Insights From Within An Organisation That Keeps Getting It Right

Africa Tikkun, one of South Africa’s largest non-profit organisations, assists many thousands of people in that country’s townships. But seven years ago, this extraordinary organisation set out, with Legitimate Leadership, to increase its employees’ level of engagement by showing employees that they also really mattered. The results of that exercise were dramatic and were part of a major turnaround in the organisation.

Then earlier this year, Africa Tikkun pivoted again: in response to the Covid 19 pandemic it changed direction from being an organisation which supported centre-registered families, to doing emergency mass distribution of food parcels to the broader community.

How Africa Tikkun achieved these changes, and the part that Legitimate Leadership played, was the subject of this webinar, which was held on 12 November and was attended by 111 people.


Background to the transformations in Africa Tikkun, was provided by Ian Munro, director of Legitimate Leadership, who moderated the webinar:

Africa Tikkun is one of the largest non-governmental organisations (NGO, non-profit) in South Africa. It works with children and young adults with a cradle-to-career model. It operates from five centres, four in Gauteng and one in the Western Cape. It has impacted more than 36,000 children directly. Additionally, Africa Tikkun also runs outreach programmes in schools and other institutions so the number of children actually impacted is much greater than 36,000 (see, for instance, Township Youth Learn Give to Grow).

In 2013 Africa Tikkun commissioned an employee engagement survey (see Afrika Tikkun – An Astounding Culture Shift In One Year ). The result showed 27% employee engagement within the organisation. At that time the organization had experienced significant growth over a long time which apparently had had negative implications for its culture and management disciplines on the ground.

The vision of the organization was not well understood by people on the ground and wasn’t being communicated properly to new people who joined the organisation. Managers weren’t available to their people.

The organization knew that something needed to change. So among other things Africa Tikkun engaged Legitimate Leadership.

A year later, the employee engagement survey was redone. Engagement had risen from 27% to 59%.

Said Munro: “That means that at the beginning of the 12 months, if there are three people talking at a water cooler, two of them are talking the organization down and one is talking it up. By the end of the 12 months, two people are talking the organization up and one of them is talking it down. It is chalk and cheese.

“The engagement surveys were done by an independent company which told us (Legitimate Leadership) afterwards that they had just not previously seen this kind of turnaround in such a short space of time.

“But perhaps even more remarkable than that was the fact that the change has been sustained. It is one thing to change an organization, it’s wholly different for that change to endure over as long as seven years – and it isn’t slowing down yet.

“The last part of the story is about Africa Tikkun and Covid and the lockdown in South Africa earlier this year. Within a matter of weeks Africa Tikkun was able to pivot from being an organization which supported centre-registered families to an organization which supported the broader community; which was able to move out of the classroom and into serving meals and distributing food parcels in the community.

“There are many organizations that struggle to turn their ship. But Afrika Tikkun did this in weeks and got their people to commit to a whole new way of doing things and a whole new reason for being.”


in the webinar, Ian Munro asked questions (preprepared and from the audience) of the three Afrika Tikkun participants:

Marc Lubner, group CEO of Africa Tikkun, who was intimately involved in the Legitimate Leadership application.

Leonie van Tonder, who was chief operating officer of Africa Tikkun for seven years and introduced Legitimate Leadership to Africa Tikkun.

Nehwoh Belinda, who heads Africa Tikkun’s Uthando centre in Johannesburg, who experienced and participated in the Legitimate Leadership application there.


Q (IAN MUNRO): What was Afrika Tikkun like before the Legitimate Leadership application and what triggered you to adopt Legitimate Leadership in your organization?

LUBNER: The organization had grown very quickly. Then we changed our primary focus from ad hoc programmes to an integrated cradle-to-career approach. But while we at head office had a clear understanding of what we wanted to achieve we had not communicated it well to the people who were to be responsible for implementation. A lot of information was lost in interpretation. That created confusion and a growing rift between head office and the operating sites.

Secondly, the board came from the commercial world and didn’t necessarily understand the change processes that would be required in a developmental organization where you have to turn the pyramid of responsibility on its head and realize that the people at the coalface are your most important assets – not the size of your balance sheet or the people at head office.

Thirdly, innovation was not coming from the sites themselves. I had anticipated that people in the township environments, in those communities, would be pushing management to bring about various programmes to bring about change. But we were sorely lacking in that innovation.

Fourthly, in 2013 I personally was exhausted and burnt out. I was recommended to meet this extraordinary woman Leonie van Tonder who would turn out to be the genie in the bottle that would provide the solutions. Leonie had come from a corporate background but had a deep understanding of how to make people feel valued and respected. I told her I needed a new culture within the organization which would most importantly make people feel that they really mattered – not just the work that they did, but that they themselves really mattered.

