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Dr Elsbeth Dixon - Stellenbosch University

Matie Voices

Dr Elsbeth Dixon

Alumna of the Faculty of Science


“I have observed what a huge difference leaders can make in our world, at the level of nations, at the level of organisations, at the level of the family.”

Elsbeth Dixon loves her work and at the same time gets her own needs to love and be loved met. This is what she is experiencing as head of operations on the African continent of the non-profit international organisation Common Purpose.

“I have observed what a huge difference leaders can make in our world, at the level of nations, at the level of organisations, at the level of the family.” She loves to work with people and to explore their complexity. Elsbeth has compassion for who people are and where they find themselves and enjoys being part of their transformation. Her work also meets her needs to be hugely stretched and stimulated and to build relationships with people who continuously challenge and teach her.

“Common Purpose operates from the core observation that challenges in our organisations and in society mostly cross boundaries, and leaders seldom do. So we teach people to lead in all situations where change is required, irrespective of whether they hold formal positions, a mindset we call Leading Beyond Authority.”

Her role at Common Purpose includes a wide variety of activities – networking with a wide range of stakeholders to build support, selling places on programmes and designing and facilitating the leadership programmes. After 12 years in this position she still enjoys it because of the challenges and opportunities that are always growing and changing. Her latest challenge is to expand their programmes all over Africa and not only in South Africa.

As CEO, she has the responsibility to ensure that they continue to function in difficult financial times. “I cope with this by throwing every bit of energy I have at the challenge, by taking advice from sound advisors, but at the same time knowing that once I have done all I can do, I ultimately cannot determine the outcome, and therefore stressing about it is not helpful. I generally carry little ‘worry’, as this feels like a most unproductive use of my energy.”

She completed her undergraduate training at Stellenbosch University (SU), starting with a BSc (Applied Maths, Computer Science), and continuing to Honours in Operations Research. She then had the opportunity, encouraged by her former headmaster, to do her master’s degree at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom and after that also her PhD, supported by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

After completing her PhD, she came back to South Africa and worked for the CSIR in different roles for several years. “A turning point came in 1996 when I completed an in-house leadership programme which was a life-changing experience, and lead to my decision to move out of science into the field of leadership development.” She then worked for Adcorp, running the Technology Top 100 awards and also obtained a degree in Psychology and a Diploma in Coaching before she transitioned into the leadership role at Common Purpose.

Elsbeth wants to keep doing what she does – reaching out and touching people’s lives. She wants to help people to be effective agents of positive change in society – and to be happy.

- By Elbie Els -