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Profile in Leadership: Excellence and the Human Touch

By Merrill Douglas

Mzamo Mangaliso
Mzamo Mangaliso
President and CEO of the National Research Foundation of South Africa

When Mzamo Mangaliso, MBA '84, was a boy, a group of hired thugs came to his home one day to kill his father. The South African textile firm where the elder Mangaliso worked had just given him a promotion. Another man wanted that job, and he was willing to murder to get it.

But when the intended victim came to the door and the men realized who he was, they cried, "Oh, it's you, Brother Tom! Oh my goodness!" and offered to turn their knives on their client instead. He declined the offer.

Holding the title of clerk (the most he could aspire to under apartheid), but doing all the work of a personnel manager, Mangaliso's father knew everyone, sat down to chat with everyone, and routinely helped people get jobs. People liked and respected him, his son says, because he lived by the belief that every person – from the least to the most powerful – merits the same respect.

Today, as president and CEO of the National Research Foundation of South Africa, Mzamo Mangaliso points to his father as an example of leadership.

"He was a very wise, visionary person who believed that you've got to have role models, you've got to have champions around you, you've got to identify people who will help you get to the next level," Mangaliso says. "But at the same time, you've got to pull your own weight."

Pulling one's weight, and striving for excellence in the process, lies at the core of Mangaliso's mission as head of the NRF, a South African government organization that supports research in the natural sciences, engineering, and technology, as well as in the social sciences and the humanities. In addition to awarding grants, the NRF runs several important national research facilities, such as the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory, the South African Astronomical Observatory, the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory, the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa, and the iThemba Laboratory for Accelerator Based Sciences.

"Africa must be moved from being the basket case of the world, or the laughingstock of the world, to something people can be proud of, can look to."

In keeping with the NRF's stated goals, Mangaliso hopes to use his position to help make South Africa, and Africa as a whole, an eminent player on the world stage. "Africa must be moved from being the basket case of the world, or the laughingstock of the world, to something people can be proud of, can look to," he says. Achieving that goal means not only supporting cutting-edge research in South Africa's universities and research facilities, but also promoting the rigorous study of math and science among the country's historically disadvantaged black citizens.

"This is on the tip of his tongue all the time, whenever he addresses any audience – the importance of educating oneself, of reading deeply and cogitating," says R. A. Mogotlane, professor and vice principal of the University of Pretoria and Mangaliso's longtime friend.

Mangaliso accepted his position at the NRF in 2006, returning home after nearly 25 years in the United States, including more than 20 years teaching at the Isenberg School of Management, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he was an associate professor of management. In addition to his MBA in finance and marketing from the Johnson School, Mangaliso earned a PhD in strategic management from the Isenberg School.

Mangaliso brings his expertise in both strategic management and the physical sciences to his position as head of the NRF. He holds a BS in chemistry and physics from the University of Fort Hare, South Africa, which he attended under the sponsorship of the Barlow Rand Company (now Barloworld). In return for his scholarship, Mangaliso was obliged to work for the manufacturing and mining firm for several years. But despite flying him to interviews around the country, Barlow could not find a job that fit his talents in a unit that would take a black candidate.

The company released Mangaliso from his obligation, and eventually he took at job at Unilever, which, in the mid-1970s, was starting to push back the boundaries of apartheid. "I was brought in as one of the first cohorts of blacks to be tapped for management positions in the future, but I started in the lab, because that's where my skill was," he said.

Promoted to management, Mangaliso soon realized he lacked the skills in finance and accounting necessary to excel in that capacity. In those years, South Africa did not offer MBA degrees to black citizens, so Mangaliso came to the Johnson School under the South African Education Program, administered in New York by the Institute of International Education and in South Africa by the Educational Opportunities Council (EOC), founded by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

At the same time, his wife, Nomanzengele " Zengie" Mangaliso, ILR '84, came to work on her master's at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Currently on leave from her position as professor and chair of sociology at Westfield State College in Massachusetts, Zengie Mangaliso has joined her husband in South Africa, and now heads the Institute for Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Pretoria.

Throughout his years in the United States, Mangaliso continued to work on South African development. From 1985 to 1990, he co-directed an orientation program that helped students in the South African Education Program adjust to life and study in America. After the fall of apartheid in the mid-1990s, he returned home often as a consultant, helping to impart management skills to black South Africans so they could become administrators in government and the private sector.

Mangaliso's pursuit of excellence, despite the obstacles apartheid threw in his way, illustrates the strength of his character, says Mogotlane. "For him to grow up under those circumstances and end up where he is shows incredible tenacity and huge patience, and also an ability to overcome bitterness."

In fact, Mangaliso uses his past disadvantages to inspire others, Mogotlane adds. "He is in a position of leadership, and he can actually turn around and say, 'Look at me. I started off in a little place in the East Rand, in a black township called Daveyton. And look at me. So you can do it also.'"

The keystone of Mangaliso's leadership philosophy is the principle of ubuntu, a southern African word that translates loosely as "humanness."

"Ubuntu responds to issues such as empathy, solidarity, togetherness, family, respect, and humility," Mangaliso says. It recognizes that people bring feeling as well as intellect to the workplace, and that people should experience emotions together–"the whole notion that pain shared is pain diminished, and joy shared is joy multiplied," he explains. "I'm trying to bring that spirit to the NRF."

"He really does personify ubuntu. You can see it in his face, his expressions," says Bradford Knipes, professor of economics at Westfield State College. Knipes first met Mangaliso as a fellow PhD candidate at the University of Massachusetts and has seen him take leadership roles with the Eastern Academy of Management, a professional association. "He has humor combined with affection, sincere concern and identification with people, with a clear sense of purpose about what the organization or the team is trying to accomplish at the time."

His belief in shared joy makes Mangaliso an effective motivator. "When somebody else accomplishes something, he's as happy about that as if it were something he were getting credit for," Knipes says. "The result is that people really want to do their best for him."

Mangaliso inspires the people who work with him, but he also knows when to stand back, says D. Anthony Butterfield, interim dean of the Isenberg school, who was director of the school's PhD program when Mangaliso was a student. "Mzamo is quite good at getting a team together and setting some goals and expectations, and then being a helper, not a constant watcher and reporter."

Mangaliso says he motivates by giving people challenges, but also by maintaining a respectful tone when he speaks his mind. "Somebody said you've got to have the talent to tell someone to go to hell such that they look forward to the trip," he observes with a laugh. "I never really tell people to go to hell," he adds. But he's not afraid to criticize at length when necessary, all the while remembering to focus on the business issue and not attack the human being. "So that in the next breath, you shake hands and talk about other things as well."

These days, Mangaliso is applying the principle of ubuntu to the NRF's current challenge, NRF Vision 2015, formulating the organization's strategic plan for the next several years. He has asked the head of human resources to visit the business units to talk about values such as trustworthiness, empathy and solidarity, and to ask employees what values they think should nourish the NRF's vision. "I'm trying to use a bottom-up approach, having stated my own approach, but telling them in as humble a way as I can," he says. "I'd be very wrong to impose my views. They know them, but I'd like to hear theirs."

He's also asking the NRF's executives, and personnel at its research facilities, how they think they can help make South Africa a proud contributor to humanity. He points, for example, to the NRF's efforts to attract some of the world's best radio astronomers to South Africa, to position the country as a leader in the field.

Mangaliso's brainstorming doesn't stop with the executives and scientists. "If you take it down to the operational level, even the sweeper can be part of the game if they are allowed to contribute their ideas about how they can make the organization a special place to work in," Mangaliso says.

His father would be proud.