One of the things I shared with Flemming Berg (Sundown’s Sporting Director) was the analogy of David & Goliath. When I was at Orlando Pirates, I was in a similar position when Micho (Milutin Sredojevic) moved to Zamalek on the back of a 3-1 loss to Supersport United; he is someone who also wished me well on the position whom I still maintain a good relationship with.
I told Flemming that I was reminded of that situation because of the battles and lessons I encountered at that point. David fought Goliath, but only a few people know that he had fought a bear prior to that battle. Him fighting the bear was preparation for his bigger encounter with Goliath.MS: You talk about the analogy of David and Goliath from the Bible and preparing for battle. Who are some of the mentors that you talk to that assist in preparing yourself to tackle challenges? RM: I have been fortunate enough to be in a situation where I have two of South Africa’s most prominent football leaders, Coach Manqoba (Mngqithi) and Coach Steve (Komphela), provide mentorship and support that goes beyond the football pitch. Additionally, I also look up to Dr. Irvan Khoza me and the greatest lesson he taught me is that “You cannot dry tomorrow’s washing with yesterday’s sun.” This means that you must keep going no matter what.
Additionally, I need to give also give credit to the coaches. As difficult as it was for me, I can only imagine how difficult it was for them and the rest of the technical staff. Changes come with a lot of uncertainty. At that point, the boys needed calmness, clarity, and good leadership, which both Coach Manqoba and Coach Steve were exceptional in providing for the team. We had to put aside how we felt and trust that the decisions made were in the club's best interests. The coaches provided a sense of calmness and reassurance, showing that their leadership goes beyond their own interests. I cannot let a moment pass without expressing sincere gratitude for the support they provided to me and the players.
I am also grateful that we have an honest group of players. We are privileged to have players who maintain professionalism and portray an unwavering commitment to the team. They also perform their duties with the utmost diligence.
After downloading videos of the last five games that we played, we were stuck trying to find a solution for achieving better results. While analysing the games, I made notes about the individual players and spent most of the matchday against Maritzburg United having one-on-one discussions with each player. I intended to ensure that there was clarity and calmness among the players.
The biggest challenge for youthful leaders is that there aren’t many of them. There aren’t many opportunities for young people to take up positions of leadership. Therefore, the references to mistakes made by youthful leaders in history are very minimal. The same is true for other sectors such as politics and business. Trying to find mistakes that young leaders have made in ascending to positions of leadership successfully in those sectors is not predominant. Because of that, stepping into a leadership position as a young person is like walking into a dark forest. Therefore, when I look at myself as a leader, I have a clear understanding that I have three handicaps. These are the stereotype about me being too young to be a leader, being black, as well as the fact that I didn’t play professional football.
Those three facts put me in a disadvantageous position. However, being at a disadvantage rejuvenates my work ethic and spirit in moments when I don't have the energy to analyse games. I always remind myself that I need to work thrice as hard and be more committed because of my three handicaps.
I have a full understanding of where I am. I believe that the core elements of leadership are competence and experience. When I look back at my journey as an assistant coach for nearly 15 years, I have been on the path of self-discovery and accumulation of experience. Many coaches ran this race before but never got opportunities. I believe that experience is not about the number of years but rather the quality of the lessons learned. For the past few years, I have been building competence to be good at match analysis and conducting training sessions.MS: Based on your experience, which qualities do you think every young leader should possess? RM: One of the most important characteristics I have had to develop is emotional intelligence. Having emotional intelligence has allowed me to see beyond myself which is very important in football. Self-absorption is detrimental because it makes one prone to personalising everything and everything feels like an attack. Once you can focus on things outside of yourself, you can understand that everything is working for your own good. People often talk about how I failed at Orlando Pirates without understanding the context.
Three years later, I am in a similar position of having to assume leadership in a that is in a very difficult position. Being in this position has helped me because I have been here before. I am like David because I have already fought the bear.
If I was still self-absorbed, I wouldn’t be able to realise that, now is the opportunity to use my experiences, strength, and knowledge that God has given. My personal experiences of pain and suffering have prepared me to face challenges today. However, I wouldn’t be able to face these challenges without help from everyone, especially the players. This is one of the greatest lessons I had to learn while preparing for my position as head coach of Mamelodi Sundowns.MS: You mentioned some of your past experiences as a football coach. If you have to give Rulani Mokwena advice 10 years ago, what would it be? RM: That’s a difficult one but I would say “listen and observe more, speak less.” . You can’t be observant if you are not prepared to listen and watch. The more you talk, the less you listen.” I would tell younger Rulani Mokwena that he doesn’t have to be the loudest in the room. You can be in a meeting and not say a word, that’s what the greatest leaders do.
I remember Nelson Mandela telling a story about how he developed his leadership qualities. He explained he was the son of a tribal chief, and one of the things his father was good at is speaking last if there was a need to speak because it allowed him to understand the people he was leading. Nelson Mandela will always be the epitome of what excellent leadership is about.MS: If you could meet Coach Rulani Mokwena 10 years from now, what would you ask him? RM: Interesting question. The number one concern I have is that I don’t take care of myself enough, from a health perspective. Maybe in 10 years, I would ask myself, did you take care of yourself? It doesn’t matter how much quality work you can produce if you are not able to look after yourself. There was a book I read two years ago about the three former presidents of the US, the Roosevelt brothers and Lincoln. I’m not sure if it was Lincoln but his father said to him “you can’t lead if you are frail” when he was growing up as a boy. Additionally, his father told him to make himself harder to kill financially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually if he wants to become a great leader.
Harder to kill spiritually by plugging yourself in, whatever religion you follow or spiritual space you feel comfortable in. Harder to kill financially, so it’s difficult to bribe you or buy your favour as a leader. Harder to kill emotionally so that you don't become biased. Harder to kill mentally by being clear and having a clear vision and putting energy and passion into it. Harder to kill physically by investing in your health and well-being because is what will make you a better leader.With the senior team now on a break during the FIFA World Cup, Coach Rulani will be watching attentively the 2022 spectacle in Qatar and wishes the Masandawana family a safe festive season and prosperous New Year. He is looking forward to the league resuming on the 31st of December and in the New Year.