(Written 29th April 2012)
Towards the end of a sports festival day at Wynberg Boys High School the story was told of an older couple who had, some 20 years ago, sent their sons to prominent boys’ schools in the southern suburbs of Cape Town. And at the time of their choosing those schools Wynberg was never considered a suitable school for their brood of young men. But they went on to say that if they had had another son now, they would have no hesitation in making Wynberg their first choice. So why the change?
May I state from the outset that I consider Wynberg to be one of the finest educational institutions you will find anywhere in the world; but I hasten to add that while it has, in it’s 170-year history, always been a good school, it has not always been a great school. For instance, there was a time around the 1970s when the school was in the doldrums and I was very fortunate to have been party (in a very small way mind) to the setting of the direction in which the school was to develop since the mid-1990s.
In expressing my thinking on this matter it is perhaps necessary to point out that since I do not read MBA-type literature this phenomenon may well have been studied in some formal way, and if it has, then perhaps someone could tell me by whom. In the meantime let me say that it has been my experience that the development of a healthy, vibrant organisation is a delicate weave of a large number of factors such as circumstance, history and events, opportunities and skills, organisation and management, but most of all it is guided by the vision of the person in charge. Moreover, in this process the organisation comes to reflect the character and integrity of the person at the top. I have also found that it works the other way round. Organisations that may once have been vibrant soon become moribund when the person in charge lacks vision. Worse is that corrupt leaders soon corrupt the ‘personality’ of the organisation they represent. Let me give you some examples.
Some 10 years ago I had occasion to be part of a group who were working to rebuild a struggling manufacturing organisation in America. The business in question had been run into bankruptcy and I had been offered the opportunity to be part of the team that would nurse the company back to financial health. It was a marvellous challenge; there was a lot to be fixed which I am happy to say went well for the most part. The disappointment however was that the new owner’s vision was not actually to build a sound company, but to tart it up and to sell it to an unsuspecting investor. I soon found out that there was a good reason why the new boss spent a great deal of his time in litigation, he was the most mean-spirited person I have ever met and it soon became apparent that the ‘personality’ of the company had also become deceitful and mean. The owner had no integrity and neither did the company. I did not stay long.
Since the fall of apartheid South Africa has had the mixed fortune of having had presidents from opposite ends of the visionary spectrum. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that the sheer presence of Nelson Mandela saved the country in the 1990s, giving rise to the temporary sense of a rainbow nation. For a short while the nation actually adopted the magnanimous personality of that great man but sadly it was not to last. Just 15 years later the country has a president without vision and without credibility; and it shows in the everyday lives of its citizens. Jacob Zuma’s mumbling of puerile questions has taken the place of debate and his slow reading of pointless statements has taken the place of actual messages to the nation. Worse is that the prevailing personality in the country is one of secrecy and graft. South Africans have become a corrupted nation.
On the other hand, I have over the last 15 years had the great privilege to get to know the Headmaster of Wynberg, both as a friend and as someone in charge of an institution for which I have a great affection. Not only is Keith Richardson a man of integrity but he is a man of vision involved in a great work… educating young men. While continuing the work begun by his immediate predecessors, Rowan Algie and Bruce Probyn – that of returning the school to greatness – he has done more than that. He has imbued the organisation with a philosophy that reflects his character. He has given it a personality that has made Wynberg the school of choice.