Special report podcast: Dirk Visser - Brightest Young Minds
ALEC HOGG: In this special podcast, Dirk Visser from Brightest Young Minds (BYM) joins us now. It's a lovely name, and it's also an organisation that's been around since the year 2000. What exactly is BYM?
fDIRK VISSER: BYM focuses on youth leadership - typically people of ages between 20 and 30 and it really aims to firstly identify people who have bright minds and passionate hearts, and then channel their interests and their passion into initiatives that we think can make a positive contribution to society.
ALEC HOGG: How do you pull them together?
DIRK VISSER: We run a fairly extensive campaign around the country for people to apply and then we run a fairly rigorous selection process to identify 100 every year.
ALEC HOGG: Apply from where - universities, schools...
DIRK VISSER: Yes, typically university campuses although people who are already working can also apply, so it's anyone between the ages of 20 and 30.
ALEC HOGG: It's interesting to see on your website that you've had 2,000 applications in this past year... have I read it correctly?
DIRK VISSER: Yes fortunately over the years we've built up quite a strong reputation amongst our target demographics so there is quite a strong interest for people who want to be part of the programme.
ALEC HOGG: So how do you select from those 2,000 people to the number that you can actually work with?
DIRK VISSER: There is an application process and the criteria that we look for is firstly over the academics play a part, but probably the most important criteria is initiative shown. So think of other people who have started a business or have started an initiative or social enterprise. Then the third criteria is leadership - so there are a variety of questions and essays that people have to write and fill in, and then we do some reference checking and here and there do interviews with people.
ALEC HOGG: Probably before you were born, in 1975 I had the pleasure of attending a World Jamboree for Scouts in Norway, and at that point in time there were people who used to walk around and talk to various people who were there, trying to discover whether they could be leaders of the future. I never saw how they worked their criteria out, but I'm sure you can give me an insight into the kind of questions that you'll be asking when you look for leaders at the age of 20 and as you say up to 30?
DIRK VISSER: For us a big part of it is really people who are a little bit out of the ordinary - people who are at that age already have either started a business, or started a social initiative or have just done things that are not just run of the mill. Whilst people are elected onto things like student councils, we do take that into consideration but that wouldn't be the exclusive thing.
ALEC HOGG: What kind of businesses...
DIRK VISSER: Everything - some people have started basic things like printing T-shirts and selling them at a Flea Market - or it's not such a small business - the guy was a self-made millionaire before he turned 25. Or there are some who have started IT business that are now also quite successful. Others have started casually farming and then eventually run feed lot operations while still studying fulltime, and others do events and party organising, marketing consulting - so a variety of things.
ALEC HOGG: That's on the business side, which I suppose is a little less difficult to define that the leaders are there, but what about in civil society and perhaps in politics?
DIRK VISSER: Once again there are people who play an active role in their communities or on their campuses so people who have either started initiatives to mentor in the local communities, have created programmes that teach children skills, life skills or literacy skills and so on, or people who just run a variety of think-tank related activities on their campuses and in their community and then people who are just involved in some of the broader international programmes - such as the UN Youth Leaders programmes and people involved in local varieties of poverty history and things like that.
ALEC HOGG: All right, now lets go into the personalities of those people. Reading quite a lot on leadership as I have been doing for this series, it's come out increasingly that leaders are often dysfunctional human beings - they come from disadvantaged backgrounds - not necessarily financial disadvantaged, but disadvantaged in emotional or other ways as well. Are you seeing that too?
DIRK VISSER: One probably needs to differentiate - I would probably agree that often very successful people often come in terms of financial and some come from different backgrounds - but it is a guess - people often come from non-standard circumstances and that has forced them to either think on their feet and do something a little bit different. That sort of criteria really helps them to be more effective as leaders and as people...
ALEC HOGG: Single parent families for example, have come out very strongly in a lot of the leadership books or research into leaders that I've seen. Have you noticed that too?
DIRK VISSER: I can't say that I see that more than the other, but if one takes into consideration that people from single parent families would probably be expected to possibly be at a disadvantage - and if you take that into consideration, then yes it is probably exceptional what many people who come from difficult family backgrounds or socio economic backgrounds do achieve.
ALEC HOGG: You do mention on your website that you want to fast-track the development of these young people - why?
