TSiBA’s Leadership Development Perspectives: Patmanathan Pillai, Founder and CEO, Life college group, Ashoka fellow

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

With the view that “consciousness, mentality, mindset and attitude are elements that shape one’s self-concept and ultimately one’s behaviour, character and approach to life,” entrepreneur and committed social activist Patmanathan Pillai has embarked on a sustainable social business model that has his personal mantra – ‘principles, paradigms and values connected to conscience-led purpose’ – at its heart.

Life College develops the principle- centred ‘champion mentality’ of its students. The more complex academic description is: the development of psycho-social skills and psycho-economic skills through micro-financed projects and mentorship. As Pat explains, “Before there were business schools there were entrepreneurs. Before there were leadership programmes and universities there were champions in life. It’s about unlocking a champion mentality and getting the right qualifications and experience.” Life College Group’s vision: ‘A nation of champions.’

The arresting, quiet-spoken South African exudes Ghandiesque calm even in the storms of prime-time news broadcasting – and as a journalist with national television service eNews channel. An unknowing victim of what he refers to as ‘slave mentality’ in his younger, foolish, more arrogant days, Pillai has extended his personal ideal of leadership into the Life College Group: an educational dynasty committed to the development of ‘the champion mentality’.

Pillai’s innovative social business model applies itself to eliminating the dreadful emotional residues left over from centuries of oppression: apathy, indifference, low self-esteem and countless psychosocial problems. His organisational principles are based on the quintessential African philosophy of ubuntu, and influenced by the values of legendary change makers. These include anti-apartheid activist Steve Bantu Biko; existential analyst Viktor Frankl; and emotional intelligence researcher Dr Reuvan Bar-On, among others.

The Life College Group brings a multi- pronged approach to developing purpose- driven self-leadership at multiple levels of South African society: youth, business and government. Central to the organisation’s overwhelming success is an influential group of fifty dedicated volunteers – ‘life champions’ – who mentor students and lend their vast experiential wisdom to the development of youth workshops and programmes. Some of these include entrepreneur Raymond Ackerman, SA constitutional pioneer Judge Albie Sachs, and Mr Nelson Mandela (in partnership with his Centre of Memory at the Nelson Mandela Foundation). The programme, Nelson Mandela – The Champion Within, will reach one million youth by 2020.

Pillai’s own life experiences have conspired to guide him to the place he comfortably inhabits: that of one of the leading social entrepreneurs on the planet. As the eldest son of a humble South African Indian family, Pillai naturally bore the mantle of responsibility early on in life. “When you are the first-born son of the first-born son of the first-born son,” he explains, “there is a weight to it.”

His earliest memory of leadership was when his mother referred to him as her ‘right-hand man’. “It is interesting,” he reflects. “From the time I was six or seven years old I had a view that she was not holding my hand when we crossed the road; I was holding hers. Maybe the beginnings of what we now understand as leadership… the seeds were sown then, I think, by a mother and father who struggled with poverty and needed my sister, my four brothers and me to take more responsibility.

“I never thought of myself as a leader,” Pillai recalls. “That happened later – the understanding of what leader means. It sounds almost ridiculous, because from my twenties or so, I was involved in various small leadership roles at university, and so on. However, I never really thought of myself as a leader. I saw myself as a team player, and was almost embarrassed to be called a leader because it came with too much responsibility.”

An influential figure whom Pillai credits with shaping him as a leader of shining repute was his grandfather. “My grandfather played a big role, in retrospect,” he reflects. “He was a man with a big dream. He had a Sub B (Grade 2) education, and really couldn’t read much. He taught himself to read the newspapers or whatever he could find. He was a waiter. He never drank a drop of alcohol in his life, but smoked thirty Rothmans every day. He was a tough man who loved his sport, loved his family, loved his grandchildren. He would glow and swell when he was in the company of his grandchildren. I think he influenced me significantly, in ways I did not understand as a child.

“I was struck by the fact that he had what was almost an unreachable dream,” Pillai continues: “to be the head waiter at ‘the grandest hotel in the world’, the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town. Under apartheid, many, many years ago, that was almost unthinkable. But he worked his way through many flea-bag hotels, and finally got to the stage where he was a waiter at the Mount Nelson. The man walked on cloud nine. Finally he got promoted to head waiter.