Leonie made her employment in Afrika Tikkun conditional on us supporting her with implementation of Legitimate Leadership in the organization and we’ve never looked back.

What Legitimate Leadership brought as a starting point was the sense that if you’re going to care for people you’ve got to do so responsibly.


Q: Based on your experience at Africa Tikkun and elsewhere what advice would you give to someone thinking a Legitimate Leadership implementation?

VAN TONDER: One of the first things is to look at is the structure of the organization. If there is no clarity in the structure it is difficult for people to understand who they take their orders from. One must be quite stringent about the line of command.

Secondly, getting buy-in from senior management is critical. When we started with Legitimate Leadership we started with the senior management, then we did the layers below. And it is extremely important to never forget the non-managerial people because you cannot institute a change in your culture as well as in your management processes and activities if they do not understand.

Nice about the Legitimate Leadership is that the development is in the managerial groups but there are also programmes that go right down to the real people in the organization – for them to understand why they are there and to appreciate the unique contribution that each person makes to any organization.

Q: You talk about contribution, but this is an NGO (non-profit). Surely everyone who works in Afrika Tikkun naturally a fantastic person who wants to make a contribution? So surely this is much easier to do in Afrika Tikkun than in for instance a bank?

VAN TONDER: You might think so but in fact when you care for other people you need to put it in context. Care is not a bunny-hugging process; it has responsibility and accountabilities. It is not easier or more difficult to do it in an NGO than it is in a commercial company. People need to understand the responsibilities and accountabilities that go with caring.

Q: In some ways the profit motive almost makes it easier I think because people are less confused about what they are expected to do and what the purpose is. I think it was sometimes difficult for people to come to terms with the contribution that the centre heads had to make – not on the children directly but indirectly through the other leaders. How did you experience the shift on the ground and what do you think has made that shift stick for the past seven years?

BELINDA: Legitimate Leadership has grown me as a leader and I recommend it to every organization. When Legitimate Leadership was introduced it was confusing because the organization was then focusing on results. Contribution was something that we did not really understand. The vision was not very clear and we were just looking for numbers. But when Legitimate Leadership was applied I got to understand that care was the most important thing, and attention. I had to take care and grow my people, and the results would just come. For us to accept that was a bit challenging. But as Leonie said you need to start from management. When management accepted Legitimate Leadership and transitioned into implementing what we had learned we went through 10 months of one-day-a-month coaching that discussed issues that were real in the organization. For people to believe in this, as a leader I had to walk the talk, I had to watch the game, I had to let everyone in my team know my intent so that I could hold people accountable – be it praising them or censuring them. And making sure that everyone in the organization was on the same page – from the cleaner whose job is very important to the cook and gardener. This made things easier because the language of the organizations changed immediately – when you praised someone they would say that is care and growth, but when I censured a manager she thanked me and said that is care and growth.

Consistency is very important. Since we started this process, every year we come back and share our experiences.

Q: What do you mean by ‘caring responsibly’ and what were some of the obstacles you had to overcome in making the shift to Legitimate Leadership. How does one shift from focusing on results to focusing on the things that produce the results?

BELINDA: I did one-on-one sessions which were well planned, not just in the air but in the diary. I gave them the responsibility, they owned the meetings, they directed the meetings. If they had to talk about their personal issues, I had to listen to them. Many times someone would come into work late or something would happen and we would not know them as a person because we had just needed them to produce. When I started having those one-on-ones and actually incrementally suspending control, making them take decisions (whether I loved the decisions or not), letting them run their various departments, the shift was so clear that I could actually take a holiday and not worry about the centre.

Q: Yes other people have said that they will know an implementation is successful if they can go on holiday. Marc, you have said when you control people you perpetuate dependency. What do you mean when you say you should not perpetuate dependency but rather empower?

LUBNER: The world of charity was built on people who had who wanted to give to people who didn’t have. So there was almost an assumption that the giver was somewhat superior to the receiver. That kind of mindset, I am pleased to say, is becoming archaic because it perpetuates dependency – ‘I will feed you today and then tomorrow I’m still responsible for feeding you, I haven’t taught you to feed yourself’. So the philosophy within Afrika Tikkun is ‘responsible kindness’. Obviously if you’re going to be in service of others you have to be kind in nature, your objective is to be kind – but you need to do so in a manner that is responsible, to break that dependency cycle. And that’s not just necessarily between an organization and its beneficiaries, but within the organization itself.

One has to accept that the people that are working with you in the organization have insight and skills and became involved in this field because that is what they really wanted to do. So it’s no good just taking people and putting them into predefined jobs whose results are measured on the prescribed outcomes. You have to recognize that these individuals are putting their hearts and souls into the work and build systems that enable them to be able to speak their minds and innovate. And you must encourage and incentivize that kind of behaviour rather than just putting people into process flows.

