By Fiona Wakelin & Koketso Mamabolo
“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
– Isaac Newton
IT BEGINS WITH SACRIFICE
Marie Curie gave up six years of her life in order for her sister, Bronya, to receive an education. While studying in Paris, Marie tutored and worked as a governess to support Bronya through medical school, and in turn Bronya would pay for Marie’s tuition once she’d completed her studies.
Leila Fourie has read Marie Curie’s story many times and finds its subtext inspirational.
“She delayed her education to support her sister, and you can imagine the enormous sacrifice that this meant for someone with the intellectual capacity to win two Nobel Prizes,” said Leila, the holder of a PhD in Economic and Financial Sciences, while speaking to Top Women Leaders.
“The ability to put humanity before intellectual development was a profound lesson for me.”
Having grown up in a large family, the accomplished executive learned very early on the importance of doing something to make the lives of others a little bit better – and this has developed into a leadership style which is centred around positive impact and service to others.
“As I look over the past year, managing through the fatigue of the second year of COVID has been a very tough challenge – maintaining morale and motivating people under these conditions can often be demanding, especially when you need to recharge your own batteries.”
But through the turmoil of the past two years, she’s remained positive and visible to her staff. In her eyes it’s up to her to ensure that spirits remain high, helping hands are given and challenges are overcome. Even her latest achievement, being honoured as the Standard Bank Top Businesswoman of the Year is an opportunity to encourage others to literally be the change.
“I’m very grateful for the award and the recognition. But what’s most important to me is how I affect the people around me and how I contribute and give back. So what is important in the award is to provide hope and to provide a benchmark to people who aspire to make a difference in society.”
Leila understands the role she is able to play to empower other women and has woven it into her mission: “An award like this is less about me and more about the people around me. And I think it demonstrates ‘the art of the possible’ in growth and development, and in making advances and progressing in what is normally a male-dominated world.“
MODELS OF LEADERSHIP
What changes has she seen in her career of over two and a half decades in the financial sector? “There is a shift in the positioning of innovative and curious people. And that means that the barriers to women have started to reduce,” said Leila. But her optimism is cautious: “I think we still have a long way to go.”
This ability to recognise the remarkable transformation that has taken place but still be acutely aware of the potential for further positive developments is indicative of a leader with a nuanced way of thinking which is perfect for the current world. A world that is constantly morphing as it adapts to leaps in technology.
“I think advances in technology and innovation have opened the door and created an opportunity for women to succeed in business. The biggest changes that I’ve seen are in the removal of boundaries in traditional mindsets and technological advances that democratise opportunities and open the door to exponential growth. These changes create equal opportunities for men and women to advance in business and into leadership positions.”
Leila notes how technology has all but removed borders between South Africa and the rest of the world, which itself has compelled leaders to reflect due to a “profound” decentralisation of power.
“Success doesn’t take a straight line anymore. And the boundaries have been adjusted. I still think we’ve got a way to go, but I think now is the time for women to stand up, be counted, and to be given opportunities. I think we are seeing, particularly with the pandemic, the importance of leadership and the importance of female leadership.
“We’ve seen many female role models and political heads of state taking a transformational stance in how they’ve led their nations. And those countries with female leaders have tended to do much better under the pandemic. The pandemic has created an enabling platform for
more inclusive growth and for recognising the role that women have to play in leadership.”
New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, the former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Central Bank President Christine Lagarde are some examples of women who have taken a “transformational stance” in their leadership style. Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, and other Nordic female leaders, are all testament to how positive a different approach can be.
“Female leaders who focused on families, on children and vulnerable people – have reset the way in which we perceive the traditional role of a leader. As a result, people have now come to expect a more nuanced approach which is in touch with human values. The pandemic created a reversion to basic values, and that means we need leaders that reflect those values.”
“Some of the most important contributions have been from people that I’ve mentored,” Leila said when asked about the milestones in her career. She mentored a woman who completed her postgraduate studies while working in a call centre and supporting her AIDS-orphaned brother – a young woman whose own sacrifices mirror that of the inspirational Marie Curie.
Leading the JSE successfully through a pandemic would be on anyone’s list of lifetime achievements but Leila sees beyond just the institution itself, looking to the lives it’s been able to touch.
“Leading the Exchange is a weighty role, but it’s also a great privilege. And that platform gives you an opportunity to be a role model and to share with others the importance of leadership and building people around me.
“Our impact on people is just as important as our impact on business. We must align what we do with how we do it.”
“DOING EVERYTHING YOURSELF DOESN’T ALLOW YOU TO SCALE. YOU HAVE TO WORK THROUGH PEOPLE AND YOU HAVE TO EMPOWER THE PEOPLE AROUND YOU IF YOU WANT TO SCALE OUTPUT”
MOMENTS THAT MATTER
‘Kairos’ is an ancient Greek word for perfect timing and leaders often find themselves in situations where something happens which leaves an imprint on them. Leila has had a few of these ‘Aha!’ moments.