“In my twenties, I thought back and was a little bit upset, because my grandfather was a man of colour serving largely white South Africans in a very divided society. But the more life happened to me, the more I appreciated him. His was no political statement; his goal was survival. He was a man with pride who led himself, who led a team of waiters, to deliver exceptional service. Sure, he was treated badly. Many people of colour were treated badly. He had to come through a different entrance; he was not regarded the same way; he was paid less than someone who was white – we all know that old South African story. But he maintained his dignity. He died in 2006 at the estimated age of one hundred and one to one hundred and five. Registering newborn children was not a priority in his day so we were not one hundred percent sure of his age. He lived a tough, but good life,” says Pillai, with great pride.

Another of Pillai’s outstanding leadership role models was Zwelakhe Sisulu, son of struggle icons Albertina and Walter Sisulu. “I was part of the team that re-launched the SABC,” recounts Pillai. “It was a broadcast medium that serviced apartheid. But when we got to the 1994 to 1996 period, mechanisms were in place to re-launch the broadcaster so that it reflected the faces and voices of all South Africans. The Group CEO was Zwelakhe Sisulu. I was thirty-two. I really had so much to learn. What an exciting time to be at the public broadcaster servicing a new South Africa!”

As head of corporate marketing at the time, Pillai reported to Ken Modise and was responsible for group communications and managing the entire corporation’s brand during the transition phase – a responsibility that necessitated limited interaction with the GCEO. “The few times I interacted with him and listened to how he, as a leader, was going to reshape, reform and re-launch the SABC for a new South Africa post-liberation, was so inspiring,” he says of Sisulu. “He was connected to the purpose of serving this nation in a way that was tangible. You felt it, heard it, saw it. I got a sense that he was a purpose- driven leader. I had never really seen and understood it that way before. I also got a sense that the purpose was bigger than his personal ambition. He was not driven by big ego, and he was not this larger-than-life, personality-driven boss; but he could be very firm when he needed to be.”

During his time with the then JSE-listed media group Primedia, Pillai met the third of his leadership ‘shift shapers’. “At Primedia I started working on a project called Ster Kinekor Mobile, which fascinated me,” recalls Pillai. “The common link through my career has always been that I want to find a way to connect with the people, and if it is through the public broadcaster, fantastic, I love that! If it is through Primedia, where we can take movies to people who do not traditionally have movies, and cannot afford to come to Sandton or Cavendish Square or wherever, great! Ster Kinekor Mobile had its problems, but it was in two hundred townships and it distributed movies in a mobile manner all across South Africa. I love that!” Pillai says with satisfaction.

The CEO of the Primovie Group at the time was Ferdi Gazendam, whom Pillai reported to. “If ever someone demonstrated a champion mentality, it was Ferdi,” asserts Pillai. “The principles, the paradigms and values of great leadership come together beautifully in that man. He led the team, the Ster Kinekor Group, through a turnaround strategy – fifteen hundred staff members, twenty million customers per year – and he did so with the ease of a world-class conductor,” Pillai reports, admiringly.

“I am sure he carried stress and all the rest of it, but his manner, and the fact that his principles were unshakeable throughout, were inspirational. You knew you could almost set your clock by the way Ferdi lived the principles, the values.” Pillai has taken Gazendam’s principles, paradigms and values to the epicentre of his own life and that of the Life College Group, where Gazendam is today one of the extraordinary Life Champions. He is currently a personal mentor to Pillai.

Cast in the crucible of apartheid’s Cape Flats, Pillai, together with countless South Africans, unwittingly developed a slave mentality: “ego-driven, insecure… a selfishness, a sense of entitlement, a kind of enclosed, shackled mind that is unable to connect to the world in a meaningful, sustainable way,” he elucidates. “I ran my first company in order to feed my family. It did fairly well relative to where I started from – almost nothing – so doing fairly well is not too hard. I was arrogant around the fact that suddenly, from a boy who had no money to a young man who finally had a little bit, I started to feel quite pleased with myself. I thought, ‘I am an entrepreneur, it is my money, it is my company.’ The way I treated my staff was very much, ‘This is my company; it is my way or the highway’. It’s that very immature stuff. I lost the respect of my team,” he adds.

