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Passionate leadership is infectious. It inspires. It motivates. It mobilises.

“People want to follow a passionate leader. It’s the passionate people who take the biggest risks, step up to the plate, and help make the biggest leaps forward.” – Nozomi Morgan

What does it take to lead with passion and purpose?

To dream audaciously, as we challenged previously, but then to dig in, lift up, and carry out that vision with the energy and the stamina and the belief that makes impossible moon shots do-able, and improbably mountains scalable.

What does it take to be all in, all the time? To live in service of something not only greater than yourself, but greater than the here and now? Greater, even, than the foreseeable future.

It’s messy.

The arc of passionate, purposeful leadership rarely runs in a neat, smooth line. Leadership, no matter how deliberate, is often fraught with setbacks and drawdowns and disappointments.

Energies ebb and flow, often in correlation with evolving contexts and situations. We are all, to a greater or lesser degree, prone to moments of strategic re-evaluation, purposeful pause, or even tactical retreat. Or moments of simple fatigue.

What sets truly inspirational leaders apart, however, is their ability to constantly re-energise around their big why. To have faith in their ability to execute against the big why. And, most importantly, to be able to inspire and motivate those around them to reach for their own big why, by dreaming bigger, reaching higher and looking further.

What does passionate, inspiring leadership look like?

It looks a lot like Lilian Ngoyi, and the brave, unflinching women who led the watershed 1956 Women’s March in Pretoria.

Lilian Ngoyi was a woman of incredible courage and determination. Among the many giants who helped carve the monument of South African democracy, Ngoyi undoubtedly ranks among the most passionate and most determined. And the most purposefully persistent.

At the age of 39, she was a widow, a single mother to two young children and the primary carer of an elderly mother, eking out a modest existence as a seamstress with only a Grade 5 (Standard 2) education.

But like another famous seamstress who changed the course of history by refusing to give up her seat on an Alabama bus, Ngoyi was appalled by the injustice she witnessed around her every day. Appalled, and fiercely committed to changing that which she could not accept.

Ngoyi joined the ANC during the 1950 Defiance Campaign, and quickly emerged as one of the organisation’s most gifted orators, able to inspire and motivate people wherever she spoke. Which was everywhere.

In 1955, newly elected as president of the Federation of South African Women, Ngoyi decided to bring the atrocities of South Africa’s segregation policies to an international stage. For the next few years, she travelled extensively around the world, almost always illegally, to address rousing gatherings in England, Germany, Russia, Switzerland and China.

Once, she attempted to stow away on a passenger liner. Another time, she boarded a flight to London under a “white name”, and managed to make the journey anyway after winning the sympathies of the pilot with an impassionate appeal.

Despite the government’s best efforts to ban, ground and rein her in, Lilian Ngoyi would not be silenced. And she used her voice to inspire, cajole, motivate and, ultimately, to mobilise.

The Women’s March was one of the defining moments in South African history.

Not only because it set in motion a cascade of events which would lead to the inevitable and irreversible weakening of the apartheid state, but because it changed, fundamentally, how the vast majority of South African women saw themselves.

What they were capable of.

What they would no longer accept.

And what they could achieve, individually, and collectively.

Lilian Ngoyi was not only one of the chief architects of the Women’s March, she was the primary source of the passion and the inspiration that united the assembled marchers.

That day, and long after.

She motivated thousands of women to risk everything – including their liberty and, not inconceivably, their lives – to follow her to the Union Buildings. And follow her they did. Not because they were managed, or mandated, or told what to do.

There were no prescripts, dictates or demands. No management of people. Just a common vision, a shared purpose, and a visionary leader who epitomised passion, perseverance and grit, and role modeled the exceptional resilience and fortitude the moment demanded.

20,000 women followed Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn to the Union Buildings not because they were managed. But because they were led.

To believe in better. To commit to better. And to tap into their own passion to realise better.

Maya Angelou famously wrote: Life likes to be taken by the lapel and told, I’m with you kid. Let’s go!

Passionate leadership is equally infectious.

It inspires. It motivates. It mobilises.

As we lean into the challenge of leadership, let’s never forget the responsibilities that accompany the title, nor the inspiring example of Lilian Ngoyi and other strong, determined women who dared to change history with the passion of their convictions, and their tireless commitment to seeing change in their lifetime.

When passionate leadership drives a vision that others can believe in – a vision that others can march behind – it can change lives.

It can.

And it does.

© Natalie Maroun


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