Professor Ntobeko Ntusi delivers valedictory address

28 May 2024 | Story Rebecca Crowie. Photo Robyn Walker. Read time 7 min.
Prof Ntobeko Ntusi addresses a full lecture theatre in Groote Schuur Hospital on Wednesday, 22 May.
Prof Ntobeko Ntusi addresses a full lecture theatre in Groote Schuur Hospital on Wednesday, 22 May.

Professor Ntobeko Ntusi, the chair and head of the Department of Medicine at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Groote Schuur Hospital (GSH), assumes the role of president and CEO of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) from July. He bid farewell to UCT and GSH on Wednesday, 22 May, in what was a maiden valedictory lecture for UCT.

“Principled”, “a servant leader” and “wise” are the perceptions that the introductory speakers of the night had of Professor Ntusi. In his valedictory address, titled “Many people, one voice”, Ntusi reflected on his tenure as a leader in times of real-world complexities such as healthcare austerity measures, the rising disease burden in South Africa, personnel shortages in healthcare and achieving transformation in the workplace.

“When I reflect on the many achievements during my leadership, the single enabling and enduring factor has been how [my colleagues and I] have used our diversity to bear on our common purpose, and unity in action,” he said.

Life experiences

Ntusi was born and raised in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. He studied biology and medical sociology at Haverford College in the United States of America. Haverford was a formative experience for him: the college had an honour system where students would write exams unsupervised and be trusted not to act dishonestly. This principle of being accountable for one’s actions informs much of what Ntusi has done since. He returned to South Africa to train as a medical doctor at UCT and then went on to complete a PhD in cardiovascular medicine at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

Feeling the urge to acquire work experience, Ntusi stopped studying and set his sights on securing a job — his first job, in fact. And the only job available was “chair and head of the Department of Medicine”. Impressively, he was only 39 when he secured this post in August 2016.

Why leaders fail, and the antidote

“Why do [certain] approaches fail even when logic indicates they should prevail?”, Ntusi interrogated. His answer was that a certain level of predictability and order exists in the world. This belief encouraged simplifications that are useful in organised circumstances.

However, Ntusi cautioned: “Circumstances change, and as they become more complex, the simplifications can fail. Good leadership is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Many of the tasks that leaders are called on to do in complex situations … require fundamentally different leadership and personal capacities than the ones they had spent a lifetime cultivating.”

He continued: “Becoming clear about purpose, direction and boundaries is a large part of the work of leading strategy in complexity.”

In the second part of his lecture, he chronicled 10 takeaways from his tenure as a leader.

  1. Our greatest resource is our people. Ntusi said that he has had the privilege of being surrounded by the most intelligent, caring colleagues. Over time, a huge part of his work as a leader has focused on how an organisation forges a sense of belonging where all people can meet their personal and professional goals. He has also learnt that people have shortcomings, and a leader needs to be sensitive to these.
  2. Always believe in the importance of aesthetic. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has been expanded to include three additional needs: cognitive (when one becomes curious and desires to acquire knowledge), aesthetic (appreciation and the search for beauty) and transcendence (going beyond the self, which includes experiences in nature, sexual experiences and service to others). Flourishing organisations have an abundance of people whose cognitive, aesthetic and transcendence needs are constantly met.
  3. Invest in leadership at an organisational level. Succession planning in leadership is vital. Organisations must identify early on what kind of candidate they want to apply to ensure stability.
  4. Abandon firefighting as a leadership strategy. It is wiser to strategically avoid problems rather than try to solve them as they arise.
  5. Humility goes a long way. Ntusi’s conclusion was that UCT has a culture of preoccupation with rankings. It would serve the UCT collective well to be less status minded and focus on areas for improvement.
  6. Focus on impact, not reputation. A reputation lasts for a very short time. A greater focus on impact would not only establish a legacy but is also likely to preserve a good reputation. Focusing on impact would automatically provide a perspective that would reduce one’s arrogance about the importance of one’s place in this world.
  7. Have the courage to question. UCT and GSH have progressed from being places of moral darkness at the height of apartheid, to welcoming, diverse environments. It was courage that produced this. Therefore, constantly questioning our beliefs is essential to securing justice.
  8. Building public trust is essential. In an age where access to the internet is ever-present, everybody has become an “expert”. By virtue of it being a leading department, the Department of Medicine has a duty to restore the public’s declining trust in the value of public health and science.
  9. The burden on black leaders is unmatched and comes at a cost. Black leaders are often tasked with being at the forefront of diversity, inclusion and equity. They are expected to sit on multiple committees to ensure sufficient representation. This is both an individual and organisational challenge, and it must change immediately.
  10. The work of transformation should not be tokenistic. We have good reason to embrace transformation: when different ideas and perspectives collide, it leads to enrichment and learning. However, in the words of Nelson Mandela, transformation must not be an act of charity but an act of justice.

In closing, Ntusi saluted his successor, Professor Mashiko Setshedi, on being the first female chair and head of Medicine. “Like her predecessors, I have no doubt she will face her fair share of challenges. But I also know that she will prevail.”

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