Break the Chain

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Slavery was abolished in South Africa in the early 19th century. Although this was a required first step, it would take decades, if not more, for the victims of slavery to catch up. The adults and even children of those generations had a constraint that would probably, for most of them, be of such a nature that they would never live to truly taste the benefits of true freedom – an educated and liberated mind!

But as Confucius states, the best time to help the people would have been long before that. Failing that, the next best time is now.

Fast forward to 25 June 2011. My wife and I, together with a number of other guests, had the privilege and honour to attend the inaugural dinner of the Backsberg Alumni group. Amongst the guests counted Mr Donald Grant, the MEC for Education of the Western Cape, and his wife. The guests of honour? The alumni and current students at tertiary institutions who had been and are supported by Michael and Jill Back, the owners of Backsberg!

There were 22 of the group of 23 students who were the recipients of grants. Each told his or her story as to how they had wanted to study, and had either worked for or had heard of Michael and Jill’s tremendous generosity. We heard of students whose parents where illiterate, who were labourers, and who had no way of providing their children with something they never had the advantage of getting, namely an education!

Listening to these students and alumni telling their stories brought tears to my wife’s eyes and a lump in my throat. We heard of young children who were now busy with the second year of articles on their way to obtaining their CA qualification. We heard of a young girl that was now busy with her studies to become a diesel mechanic. We heard of a number who were studying to become a financial manager, or who had become one. We heard of Apollo Bomvana, who now was a sales manager at a prominent media company after studying marketing management at CPUT, through the generosity of the Back Family! And so I could go on!

Quite a number of the students had no formal link with the farm or the family, but had only heard of the opportunity, and chose to approach Michael in order to obtain a grant. What makes this even more spectacular, is that the only thing the Backs required from the recipients, was the requirement to pass! There was no obligation to work for Backsberg, or to pay any money back – nothing!

If one looks at the investment Michael and Jill had made over the past number of years, one has to differentiate between a direct investment into the recipients, a leverage effect on the economy, and a leverage effect of the people themselves and their descendants. The Backs probably spent close to a million rand on this venture of theirs. Money which they wrote off and which they saw as part of their social responsibility towards people who had not had the opportunities they had had. These are people who did what they did without asking what was in it for them. There was no financial gain for Backsberg, and the decisions were taken without thinking about some or other return. Listening to Apollo talk about how Michael had taken him to Cape Town for career counselling, and then sent to Stellenbosch for IT training in anticipation of his marketing studies the next year, makes it clear that this was a set of actions solely for Apollo’s benefit!

Secondly, let’s chat about the leverage effect on the economy. These people, which had cost the Backs close to a million rand, will earn salaries far greater than would have been the case had they remained labourers. It would not be outrageous to say the differential salaries would run into the tens of millions! The effect that this will eventually have on the economy of the country, is enormous! And who says it does not pay to do well unto others!

The third aspect I would like to chat about, entails the social leverage that this set of actions of the Backs has brought and will still bring about. It is closely tied to the second factor. The children and families of these recipients will have a much greater chance of becoming educated as well. This will increase the economic leverage referred to in the paragraph above. It will increase the social profiles of these people as well as that of their families. Their children will grow up as children with parents who could and would look life in the eyes without feeling intimidated, without feeling less than, without feeling that they were inferior to others! Most of all, they would grow up as people who now had a greater choice in life, all because their parents had the good fortune to be a recipient of a grant due to the generosity of the Back Family!

Malcolm Gladwell writes about this effect in his very stimulating book, Outliers. It takes special people such as the Back family to make this come true.

Writing this reminds me of a chat I had a few weeks ago with a very interesting gentleman I have had the good privilege of meeting, i.e. Gavin Cowley. We would know him as a very successful sportsman in rugby, cricket and hockey, and currently a rugby commentator as well as being the marketing director of Adidas South Africa. He spoke of companies needing an X-factor to excel. He also referred to sportsmen such as Quade Cooper with such an X-factor. I personally would include Gavin as one of that elite group of people having the X-factor!

I also believe that people such as Michael and Jill Back have the X-factor, people who use their competencies and inherent qualities to create/add a disproportionate amount of value to their groups, companies and societies. I would like to link this phenomenon to a theory of Robert E Quinn and Ryan Quinn, which is so eloquently explained in their book, Lift.

First of all, these people have to be purpose-directed. They have to have a mission in their lives, a sense of meaning that surpasses the here and now. As Guy Kawasaki states it, you have to make meaning. Jim Collins and Jerry Porras refer to a higher order ideological/philosophical reason for their existence. These people are visionary and they pursue this vision and dream with a tenacity that differentiates them clearly from the others in society. People with the X-factor, people with Lift, are purpose-directed and stick to this purpose. The mission statement of Starbucks is for me a testament to this purpose: “Our mission: to inspire and nurture the human spirit: one cup, one person, and one neighbourhood at a time!”

Secondly, people with the X-factor are other-oriented. They are empathetic and emotionally intelligent. They realise that people are the most important element in a team, group, company, and society. They realise that groups, teams, companies and societies with a great culture and a set of compelling values held in a cult-like fashion, are bound to be more successful than others. But they hold these principles because they believe in them as a principle, and not for the financial benefit thereof. If people fake this, it will be seen in difficult times, when the team, company or society is under pressure. It is in times such as this that the veneer disappears and the true person is seen!

Thirdly, X-factor people are internally directed. These people have an internal locus of control. They have a positive unconscious and know who and what they are about. They have a sense of self-worth and do not find their value in what other people think of them. They will stick to their principles, and exhibit what is written in the paragraph above. They practice what they preach, and know the person in the mirror. One could say they are spiritually intelligent as well. They tend to be few and far between. They also tend to be Level 5 leaders in the language of Jim Collins’ “Good to Great.”

Lastly, X-factor people are also externally open. This refers to the principle that you need to be in tune with your external environment lest you become irrelevant! You need to know who your customers are, and what they want and need. You need to understand your competitors, your suppliers, the industry, and the macro environment. You need to understand the big picture, of where you need to intervene in order to create synergy. You need to be sensitive to changes in this world, to be sensitive to the needs of society.

It is important that we have access to all four qualities. It is a multiplication exercise in that if we have zero for the one, all three the others become useless.

Organizations, teams and societies have no other option but to grow and develop their number of people with the X-factor. We need to emulate and develop people with the properties that Michael and Jill Back, Gavin Cowley, Quade Cooper, and others have. We need them to stimulate and grow our societies, our organizations, and our teams. Without them, synergy effects and all the positive effects thereof will be impossible to obtain.

If this is what Michael and Jill Back could do, what are you doing? You do not need to spend a million rand, but you can make a difference. You can make a contribution to society by developing your qualities, by ensuring that you grab the opportunities that have come your way and grow yourself into someone that aspires towards being an X-factor. Again, it is a matter of choice. A choice to grow yourself and to grow others.

Come on, break the chain and create lift!


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