Looking back on your leadership journey, what have you learnt along the way?

Episode 065

Mar 27, 2024

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Leadership isn't just a fancy title; it permeates every aspect of life—work, home, friendships—dictating how we present ourselves.

Today, we are thrilled to be joined by a dear friend and supporter of safety initiatives, James Mpele. Born and bred in South Africa, he is a proud father of two daughters.

Nuala and James first crossed paths 11 years ago in 2013, when they facilitated a safety leadership workshop in Pointe-Noire, Congo.

Look back on your leadership journey - Image 5.1

A Leadership Journey

Today's discussion revolves around leadership.

We felt it would be valuable to hear from our friends in the safety collaborations community about their leadership journey experiences.

We wanted to explore the transition from team member to leader and how that impacts various aspects of life, so we asked James a series of questions.

1- Share your experience of the first time you stepped into a leadership role

Wow, it feels like a lifetime ago. I was raised in a deeply religious environment, attending Sunday School and later joining the youth group. I vividly remember the leadership structure in our church—a majority of young people, about 75%, but none of them in leadership roles.

Recognising this imbalance, we decided it was time for change. During leadership elections, my peers elected me to a leadership position. Suddenly, I was surrounded by older individuals who looked to me for change.

However, I felt unprepared and needed more guidance. That's when I turned to books on leadership, specifically 'Profiles of a Leader', recommended by someone in the Department of Education.

Reading about leadership opened my eyes to its importance. As John Maxwell rightly says, everything rises and falls on leadership. Despite the lack of guidance, I knew I had to step up. It wasn't a smooth transition; I was essentially on my own.

This experience occurred when I was still a teenager. Let me skip ahead to when I was in the workforce.

It was the 90s, and South Africa had just implemented BEE, Black Empowerment. This meant companies had to change how they operated and the composition of their leadership teams.

It frustrated me to see the difficulty in getting people of colour into leadership positions, especially since I was in HR and knew many qualified individuals.

Frustrated, I vowed to find and nurture talent for these roles. Little did I know that my words would return to hold me accountable. But despite the pressure, I was determined to prove myself.

It was challenging, especially with some team members already established. I had to work tirelessly to build the team.

Thankfully, my efforts paid off. Even after I left the organisation, we continued to hold team meetings every August, bringing our families together. It was a lot of hard work for me, but it did pay off.

We're still reaping the benefits of that, even today.

2- Have you had any mentors or role models who have influenced your leadership journey?

One of the companies I worked for had a structured mentorship programme. As a new recruit, you were assigned to a mentor two levels above you. For instance, in HR, I had an HR manager from another unit whom I could look up to and meet with.

It was a structured mentorship programme, and through this experience, I realised the importance of mentorship. Even today, I still have people who play a mentorship role in my life.

The beauty of mentorship is that it extends beyond the professional realm into personal life. We often go out for tea, and what starts as a one-hour meeting frequently lasts for hours. Over time, these mentors have become some of my closest friends.

One particular mentor comes to mind; although he may appear arrogant to others, I've understood that he's simply clear about his beliefs and opinions. Our relationship has matured over time, and I value the insights and perspective he brings.

Looking back on your leadership journey - Image 1
Facilitating a safety leadership workshop - Pointe-Noire, Congo - 2013
3- Is being able to appreciate and bring together people's differences an essential skill for a leader?

Absolutely. Acceptance doesn't imply agreement or endorsement of someone's viewpoint.
It's about acknowledging and giving them a platform to express their perspective.

I may not agree with everything they say, but I respect their right to express themselves.

It's crucial to avoid becoming defensive when faced with differing opinions. Instead, I try to understand their origin and sift through their perspective to see what I can learn.

We all have unique viewpoints, and accepting this diversity leads to greater collaboration and understanding.

I recall a mentor who had a very different approach from mine. He was direct and blunt, while I tended to be more diplomatic. Despite our differences, he valued my perspective and encouraged me to speak my mind. He recognised that we operated differently and accepted me for who I was.

This highlights the importance of recognising each other's strengths. It's not just about accepting our differences and understanding that we each have unique perspectives, but it's also about acknowledging our individual strengths and how they complement each other.

Instead of focusing on weaknesses or areas for improvement, we see them as aspects that may not be our natural strengths, and we bring them into our collective approach to viewing and tackling challenges, especially within a team dynamic.

Collaboration embodies this idea perfectly.

It's about each of us bringing something valuable to the table, combining our strengths, and working together to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes, this collaboration leads us to innovate and develop solutions that may not have existed before.

It's about building on each other's ideas, with the best solution often emerging from this collaborative process. Everyone contributes their input, and together, we co-create outcomes that surpass individual efforts.