“I call them moments that matter. And those ‘kairos moments’ alter your DNA leadership and teach you lessons that stay with you throughout your leadership journey.”
“I’m one of ten children, and when you grow up in a large family, and particularly a family that is financially challenged, you learn to sacrifice and you learn that paying it forward and supporting those around you creates a boomerang effect.”
“Doing everything yourself doesn’t allow you to scale. You have to work through people and you have to empower the people around you if you want to scale output.”
“A commitment to the people around you needs to be informed by an approach that’s calibrated for growth. It’s important to cultivate curious, mercurial and kinetic energy in the people around you. I’ve learnt, particularly through the COVID crisis that we can’t have a stasis mindset, we can’t be thinking of things in a static way.
We were constantly challenged to be responsive, resilient and pre-emptive, and to show our sense of imagination.” And with this one must have flexibility and the willingness to change.
“I embrace futurist and entrepreneur Paul Saffo’s philosophy of ‘strong opinions, weakly held’.”
TELLING A GOOD STORY
“South Africa has so much to offer. I think that the COVID crisis, and now the geopolitical crisis, have shifted the playing fields. Investors are now focused on South Africa as an emerging market destination for investment.
“South Africa is seen now as a promising investment opportunity, relative to Russia, China and Turkey. Now is our time. South Africa has the opportunity to stand up and to put forward all the many positive things that we’re seeing.
“We are at the cusp of turning our country’s global relationships within the macroeconomic context and shifting flows. We’ve seen positive net investment flows into the country this year in both the bond and equity markets and we’re very excited about that.
“South Africa is mercurial. Its people are entrepreneurial and we have a lot more to offer than we often acknowledge. We need more leaders who speak about the growth potential of the country and present the positive narrative. I believe a more balanced narrative could position South Africa much better as an investment destination.”
The JSE is playing its part in various private-public roadshows that look to “encourage inbound flows into the country”.
“We’ve also engaged with international exchanges to create a fast-track listing environment which encourages inbound secondary listings.”
Another positive is how South Africa is progressing on the sustainable development front which Leila, Co- Chair of the UN’s Global Investors for Sustainable Development (GISD) alliance, and the JSE, are leading.
She recently finished reading Let my people go surfing, by Yvon Chouinard, which charts the journey of an entrepreneur building a global empire underpinned by sustainable development ideals. “It’s prescient and indicative of the risks we find ourselves facing with regards to climate change.”
A LIFE LIVED FOR OTHERS
Leila is an avid reader and another book she completed recently was the American physicist Michio Kaku’s The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything.
“What’s particularly interesting is that it shows how in science one theory builds on another and it reminds me of the quote by Isaac Newton: ‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’
“This just shows how science evolves over time, building on previous evolutions and the same is true for business and anything else that we create in life.”
This applies not only to her own life but also to that of the JSE, a giant among exchanges on the continent.
“The Exchange makes an enormous contribution that is much bigger than itself. The role that the Exchange plays in the macroeconomy and in building markets has a multiplier and a compounding effect. And the ability to collaborate with market participants and to collaborate with leaders, to build the economy and to expand capital markets, is really what excites me.”
“I’m a people leader at heart. The most important thing is to see the people around me grow and develop, and that energises me when I wake up in the morning. My first port of call is ‘how can I support them in reaching their potential?’.”
Leila’s shoulders are there for the next giants to stand on.
“I’ve taken great pride and great joy in watching how some of the people that have worked under my leadership or within my leadership grow and develop their minds, their leadership ability and their talents.
“Many people have unrealised raw talent. In order to unlock this, they require sponsors, mentors and leaders to endorse and develop them. But most importantly, it takes a thoughtful leader to create meaningful opportunities.
“I’ve certainly been the recipient of opportunities. I’m very grateful to my sponsors and leaders who have helped me along the way, and it’s important to recognise that and pay it forward. Stewardship is one of the most important elements in leadership and ensuring that you are thoughtful and connected to your people is really vital.”
When we asked who she would invite to dinner, past or present, it came as no surprise that the people Leila chose included leaders who have famously sacrificed their lives in the name of something bigger than themselves, such as Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein. Not forgetting another scientist to whom we owe so much: two-time Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie.
Her final message called on us all to care, pay it forward and never give up:
“I would encourage all leaders, particularly female leaders to pay it forward and support marginalised females and girl children to access technology and education.
“I’d encourage women marginalised by the pandemic to not give up, to persevere and to remain committed to educating themselves. We have an obligation to uplift and support those who are marginalised.”