From TSiBA Education’s Perspectives on the Search for Tomorrow’s Leaders: The perspective of Jonathan Jansen, Rector and Vice Chancellor, University of the Free State

By Karen Le Roux, based on an interview by Anna Morris.

What transforms, inspires and speaks of true leadership in South Africa is not the noisy, highly-visible, much-revered dignitaries of the nation. “It is the ordinary people whom we will never know,” asserts Jonathan Jansen, professor, rector, educator, courageous leader and advisor to the world. “It is the farmer’s wife who spends her time training young black women to lead early childhood development centres. The child in the Eastern Cape from a middleclass family who buys cricket togs for all the township kids so that they can learn to play cricket,” explains Jansen. He recently expounded upon this life view in an article called, My South Africa.1 At the end of the day, the real changemakers for Jansen “are those tens of thousands of little people who make big differences that together change the nation!”

Jansen is a modest, self-effacing man, who is celebrated for his leadership acumen.  He is no stranger to making big, influential, masterful decisions and differences – differences that healed the deep and dangerous racial divisions he encountered on his arrival at the University of the Free State.  The notorious ‘Reitz Four’ incident – where four white male students humiliated black workers, ostensibly in protest against racial integration at the university – had the explosive potential to unravel all the reconciliatory groundwork so carefully initiated by the likes of Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mary Burton and countless others. In his position as rector and vice-chancellor, Jansen chose to withdraw the university’s charges against the students and extend an invitation to all of them to continue their studies. This has been proudly documented. What isn’t widely known is the profound effect the episode had on Jansen, as both a leader and an individual. “I was surprised by the degree of resilience and the depth of sustenance that you discover within yourself as a leader,” he reflects. “I have been through some very, very testing times, in the past. But October 2009 was probably one of the severest tests of my leadership, when I decided to return the Reitz Four back to university. I was surprised by the spiritual resources available from within. “I was also surprised, subsequently, by how easy it is to convince young people about positive values such as integrity, honesty, courage and forthrightness,” he adds.

Jansen rose from the ashes of adversity, racial stereotyping and societal alienation to become one of the most astute and intuitive leaders of the new South Africa. Although not cognisant of the fact at the time, Jansen carried the responsibility of leadership from a very early age. As the eldest of five children, he developed a consciousness of being responsible, of setting the right example. “It is probably something that you just do, and then discover that you are good at it over the course of time,” he muses. Jansen was reared on the Cape Flats and educated at the University of the Western Cape, UNISA and later – through an intervention by Archbishop Desmond Tutu – at Cornell and Stanford Universities in the United States. He credits his enduring leadership style to both of his parents: his mother, a no-nonsense person who embraced the ‘no shades of grey’ philosophy; and his father, a man of inalienable generosity and gentleness. “I grew up in a very strong church community, which had its pros and cons, I suppose,” Jansen recollects. “I picked up a lot of good things about how to live your life, how to relate to people, the importance of being honest with yourself and to be poor but decent – a very fundamental value that was drummed into my head.”

Another life lesson Jansen learnt at an early age was the importance of “being free to speak your mind, which is fundamental to my being, and often lands me in trouble with the powerful.” He believes this lesson is essential as it is, “not only the way to enjoy healthy living, but important for democracy as well.” World leaders who inspire him are “the Mandelas and the Tutus and the Richard Bransons and the Oprah Winfreys, all of whom I have communicated with. These are the leaders who inspire. I would love to have the creativity of Richard Branson as a leader. I would love to have the compassion of Oprah and the moral courage of Tutu. In my head, these are aspirational leaders,” exclaims Jansen – a man whom many emerging young leaders aspire to emulate. The essence of Jansen’s leadership is to listen. “Whenever I go into a new place, I do not talk,” he reveals. “I do not say anything for three months. I try to use all my senses to get to know an organisation.”

Jansen has, at once, a sensory and perceptive leadership style. “I am a tactile leader,” he says. “I like to hug people and have a feeling of what you are concerned about. A lot of my leadership is intuitive, so I can pick up problems before they happen. I can sense people struggling before they say it, and so on.” Jansen presents himself as “a sensuous and hopefully sensitive leader. That is fundamental to my toolbox, if you will, in leading. Then I respond. “Fundamental to my leadership is acknowledgment,” he continues. “Not agreement, but acknowledgment.  Acknowledging pain on the other side, which is very difficult in South Africa. Being able to think beyond your own epidermis. Being able to empathise deeply and sincerely with those who struggle. Being able to acknowledge, not just others, but your own brokenness.” Describing what he values about himself as a leader, Jansen says, “I suppose I value the fact that I came to terms, a few years ago, with my own incompleteness – with my own struggles, bitterness, hatred, anger towards white people in particular, towards the past. I am deeply, deeply embarrassed that I felt and thought that way,” he continues, “but it was a huge relief to me when I could confront my own demons. “I do not lead any longer from the point of view of strength,” Jansen asserts. “I lead from the point of view of weakness – from an awareness of not knowing, from the point of view of a learner. All the time. In conversation with students and staff, and in my work as an academic. I value the fact that I am conscious of my own limitations.”

Qualities Jansen particularly admires in other leaders are epitomised in men and women such as Linda Biehl, co-founder of the Amy Biehl Foundation, and Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish: men and women “who are thoughtful and reflective, who are capable of rising above their own dilemmas.” Dr Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor, lost his daughters during an Israeli assault on Gaza and went on to establish the Daughters for Life Foundation. At the time of this interview, Jansen was reading his book, I Shall Not Hate. “What I like about him as a leader,” Jansen remarks, “is that he did not do what most of us would do, which is find a way of returning the fire: anger, bitterness, hatred and revenge. What he in fact did was to go and look for Jewish parents who had lost their children in the war, and formed a powerful union to work towards peace in the Middle East. “That, for me, is unbelievable leadership and uncommon grace. I want to be like that guy. I admire people who can rise above their circumstances, who can be counter-cultural leaders, those who go against the logic of the crowd. I admire leaders like that.”

