explains Wetzler. “So if you had to summarise our courses into one thing, it would be to ask, ‘What is needed?’ ” To enable people to provide quality service, the organisation has borrowed the best elements of diverse leadership styles and development programmes, with an emphasis on both theoretical and practical issues. “We look at what it means to be a transformational leader, the qualities it takes, what transformation would look like in different situations. We look at the quality of energy and the quality of energy needed in order to get things done. We look at how one can make decisions for the greater good, rather than for selfish reasons. We look at really effective and practical leadership styles. We look at using cooperation instead of competition. We look at being still or steady inside so that we can be non-reactive and respond from strength rather than panic. We look at resilience and how to develop resilience,” explains Wetzler. The spotlight is then turned to the practical aspects of leadership development. “How to manage a team; how to get things done; how to ensure a happy, productive working environment. It involves coaching skills, how to coach somebody so they grow.

“Another big thing we do is case studies. We get participants to meet phenomenal leaders who have had extraordinary lives, whether they are young and doing it now or whether they are struggle heroes, so they can see what it looks like and actually means in practice – Eddie Daniels, Denis Goldberg, Ahmed Kathrada, and I’d love to include Jonathan Jansen.” Courses are fundamentally broken up into four elements – interactive sessions which concentrate on the participatory learning of theory; experiential tasks which reveal the intrinsic, default leadership capabilities of each student in real-life events; task reviews which promote the experience of learning through practice and feedback; and dialogue. “It is very full and dynamic and appeals to every different learning style. If you are somebody who loves to sit and learn, then there is that view. If you love doing stuff, there is something for you. If you love theorising about things, there is an element for you, and if you love sitting and reflecting, there is something for everyone,” asserts Wetzler.

Her approach to leadership development is, according to her friends, “either my greatest gift or my greatest curse. I only seem to see the good in people, the potential in them and I speak to that,” maintains Wetzler who is grappling with the singular problem of “whether you can teach unconditional love or if you must simply do it and be it. “If you can teach unconditional love, then how? Do you do it by example, and the impact comes from there? It is the same with unconditional service. Can you really teach somebody to see the world through those lenses, or should you give them a whole lot of tools and ideas?” enquires Wetzler.

An interesting observation and a significant take away of leadership development for Wetzler is simply, “However I am, is how the group is. “If I am awake, alert, engaged, involved and excited, then that is what I’ve got. If I’m tired, bored, disinterested and distracted, then that is what I’m dealing with. It was a big wake up call for me to realise the effect I had on people and that if I’m managing myself, I can manage them. If I’m not okay, then they’re not going to be okay. “I think the biggest revelation is that if I am one hundred percent present in something, I can do and be exactly what is needed in that moment. If I can maintain that status quo, there is nothing to ever worry about because no matter what comes, I have the ability to respond effectively.”

Wetzler is full of success stories from the programmes, stories about the men and women who learn and develop through the organisation’s leadership programmes. “There is Johnnie Walker Striding Man award winner, Lindela Mjenxane. He runs an organisation called Beyond Expectation Environmental Project, where he takes kids from the township into the environment and up the mountain to engender both educational and environmental awareness. “Then there is a young man called Sizwe Matoti. He started something called the YEP! Clan and has just had a whole bunch of guys from the township riding the Argus. So he gets guys out of the situation they are in, and gets them active and doing stuff. “You get lots of different scenarios. You get people who are already doing something, and then they go home with new skills and can do it better; people who are not doing anything but want to do something and go and start something worthwhile; and individuals who simply go home and make positive changes in work, relationships and business.”

A recent focus of the organisation, and Wetzler in particular, has not been so much on what the people do, but rather on ensuring that by the time they leave, they are full, well-rounded individuals. They have everything they could possibly need to grow, develop and inspire. Reflecting on trends that inspire her, Wetzler has identified a sea change around her. “A notion that gives me most hope in South Africa is a shift in perception that I see happening. If people want something to change, then they must change it and many are starting to see this. There are so many phenomenal people doing such amazing work. I think people are slowly realising that they can make a difference. That gives me a huge amount of hope.”

For a full transcript of this interview please visit www.tsiba.org.za/news/resources 

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