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Trevor Noah – what his success reveals about good leadership

By Tanya Charles

Unless you were on another planet, you will have by now heard that Trevor Noah is going to replace John Stewart as host of The Daily Show later this year. No doubt, this is ground-breaking for many, many reasons, but for me, a bit peculiarly, this announcement has got me thinking about the notion of good leadership.

Like thousands of South Africans, on March 30, I joined the chorus of celebrations as we invited ourselves to bask in Noah’s glory. As many have remarked, Noah’s success in the US is important because it provides another opportunity to reveal that Africa is not a dark continent ravaged by Ebola but one that is home to game-changers who shape the world as much as they are shaped by it (yes, we still need to remind the global North of this). Since Noah stepped onto the comedy scene, his business acumen and brand of comedy has changed the business and content of comedy in the country, and in Africa. Of course he has done so along with compatriots like Loyiso Gola, who has received two Emmy Award nominations for his satirical news show Late Nite News with Loyiso Gola. In other African countries, comedians like Uganda’s Anne Kansiime, have been breaking ground in this male-dominated industry, performing to packed audiences from Lagos to London since 2011. But few would disagree that Noah is at the forefront of a movement of African comedians that are taking over the world stage. On this front, he has emerged a leader.

When we talk about leadership in South Africa, we think about our political leadership and then we breathe a collective sigh. What we read of them in the newspapers is not inspirational. Those mentioned are described as thieves, sexual predators, corrupt and morally bankrupt or all of the above. Sometimes, it’s a struggle to think of good leaders and so we often have to recall those long gone, like Nelson Mandela or Robert Sobukwe or Chris Hani. When describing the characteristics of these great leaders, we hear that they were hardworking or determined or passionate. But the narrative is also about how they made others around them feel inspired, energised, challenged. Leaders whose legacies have stood the test of time are not remembered because they occupied high positions but because they made others feel like they could do more too.

Now, I am not at all comparing Noah to these great political leaders but musing over the qualities of leadership that we tend to underplay. Over the last few days, I have spent some time looking over comments about Noah’s new job and noted that most were not only congratulatory in tone, but reflected a nation inspired, because as one tweeter @chanel_kt put it, “Guys, Anything is possible #TrevorNoah”. Noah’s success does not only resonate because of the oft repeated rags to riches narrative about his life, or the sense of social cohesion his brand of comedy promotes, but because he has become a leader who inspires others to dream big and makes us feel like achieving those dreams is possible.

Noah’s success is not that he made Americans listen to and like him, but that he has inspired us Africans to recognise that we can dream big dreams. We sometimes need reminding of this and our leaders are not doing a great job in this regard. There are many people who hold high positions in society but when you look at the impact their lives have on those around them, there is little to be admired. We fixate on their accolades, degrees, titles and achievements, and seldom examine what they mean to others or how others feel about them. The late Maya Angelou famously remarked, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.

I know that Noah has a lot of haters out there, that his rise on the global comedy stage has invited more scrutiny and criticism and judgment since the announcement was made. He is not a saint and he may not even be the best person for the job (it certainly would have been more ground-breaking for me if a female comedian had landed the gig). But I know that Noah has come to represent a new national symbol of hope and I know that many people are going to up their game in whatever fields they occupy because we now have a contemporary example that anything is indeed possible.

Tanya Charles is a feminist who works on issues of gender equality and loves to write about pop culture and what it reveals about our humanity.