Jansen’s philosophy on leadership development is straightforward. He believes it is essential to identify and develop his own and other leaders’ successors. “I spend a huge amount of time and money on developing the next generation of leaders,” maintains Jansen. He believes that this commitment should be the cornerstone of any leader’s work. His methodologies in this respect are fascinating. Apart from lending autobiographical input – “If I can become a leader, all of you can become much better leaders!” – he uses cartoons to illustrate leadership lessons. “I find people respond very well to cartoon stories,” he says. “Shrek, Finding Nemo, and so on. That is probably my principal methodology: to build on stories about leadership, because they are real in the minds of people who can relate to them.”

A puzzle that captivates the great mind of Professor Jonathan Jansen is this: “Why do people support weak leaders, corrupt leaders, dangerous leaders? How does Mugabe, at a political level, manage to continue to grow support, despite the fact that he has ransacked the country? How do South Africans choose Jacob Zuma? The man is corrupt, a polygamist, illiterate, weak. Why do people choose such leaders?” he asks. “In other words, one of the most fascinating things for me about leadership is followership. Understanding followership – that puzzles me greatly.” He is also puzzled by the overwhelming vulnerability of leaders. “Why are we, even when we are at our strongest, so weak as leaders?” he ponders. “How do we succumb to human desires like greed, corruption and all of that? What is it about us that makes us so vulnerable in the face of the authority given to us by the electorate?”

Cross-generational leadership is yet another conundrum challenging Jansen. “How do messages about leadership come to us?” he asks. “I am very interested in the social architecture of the question, How do you become a leader? That is a great puzzle to me, because very often unlikely people stand up to be counted.” The enigma of restoration lies heavily on Jansen’s mind. “How do leaders get restored when they have failed?” he wants to know. “There are some heartbreak stories in South Africa. Leaders went to prison and then rose again. I am fascinated by how they overcome disappointment, grief and hurt. I am puzzled by that.” In short, Jansen declares himself “constantly puzzled by the complexity of the leadership concept.”

Professor Jansen is, however, delighted by the progress of leadership development within South Africa, and by the successes he has witnessed and played a role in. “The successes, for me, have been seeing people go from timid, uncertain, selfdoubting academic researchers to becoming leaders in their fields”, he discloses. “I have really been struck and satisfied by such transformations of people. It has been wonderful, and it inspires me greatly to see the capacity for change within human beings. As a leader, that is what keeps you going, as well as the satisfaction of knowing that you, not sounding arrogant about it, have a formula that works. I am no longer anxious as a leader.”

Young, bright, emerging stars Jansen is firmly keeping an eye on are two 2011 Rhodes Scholars from the University of the Free State: Sannah Mokone and Dirk Bester. “They happen to be a black and a white student from the rural Free State. I am keeping my eye on them and think they are going to do amazing things,” predicts Jansen. “I am also keeping my eye on a young woman called Lindiwe Mazibuko from the DA. My goodness me, if that woman does not run South Africa one day, I will be very surprised! She is unbelievably talented. I keep an eye on Trevor Noah, who I think is one of the most astounding comedians. I think that in the world of comedy, he is going to be a major, major player. Across politics, economics, culture and sport, I am seeing some amazing young people that I think are going to rock, as the kids say.”

Jansen is inspired by the notion of ‘distributed leadership’, a concept developed by University of Chicago scholar James Spillane. “It is really an attack on the old theory of leadership – the big man who comes in and orders people around, grabs the budget and controls human destinies, and so on,” Jansen explains. “I am inspired by this notion that we are all leaders in different ways, and that leadership, in any organisation, in the country, in the context, is distributed. So part of what you want to do is find those leaders who are equipped to move the country, the organisation, the company in the desired direction. “That gives me a lot of hope,” Jansen continues, “because even in my case, people still look at my university and say, ‘Ah, you are a great leader, you have got this and that.’ They are not listening to me when I say, ‘It is not me. It is actually those twelve people who bought into the vision, and then made the thing happen!’ I think if you can find yourself in an organisational context where there is this mutual and reciprocal sense of leadership – my goodness, you can do anything!”

A prospect Jansen holds dear to his heart is a proposed national leadership programme. “I think it is necessary and timely in the context of the collapse of leadership in our country – in particular, moral leadership – to have these kinds of initiatives,” he says. “I know of several leadership initiatives going up around the country. I think this is great. The more we become conscious of the need for leadership – not to happen, as it did in many of our cases, by accident, happenstance, but as part of systematic training and preparation and internships. I think we need strong research – theoretical, conceptual work on leadership – but we also need the practice of leadership, and to train for it.”

Jansen suggests that we have an obligation to address leadership context and cultural determination. “I lead very differently in South Africa than I would lead in California, for example,” he points out. “The norms and standards and expectations are very, very different in the US compared to here, as they would be in France, compared to here. So I think the ethical basis for leadership, the spiritual basis for leadership – a big new area that I think must be explored – is the emotions of leadership. “All that stuff must be investigated,” he continues, “because people tend to think of leadership as a cognitive function. That is nonsense. Emotions are crucial to the leadership calculus. I think they are very important dimensions of leadership.”

For a full transcript of this interview please visit


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