At the same time, the birth of his son, Vaughn, catapulted Pillai into a very uncomfortable space. “It made me aware of the fact that I had what I call a slave mentality, trapped in ways of thinking that limited me. I did not call it that then, but I understand it now. Slowly, Vaughn made me aware of that. I knew that if he grew up to be the man I was, I would be ashamed of him,” admits Pillai ruefully.

This darkest personal hour was undoubtedly the driving force behind his need “to be part of a team on a new playing field, that impacted on the nation on a broader level. I wanted to launch Life College after having learnt all these lessons as a leader.” Although his first attempt failed in 1987, Pillai persevered, and in 1997 the Life College concept was re-born. “This time I had the support of Carmen Di Rito and a great team. That made all the difference. Sometimes I think Life College was created so that no child should have to struggle with the issues we struggled with as children,” Pillai muses. “It is almost an ode to my family and my child.” The most effective tool Pillai employs in becoming a more accomplished leader “is simply being open to learning,” he discloses. “What I call remaining an eternal student. I have developed an ability to learn and to listen. I do not always accept everything I hear, but I certainly listen, and some things I will discard. I think Life College exists today because I had to learn from my first mistakes; because it failed the first time.”

The qualities Pillai most admires in other leaders are “quiet self-esteem; quiet personal power; the ability to uncompromisingly seek what is in service of others, whether you are running a private company or are in government – whether you are a church leader, an Imam at a mosque or a classroom teacher. I have come to understand that doing what is best in service of others sets great leaders apart.”

Pat Pillai’s Life College is changing the lives of countless young people all over the country by helping them build a ‘champion mentality’ through self- leadership education, character education and real-life projects. Life College enrols students and also partners with other qualifying organisations and academic institutions to run the programmes. LifeCo Mindset Academy is driving the concept of the ‘champion mentality’ in the highest echelons of business with many blue chip companies and government utilising the programmes.

“The Life College Group is in quite a unique space in the way it is structured,” explains Pillai. “We’ve got Life College Trust, which owns one hundred percent of Life College Investments, a private investment vehicle. All the money earned from Life College Investments – the dividends – goes to Life College Trust. They distribute one hundred percent of that to Life College Association, which is where our applied research and community development is driven.” “One big measure for our success – and one of the ways I am measured – is not just by lives touched, but by the growing sustainability of the Life College Group. In Life College Investments, with the tremendous talent of Group COO Frisky Domingues on board, we are invested in diversified areas like property and property services (we own five percent of IntelliPark), architecture (we own twenty percent of Boogertman & Partners, designers of Soccer City) and fifty one percent ownership of a commercial radio station bid with Kagiso Media. LifeCo Earth focuses on renewable energy and environmentally sustainable products and services, with the commitment to building South Africa’s green economy,” Pillai explains. “No private individual benefits a jot. If you get involved with us, you understand it is for society. One hundred percent of the dividends goes to the trust to benefit our social work. It is a big measure. The board will check how well we are doing based on that, but most importantly – lives impacted.”

A wonderful personal anecdote that Pillai recounts provides insight into the value of the ‘champion mentality’. It is the story of a tenacious young woman from Soweto. As part of the Life College experience, all students are required to brainstorm a particular life project and then run with it – from the initial microloan, to raising additional capital, to developing the idea to its full potential. In other words, not just the talk but also the hard walk – where the ‘champion mentality’ is tested and forged. Although most choose a community-based project that is comparatively small in scope – gift card projects, community vegetable gardens, and so on – Xolile Ndlovu had a much greater vision: to conquer the highest mountain in Africa, the 5 895m Mount Kilimanjaro. Pillai recalls how

Ndlovu, whom he regards as one of the country’s up-and-coming young leaders, approached the college for R50 000 in seed money. This was the largest startup capital ever given to a single project at Life College. Overcoming objections and facing the real challenges of cost, training and the physical demands of embarking on an expedition of that magnitude didn’t deter Ndlovu and her team. They managed to raise half a million rand in sponsorship. After a couple of disappointments and false starts, the team did the climb.

As luck would have it, Ndlovu was the only one who couldn’t reach the summit because of altitude sickness. Though distraught at a dream deferred, her perceptive response – an insight Pillai will hold dear for the rest of his lifetime – was “Sometimes leaders get others to the top!”

From Pat Pillai’s perspective, this young woman’s outstanding vision and wisdom should serve as a beacon of inspiration for leaders everywhere.

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