Q: One of the analogies we use is that if you want to have a beautiful garden you not only need to plant a beautiful garden but you also need to tend that garden for it to stay beautiful. What has been required from the leadership in order to sustain?

LUBNER: Like anything in life that’s worthwhile, you have to work at it. Legitimate Leadership requires a commitment to constant, rigorous improvement. Leadership in the organization cannot simply sit back and say ‘oh well great, now my staff are empowered’. If anything it changes the role of the leader in the organization to become even more visionary, more strategic. Your responsibility to your team becomes even greater because people are now doing what they’re saying they’re going to do and therefore they have expectations of you to be able to also fulfil your role. There is an absolute necessity for commitment to constantly reviewing this process and refreshing it and not allowing it to lapse. This isn’t a one-hour fitness video experience, this is something you have to learn to live, and the more you live it the more it becomes real in every element – from HR to leadership disciplines to the talk within the organization. The nature of the talk has changed around those water coolers – we now talk Legitimate Leadership lingo and have a deep sense, understanding and commitment to what that really means. So it requires a rigorous commitment to an ongoing structured process and an adoption of a number of informal procedures within the organization.

Q: Is this something that you can outsource?

LUBNER: You can outsource the teachings but your own in-house trainers have to be trained and then they themselves train others – so all our general managers become teachers in their own right and train others. So it really is a process that infuses throughout the organization. You cannot buy a video or employ someone for one day a month. You have to recognize that what you’re doing is injecting this throughout the entire body of the organization. But you also have to rely on experts like Legitimate Leadership to help advise on changes that are taking place because it’s dynamic. So I don’t think it’s something you can do internally on your own without guidance and equally it is not something you can just delegate to a third parties.

Q Leonie, you’ve been involved in successful implementations of Legitimate Leadership in different organizations. What were the particular challenges in Africa Tikkun and how were they overcome?

VAN TONDER: As an NGO the first challenge was money and the second was time. The third in Africa Tikkun was logistics.

Marc initially found us some money to do this and going forward through the years there have been special donations made for this purpose.

Regarding time, one must obviously always take people’s time into consideration because there are children and beneficiaries that normally demand their time and need to be attended to. So the organization of time was important.

If then in an organization where you have different branches, like a bank has different branches, one of the best things that we did was to select the people that attended the workshops from different centres and brought them together at a central venue. For the first time people got to know their colleagues doing the same kind of work at other centres. Just bringing the people together for that purpose made a huge difference in the organization because people suddenly started to get to know their colleagues from elsewhere and saw that they all had the same kind of challenges in the organization.

Q: What kind of coaching did you do with people in the organization – was it external, internal or you sitting with others?

VAN TONDER: The coaching was specifically around the application modules of Legitimate Leadership that point to specific aspects of the work – things like the true meaning of performance management and empowerment. When we did theoretical days or half-days for the modules they got homework and had to go and practice this in the centres. Then before the next session we sat with them and they shared their experiences, learning from peers – the one person would have a better way of solving a problem than another. And where there were specific problems obviously I stepped in.


Q Did you have any managers that didn’t see themselves as leaders?  I’ve come across people who’ve said ‘I’m a manager and my job is to deliver results and frankly I don’t care about people and I don’t care about you and your programme either’.

VAN TONDER: Yes we do. We give the person the best opportunity and best guidance that we can and then at a stage we decide that this is not working and have a good conversation and redeploy the person somewhere else where they would be better suited, maybe with lower rank but where they are responsible for functions and not for people directly. This is not a hospital pass (exempting them), which one should never do.

LUBNER: The organization was always driven by values of the original founders – the legendary Chief Rabbi Harris and my father Bertie Lubner (both late). So it wasn’t too difficult when we started to implement a values-driven cultural programme.

Rather than creating fear and trepidation the Legitimate Leadership system and the way it was implemented made it uncomfortable for certain individuals who realised that this wasn’t the environment they wanted to be in – because we said the cultural shift is non-negotiable. Legitimate Leadership was not a carrot or stick approach but a way of following values from people around you. You would either subscribe to those values or it would become obvious that you weren’t going to fit. In fact people left – a proper discussion was held and people moved on either into another post where they weren’t in leadership positions or out of the organization completely. What really impressed me was the remarkable capacity that the management team had to embrace and support one another. If there’s one take-home for me it is how the management team worked together, bringing their various different strengths and relative weaknesses to support one another and create this really magnificent team of individuals capable of achieving so much.

