Minah Koela is the Executive Director at Beautiful Gate SA, an NPO in the Western Cape that cares for and protects children in a holistic way by empowering and preserving families in their communities. Previously she worked as a research assistant, translator and cultural expert for UCT, Stellenbosch and various universities in the UK and US. Minah completed her Post Graduate Diploma in Business Management at UCT in 2016, specialising in Leadership Innovation.
Minah Koela took on the leadership of Beautiful Gate SA, a non-profit organisation serving the communities of Philippi and Lower Crossroads in Gugulethu, in October 2019. Soon after, she was thrust into the crisis of having to navigate the Covid-19 pandemic’s lockdown and panic, while having to earn the trust of her team. What made the precarious position even more daunting, was that the community in which they worked was ready to shut them down – animosity was rife. However, Minah’s servant approach to leadership slowly but surely restored trust, and created a new willingness to collaborate.
Minah’s lessons were not learned on smooth seas, but rather on rough waters fraught with contention and battles. She heavily relied on God’s guidance and wisdom as she faithfully did what He asked of her. Her determination and galvanising leadership in this season inspired us to glean from her wisdom, and capture her lessons on how to build a healthy team culture.
So, whether you are new to your leadership role or have been in the position for many years, here are 7 leadership lessons you can put into practice in an increasingly Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world.
Just as Paul encouraged the Philippian church to “…contend side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27), choose to work with your team – asking for and relying on their insights and experience. Strive together for the mission of your organisation, to build healthy cultures and to make a lasting impact. As Minah succinctly puts it, “If you lead alone, you’ll be alone.” But if you want to bring people with you and foster true unity, follow the concept of ilima – a Xhosa expression for when the community helps to plough your fields or bring in your harvest. It emphasises that everyone needs the other, and everyone has something to offer the other.
The vision and mission are the foundations of your organisation. Paint them as a picture, bright and clear, for your team to see, hear, feel, and touch. When facing an uncertain future, your people need to know why they do what they do. Minah regularly recited Psalm 46 to her team as a reminder that they had been placed in the community to care for vulnerable children and families, to educate and to uplift – and, that God was in control and would enable them to do this. If you are building a team culture without the foundational structure of your vision and mission, get dreaming and writing – make your ‘why’ as tangible as the ‘what.’
When your context becomes volatile and it is no longer ‘business as usual’, you will need to draw on creative ideas and implement them quickly. Perhaps, as Minah did, you need to start a WhatsApp group that includes your staff and other key players and send them weekly encouragement in the form of videos, messages, and scriptures. If you’re innovating to reach out and connect with others, your team will follow your lead. Gone are the days of conventional methods of solving problems – how can you rapidly meet the needs of your team today to build a healthy culture for tomorrow?
It may seem counter-intuitive to focus on yourself when building a healthy team culture, but if you understand who you are, what you bring to the table, and why you’re in the position you’re in – you’ll better serve your team. Minah’s journey to Executive Director of Beautiful Gate SA was not what she had in mind, and she begged the question ‘Why me?’ many times to God, and her predecessor at the organisation. God’s promises became her anchor, and she drew encouragement from those who went before her as they reflected her gifts and strengths back to her.
When you realise your God-given strengths and unique gifts, you will be able to be who you are, instead of trying to be someone else. Know why you are in your leadership position at this time – the conviction will hold you steady through the tough seasons. And Minah encourages gently, address your own insecurities so that they don’t affect the team around you.
It takes courage to step into leadership and harness the power of your team. It takes tenacity to build trust and relationship with the people around you. It takes bravery to come as a learner and not impose your own preconceived ideas on processes and team dynamics. And it takes courage to inconvenience people when you are calling them to higher ground and expecting more from them. You have to be convinced that you are doing the right thing, at the right time. Leading in this VUCA world is not a straightforward journey, but one that requires your persistence and vulnerability – so that your team can emulate you and do the same.
When things are uncertain, difficult, or volatile, your team needs more encouragement than usual. Seek out the ways that you can offer incentives for hard work, collaboration and togetherness. Celebrate everything! When you publically affirm the good character or work achievements of a team member, the others take note and are inspired to grow too. Make that phone call, record that video, or buy that surprise KFC voucher to motivate and inspire.
Minah speaks affectionately about the fireplace in African culture. A fireplace is the centre of the home – the place of conversations and sustenance. It is the place where people gather to talk – about politics, faith, fears, and everything in between. It is also the place where meals are cooked – people are sustained by it. Have you built a fireplace for your team? Is there a place that you can gather to discuss, openly and without hesitation? Are you sustaining your team with a safe place, where they can find what they need?
Finally, Minah shares the crux of her lessons this way: “I approached the position as a learner, and it helped me to dig deeper and find the strategies that I needed to be able to lead my people and see our mission fulfilled.”