This collaborative process is incredibly enriching. It's where true innovation thrives, as we contribute our ideas and challenge each other constructively to refine and improve them.

It highlights another skill that is becoming increasingly critical in leadership: curiosity.

Curiosity is becoming such a vital skill because, realistically, none of us can know everything. When someone shares an idea or a viewpoint, I must approach it with curiosity. If I immediately judge or dismiss it, I close myself off from hearing and understanding what they're saying.

But if I remain curious, I can delve deeper into their perspective. I might notice that their viewpoint differs slightly from mine, and that's when I become intrigued. I want to understand where they're coming from, so I ask for more details about their idea.

Curiosity is increasingly crucial in leadership.

And not just in leadership but in being human. The more curious we are, the less likely we are to categorise people as outsiders or different from ourselves. Instead of being suspicious of the unknown, curiosity leads to excitement and open-mindedness.

Curiosity provides a 360-degree view of everything—yourself, others, those above you, and those below you. When you embrace curiosity, feedback about yourself doesn't trigger defensiveness but sparks curiosity.

You might find yourself asking questions like, "Is this how I'm coming across? Because that's not my intention. I'm just curious. How are you hearing me?" It's all about maintaining that curiosity.

4- How has understanding yourself impacted your leadership style?

Learning about myself is fundamental for personal growth.

I first encountered the concept of self-awareness many years ago during my studies for my master's degree in HR and leadership. There was a module dedicated to self-awareness, which made me realise that many people don't take the time to understand themselves.

Instead, they often become defensive, finding it easier to learn about external things rather than exploring their own selves. However, I've come to appreciate the value of self-discovery through a programme I'm currently enrolled in, focusing on mapping resilience.

This programme is designed for experienced leaders, those who have reached senior positions in their careers. We encourage them to reflect on their resilience journey, starting from the early days of their leadership journey and identifying the challenges they've had to overcome along the way.

We help them recognise their strengths and accomplishments by having them list and map out these challenges. We guide them in leveraging these strengths to enhance their leadership capabilities further.

Self-awareness serves as a cornerstone for building upon one's strengths, which in turn accelerates their impact on others. By understanding themselves better and acknowledging their achievements, leaders can foster trust within their teams.

It also enables them to navigate challenges more effectively, drawing from past experiences of resilience. However, it's essential to strike a balance and avoid constantly operating in a state of resilience, as this can lead to stress and exhaustion.

Embracing self-awareness is both empowering and exciting. It allows leaders to appreciate their journey and celebrate their successes. In the fast-paced world of leadership, we often overlook the importance of acknowledging our achievements before moving on to the next task.

Self-awareness encourages us to pause, acknowledge our progress, and offer ourselves praise and recognition.

Self-awareness also fosters kindness toward oneself, which is crucial in promoting kindness towards others. It prompts us to reflect on our behaviour and interactions with others, encouraging empathy and understanding.

By being mindful of our own emotions and reactions, we can better understand and relate to those around us.

Looking back on your leadership journey - Image 2
Facilitating a safety leadership workshop - Pointe-Noire, Congo - 2013
5—Many books on leadership are available for younger people embarking on their leadership journey. Where else could they go, or what else could they do to better understand themselves and how they are showing up as leaders?

First and foremost, it's essential to have a mentor who can serve as a reflective mirror, allowing you to be completely open and provide constructive feedback.

Additionally, seek feedback from those you lead and be receptive to feedback from company surveys conducted periodically, typically every 12 or 18 months—approach feedback with objectivity and curiosity.

If you notice discomfort in a particular area, express a desire for improvement and seek ways to address it. While it may feel daunting and vulnerable as a leader, vulnerability is integral to growth. Consider the inventors of significant innovations; they likely experienced moments of vulnerability, fearing failure despite their efforts.

Similarly, on your leadership journey, embracing vulnerability is crucial.

However, vulnerability doesn't entail revealing deep/dark personal secrets (that's not vulnerability; that's reckless); it involves building trust by sharing openly and welcoming feedback.

Authenticity is key when evaluating feedback, distinguishing between constructive criticism and malicious intent. To foster growth and development, focus on feedback from trusted sources, including mentors and those you lead.

6- Looking back on your leadership journey, what are some of the "I wish I knew sooner" lessons you have learnt along the way?

One of the top lessons for me is the realisation that most people genuinely want you to succeed.

Early in my leadership career, I often perceived challenges through the lens of race-related issues, particularly in environments where racial tensions were prevalent. Learning to relax, adopt objectivity, and not hesitate to seek assistance were pivotal lessons.