Q: I have seen many leaders over the years who want to have their cake and eat it – they want to be values- and principles-driven but they also just can’t bring themselves to give up on the short-term results. And it becomes fundamentally disabling because people see that as insincere. You can’t claim to be values-driven, then at the same time, when push comes to shove, you don’t act in a values-driven way. I think it’s hard for leaders to make that kind of sacrifice – but in the long run it’s not even a sacrifice … right?

LUBNER: I thought I was this caring loving all-embracing wonderful human being, supportive of my staff. Then when I looked at the low percentage of staff who were engaged (before Legitimate Leadership), and I had Leonie, this tough-talking no-nonsense individual who was going to take over the role of chief operating officer and implement Legitimate Leadership, I had to swallow hard. I thought I would alienate everybody by bringing this style of leadership in. In fact quite the reverse happened because I and my role were more clearly defined through the Legitimate Leadership process and each individual understood how he or she mattered and the values that we were instituting in the organization. If anything, everyone had a greater sense of security because they knew which direction they were going and how they fitted into the overall puzzle. Equally they knew where my role’s boundaries were so they didn’t think ‘because Marc is the CEO he can just do anything and everything he wants’. Protocols were implemented which were good for me and good for the organization and brought a far better sense of trust between us, which is a very important ingredient in running any organization.

Q: Regarding the lockdown, Nehwoh, as a general manager, how did you make the big shift and what role did Legitimate Leadership play in you making this shift?

BELINDA: St Francis of Assisi said, ‘Preach the gospel; if necessary use words’. I try and live by that in applying the Legitimate Leadership principles. Sometimes they’re not easy to do but I try and remind myself. So one of the things I do is respect and support staff members and listen to them. I do not promise something or ask for an opinion from a staff member or from the management team that I will not follow up on. And I’ve learned how to give feedback and not mix it – so if someone does something well I will not in the same feedback conversation give praise and censure.

When the lockdown came everyone understood what contribution means and so when management decided within a week to distribute food parcels each centre management had to manage themselves in a way that spoke to their community because we knew that people wanted food parcels but we still had to do distribution in a way that was dignified. So I called staff members and told them this was the decision and we put people in different groups – people to cook, to distribute, etc. But the culture of the organization says we communicate with each other in the process of checking in with the team. Because we had built a relationship where people openly hold us managers to account, they now said ‘we know we are doing this work and we are happy doing it, but we feel we were not consulted’. And I had to say ‘it was a crisis and in times of crisis, management has to make certain decisions’. So everyone came in and contributed. People don’t look at job descriptions at Africa Tikkun – they’ve moved away from that; they make sure that we serve the communities.

Q: Was this enabled by having a different approach? Could you not have just said to people ‘this is what we’re going to do’ and they must listen because you know you have people who want to make contribution?

BELINDA: No, the fact that we had to understand the true meaning of care played a great role. Without it I think we would have just been dictating and we wouldn’t have got the feedback that we got. Then people would not give it their all and would find excuses not to do the work. It was Covid 19, it was a pandemic, everyone was scared. Many people could have taken take sick leave but they did not because they really wanted to contribute – and this had been paved by the care and growth that we have in the organization. Without Legitimate Leadership it would have just been people struggling to claim UIF (government income subsidisation) and not actually giving of themselves


Q: Yes, in many organizations I know the conversation became about UIF and TERS etc (government subsidies), not about how can we contribute. There are whole sectors of our society where people just left their posts in a crisis and focused on claiming these things, but that didn’t happen in Africa Tikkun.

LUBNER: This wasn’t just people being asked to be doing different jobs, they were being asked to go into an environment where all the rules of the pandemic – social distancing, stay at home, etc – were being turned on their head. They were going into community environments where they were swarmed by people for whom food was a priority. And these were not staff members who were anticipating overtime payments though the hours they worked were well in excess of that which they were contracted for. Legitimate Leadership helped us swing from a structured day-to-day regime to this new set of crisis interventions because there was trust. Before the crisis trust had been developed between management and staff at all levels. There was this spirit. Nehwoh said that at her level decisions were taken because there was a crisis and she conveyed those decisions, but she was still sensitive to the fact that there hadn’t necessarily been a proper caucus. In times of crisis you have to take decisions and you have to be surrounded by people who trust that you’ve taken the right decisions and support that. That’s why it’s so important that you can’t just intervene with Legitimate Leadership as a once-off or a once-a-year initiative, you’ve got to constantly refresh it. It’s got to be a way of life so when crisis times do strike you have the trust of all people – like teachers who become packers or delivery staff, taking risks in going out. Over 100,000 free monthly food parcels were delivered because there was a culture within the organization which had been engendered over seven years. It’s a great way to be able to live, to work in an environment where you’re surrounded by people who trust you and equally you trust them in return. I think people underestimate the enormous power of trust and the fact that you don’t turn trust on by paying for it – you have to live it over time