DIRK VISSER: We think that our country and our society really need more people who are excellent at what they do. There's not a lack of reasons why we need to that - whether it's excellence in engineering or excellence in entrepreneurship or excellence in social enterprise, so we think that if we get people who show not just innate ability but also the character and attitude that they really want to do something exceptional and we want to give them all the opportunities possible to enable them to maximise the influence and the impact that they can have.
ALEC HOGG: Why fast track - why do you want to accelerate one's development - doesn't development take time because of its very nature?
DIRK VISSER: I don't think with fast track that we necessarily do something that takes 10 years, and try to do it in one year, because I would agree with you that those things do take time, especially to acquire the wisdom and maturity to be an effective leader takes time. It's more just about giving them the best possible opportunity, so maybe opportunity that would have taken longer for them to get exposure to people or learning opportunities that might only have come later in life - to give them that to enable them to get all the ingredients that will help them along their path.
ALEC HOGG: So it's to possibly identify merit earlier than it would otherwise be able to in life...
DIRK VISSER: Yes, we are definitely a merit-based organisation, but it has as much to do with both aptitude and attitude from our point of view.
ALEC HOGG: Another interesting point that came through in these discussions is from Johan Redelinghuys of Heidrick & struggles - he said we need to look at leadership differently to the past. His view is that if one doest give people a chance, or fresh leaders a chance we actually would be putting ourselves at a disadvantage. Are you helping in that, do you think?
DIRK VISSER: I think so - we make a lot of effort to ensure that we include people from every area of the country, people who might not even study at the best universities so we really make an effort and secondly we also by the very nature of our design are very inter disciplinary - so maybe fields of study of fields of background that might not be typically associated with either business or political leadership, and we really make an effort to bring those people into the fold as well.
ALEC HOGG: What about ethics?
DIRK VISSER: Ethics are crucial to leadership and especially in a country like South Africa where many of the challenges we face - one of the biggest things we can instil is ethics and moral leaders.
ALEC HOGG: But how do you define that, because one person's ethic is another person's principles that they might want to dispense with if they can profit from it?
DIRK VISSER: Very important in terms of the BYM programme is a sense of serving the greater good - serving the community - that's why explicitly in our core statement we said it's channelling hearts and minds into anything that has a positive impact on society. You can only flourish in a society that is also healthy and you need to, in everything that you do, and we try and instil in our programme is that you need to build not just your own human capital but we need to build social capital and we need to even build environmental capital if we want to succeed as a country...
ALEC HOGG: Do the youngsters really buy into that - these brightest young minds that you engage with?
DIRK VISSER: Absolutely - that's the exciting part of the programme - we're seeing a change over the last couple of years - that people are really passionate to give back to society - to say they realise that our country faces grave challenges, but we've come a long way as a country and we really now need to deliver on the promise of the freedom that was achieved for us. So there is definitely very optimistic and committed sense emanating from that group.
ALEC HOGG: Just a final question - and this kind of gets to the core of it. We can talk a lot about leadership, and we can talk a lot about leadership, about the role that ethics will play in society, but if a traffic cop were to stop one of your bright young leaders and say to him, ‘you're going to get a R500 fine, but if you can give me R50 now I'll turn my head and I wont give you a ticket'. What do you think the reaction will be from your average member?
DIRK VISSER: I would hope to say that they would turn it down and the reason for this - as a young person who is aware of the potentially calling either a role in leadership in the long term, and still want to live in this country for 40 years, the realisation of how corruption and bribery really destroys the moral fibre and all the other foundations on which a successful country is built. That would stop it...
ALEC HOGG: Would they go one step further - would they report that individual - do you think?
DIRK VISSER: Again one can only hope, but what I also hope they would do is really look at what some of the systemic underlying problems and then coming up with creative solutions in order to do that. Either creates things such as local equivalents to WikiLeaks or something like that. That's what many of the people do - they really are innovative people who ask how they can take a big problem, something like corruption or bribery and how can they come up with a solution that offers people an easy way to report that - possibly easier than the traditional means. That's what I would hope that a good citizen of BYM especially would commit to do...
ALEC HOGG: There's a great challenge for you to get to your Brightest Young Minds at your next summit in September in Stellenbosch
DIRK VISSER: This year it was in September and next year it will be in July - this year it was postponed to September because of the World Cup.
ALEC HOGG: Lets see a local version of WikiLeaks - that would be a concrete step in the right direction and I'm sure everybody would be able to support those kinds of initiatives.