Asking for help isn't a sign of weakness but a display of strength. People are generally willing to lend support if you're open to it.

Another crucial lesson is the importance of supporting others without expecting immediate reciprocation.

Building trust is foundational in leadership; it's the bedrock upon which effective teams are built. Trust enables individuals to give one another the benefit of the doubt, fostering collaboration and cohesion.

Consistency is key in this regard. Consistently demonstrating integrity, reliability, and accountability fosters trust within teams. Consistency extends beyond professional settings; it's evident in personal habits and interactions within families.

Within families, the consistency of actions and words influences how children perceive and learn from parental behaviour. It's a sobering realisation that someone is always observing, whether it's your colleagues in the workplace or your children at home.

7- What is your vision for the future of leadership?

I recently came across a document from the World Economic Forum (WEF) discussing skills that will be crucial in 2025.

Compiled about four years ago, it's fascinating to consider what lies ahead, especially concerning emotional intelligence. The document highlights that emotional intelligence will remain a critical skill in 2025 and beyond.

Another essential competency will be the ability to solve complex problems.

Our world is becoming increasingly intricate, and while artificial intelligence can handle simple problems, humans must tackle the more challenging ones. Additionally, the importance of continuous learning cannot be overstated.

In today's fast-paced world, learning and adapting quickly is paramount. In my view, the future of leadership hinges on our commitment to lifelong learning and curiosity.

I recently had a conversation with an elderly woman in her 80s who shared her secret to staying sharp: curiosity. She expressed a keen interest in trying out new gadgets and learning how they work.

As leaders, we must embrace this ethos of continuous learning.

The skills that have served us well in the past may not suffice in the future. Learning must be ongoing and agile. We can't afford to take extended breaks, as the pace of change demands constant adaptation.

There's always something new to discover, and it's up to us to carve out the time and seize the opportunity to learn and grow.

Looking back on your leadership journey - Image 3
Facilitating a safety leadership workshop - Pointe-Noire, Congo - 2013
8- To end with some fun, if you could have dinner with any leadership figure, who would it be and why?

Well, I thought about that question, and guess what? I came up with seven figures; we're going to have a party.

I came across a picture of seven African leaders: Oliver Tambo (South Africa), Samora Machel (Mozambique), Zephania Mothopeng (South Africa), Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia), and Sam Nujoma (Namibia).

They were all captured in one photograph.

Imagine being part of that gathering and listening to their conversations from many years ago. These are the leaders who spearheaded change in their respective countries. I'm curious if they joked around, if it was always serious, or perhaps a mix of both.

What insights were exchanged during that meeting?
As I contemplated your question, that picture flashed into my mind.

It's inspiring to think about the conversations among these change agents because that's precisely what they were. They operated in different contexts but made significant impacts, in fact, tremendous ones.

Looking back on your leadership journey - Image 4
James & Nuala: Co-Facilitating a safety leadership workshop - Pointe-Noire, Congo - 2013

Final Thoughts


I am incredibly fortunate to be engaged in my work because it allows me to make a meaningful impact on people's lives. Making an impact means providing individuals with the space to uncover their own potential.

After all, I can't instil something in someone that isn't already there.

Many people possess immense capabilities within themselves, yet they may not always be aware of them. Thus, having the opportunity to guide them in rediscovering their strengths and abilities is genuinely a blessing to me.


James, you are one of those people because of the impact you have, not just on the people around you but even on your family, and how that impact will have a ripple effect going forward in so many lives.

I love our conversations. Thank you so much for the opportunity and for joining us today. It is always lovely to have conversations that matter.

James Mpele is on LinkedIn [link in resource section below].

James and I spoke a lot about caring and being kind today.

Sharing is caring, so if you can think of anyone who would benefit from this fantastic conversation, please share the podcast, follow us on your favourite platform, and leave us a review.

Your leadership journey: What have you learnt along the way?


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About the Show

Our purpose in sharing this podcast is to have a chinwag (conversation) to help people change how they think and behave about safety. 

We do this by engaging in dialogue and testing the levels of trust and psychological safety, which are core to organisational culture. Making safety part of your DNA so that your people speak up, show up, do right, and become safer every day for yourself, your team, and your business.

We will explore topics related to organisational and safety culture, leadership, the language of risk, emotional literacy, psychological safety, conversational agility, intercultural intelligence, and whatever else pops up during our conversations—sharing our experiences and learnings. 

We intend to share nuggets of wisdom that will challenge your perspectives, potentially solve a nagging problem, share actions you can implement, and give you at least one aha moment.

And, if you enjoyed the show and gained value, please share with just one other person to help spread the word.

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