Leadership is demanding, especially to keep up with assumptions that leaders should know all the answers. However, leadership can be very fulfilling, especially when leaders accept that they do not have all the answers and accompany others to find them. This leadership wisdom forms part of Dr Elmien Sinclair's daily work as Head of the Unit for Academic Counselling and Development (UACD).
As part of South Africa's Women's Month celebrations, she tells us about her leading role in supporting all students in developing academic and life skills that will help them succeed in their studies and later careers.
Tell us more about your role at Stellenbosch University
I am the Head of the Unit for Academic Counselling and Development (UACD), one of four units in the Centre for Student Counselling and Development. I am also an educational psychologist. We provide support with the development of much-needed academic and life skills that enable students to achieve success. We also offer career counselling to registered students. The Unit also runs an internship programme – accredited by the Health Professions Council of South Africa – for students with a Master's in Educational Psychology. My role is strategically positioning the services within the University community to ensure optimal access to all students who need support.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
I think it is a real privilege to be, as a psychologist, a witness to other people's life stories. In my position, I witness many stories – those of very successful students and those who are struggling. I also have the privilege of seeing young professionals entering the world of work as intern psychologists or new full-time staff members who develop and grow in their new roles where they support the student community. I enjoy the dynamic nature of the work that we do, working with promising potential and creating an environment where people can be allowed to flourish.
What do you think are key leadership qualities to fulfil this specific role?
You must be comfortable with not having all the answers. Every day brings new questions, and it is okay not to be the one that must answer those questions. It is more valuable to, as a leader, be able to demonstrate to other people that you are not perfect and that you do not know – rather accompany others in the process of seeking help and answers. The other qualities that I am consciously developing are tenacity and agility. I have quickly realised that although one can plan to the best of your ability, every day brings new challenges, and one needs to adapt to them graciously.
Leadership roles are demanding. What keeps you motivated?
I agree that it is demanding but can also be very fulfilling. Few things give me as much pleasure and energy as celebrating success and happiness with my colleagues at the UACD. Creating opportunities for staff to grow and develop their interests is important. Sometimes we struggle together, we share frustrations, but many times we laugh together too. If your staff is content, it is not difficult to function as a team. Then the environment is fertile for new ideas, creativity, and positive energy. This environment provides sustainable momentum to a team, even through difficult times.
What would your message be for the next generation of aspiring female leaders?
Have a clear idea of who you are and what you value, but also be open to different opinions and ideas. It is important for me to be content with my strengths and challenges. I believe respect forms the backbone of successful leadership. People are unique and have different circumstances; therefore, one must also lead according to the principle of different strokes for other folks. It is further important to actively seek opportunities to learn and develop yourself as a leader. Leadership is a dynamic process, and we do not reach destinations. We are constantly on a journey, and we trust the teams we lead to make it worthwhile and interesting. Sometimes, some of the team members overtake us on the journey, and sometimes they leave to join other journeys, and that is also okay - as long as we enjoy the journey for what it is worth.
Photographer: Stefan Els