Of all the leaders I have ever had the pleasure of spending time with, there are few, if any, that come close to directly impacting the lives of more individuals in ways that will change the course of their lives for the better, than the leader Martin Sweet.
To date, his company, PrimeStars Marketing, has given the opportunity to more than 200 000, mostly previously disadvantaged, secondary school goers from across the country to enter Ster-Kinekor “Educational Theatres of Learning” and come out of the experience with enlarged visions of who they are, what they may become, and the tools necessary to ignite these visions.
The concept is based on using these theatres on Sunday mornings as sites where educational material is presented to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Academic career guidance, financial literacy, entrepreneurship and leadership programmes have all been presented this way over the years.
I have been present as government ministers, television and radio celebrities, top businessmen and women, and other local and global icons have, with true sincerity, applauded Sweet for all he has done and continues to do for our country and society.
Former South African President, Thabo Mbeki, unable to be at the launch of PrimeStars Marketing’s most recent leadership programme, Step Up Let’s Lead, shared in a recorded address to those in attendance that: “Leadership is, and should always be, not about rewarding leaders but about serving the people as a whole.” There are few other statements that can better encapsulate the leadership of Sweet and the work to which he and his team are dedicated.
So who is Martin Sweet and where did it all begin?
When he is introduced at any event where he is being asked to speak, Sweet is most often described as a “lawyer, marketer, social entrepreneur, and activist”. With a preamble including such professional titles, we must quickly realise that we are dealing with a man whose informed perspective has been fed by a unique and interesting history.
Some of his earliest leadership lessons he says he learned while as a lawyer and city councillor of Yeoville, Johannesburg, during the 1980s, where the area “attracted its fair share of artists, musicians, students and political activists”, and was described as “something of a liberated zone as black and white met and ate and listened to music together in defiance of prevailing apartheid laws. Some blacks even lived in the area in flats rented for them by white nominees.” (Wikipedia) Sweet shares that it was during this time that he discovered the power of “standing for something” and that having a “future mindset” meant that you were going to be able to mobilize people. He did this effectively as he won his first election on the back of the message of an integrated society, that “there was nothing wrong with people of colour living and buying property in Yeoville.” Please remember, he won during a period where the non-white majority were not allowed to vote. And so Sweet is adamant about this point: “You can’t have wishy-washy leaders who sit on the fence; leaders must stand for something.”
Sweet’s career has seen him pioneering a number of firsts where he also shares that he didn’t always get things right. A lesson he learned while working closely with Tony Leon, who was then sitting on the Johannesburg City Council for Yeoville, as they attempted to change the road system of the area and made a mistake, was when you get it wrong, “take responsibility, and come back quickly and fix things.”
Fast forward a few years and we again see Sweet at the forefront of innovative leadership as he, now in the marketing industry, introduced programmes many of us are still familiar with today including: Take A Girl Child To Work Day; The Star: Investors Club; The Hollard Sowentan: Your Money Club; and others. Of course, many organisations and even other leaders are not always innovative (click here to see my previous article on this subject) and Sweet had to learn quickly how to balance his personal leadership brand to include a focus on and ability to sell that continues to serve him. Few of us like salespeople, and when I asked him how he had done this and not gone on to alienate himself in the processes, he shared two things: “If a cheetah after having gone after its prey and failing nine out of 10 times decides to give up and become a vegetarian, that will be the end of the cheetah.”; and if your selling is inspired and motivated by a cause that is right, and good, and serves the bigger picture, you will always remain authentic.
GA: Who has been a source of inspiration for you and impacted your life as you have continued along your leadership journey and path?
MS: Sipho Nkosi, CEO Exxaro, has an ability with people that I admire greatly; others I admire include Paolo Cavalieri, former CEO Hollard Insurance Group; Ken Varejes, Primedia Unlimited CEO; Gareth Cliff, founder CliffCentral; Konehali Gugushe, Nedbank; Dr Xolani Humphrey Mkhwanazi, President of the Chamber of Mines of South Africa and Chairperson of BHP Billiton South Africa; and of course, my mother who taught me the high value of education and how to get up after taking a disappointing knock.
GA: What would you say to the 22 year old you if you could?
MS: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston Churchill.
And also that mentors are key to success. Ask for help using the Aladdin concept, that if you don’t rub the lamp, the genie won’t appear; if you don’t ask for help you won’t get it, but that many may not want to help or like you for asking for their help, and if this happens then it doesn’t matter, move on.
GA: How do you keep your leadership thinking relevant and up to date?
MS: I believe there are two important things that will help you keep you relevant: The books you read and the people you interact with. And so, three nights a week I ensure that I am out there networking with people. I make it my business to know the right people.
Sweet and his team’s latest project, “Step Up 2 A Start-Up”, has been inspired by the South African Government’s commitment to creating 5 million jobs by 2020. The National Development Plan envisages that 90% of these jobs will be created in small and expanding companies and organisations. And so, very soon, young people across the country will be inspired by “Step Up 2 A Start-Up”, an entrepreneurial programme that has been endorsed by the likes of the internationally renowned entrepreneur and investor, James Caan, and others.
As I reflect on this very small glimpse into the life of a man who is undoubtedly a leader, a quote by Karl Marx comes to mind:
“History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy.” — Marx, Letter to His Father (1837)
This serves as an interesting gauge against which we can measure the impact of our own leadership.
Whether as a name or because of his efforts and their far reaching ripple effects, Martin Sweet will go down in history as he is remembered and his legacy is carried by all those people, young and old, whose lives are better for his influence.
Long may we remember him for his never say die tenacity and dedication to a vision of a better, brighter tomorrow.
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