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Leadership and Culture

Published on: 01 September 2015

“He makes me want to be a better man!” - Barack Obama on Madiba’s legacy.

Leadership and Culture

A leader is someone who has the ability to move a group of people (team) towards a desired destination. This implies that the leader formulates and clearly communicates the vision of the organisation and inspires the team to work towards achieving it. The crucial question is how to achieve this?

My favourite quote in this regard is the one of John Buchan that says “The task of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it, for the greatness is already there.” In my experience, the most effective way to elicit the greatness of people is to create and maintain a strong culture that enables and encourages the members of the team to express their greatness (talents and capabilities) in the best interests of the organisation. Culture is an invisible force that drives behaviour. The right culture plays a powerful role in the organisation moving closer to its vision. 

For culture to flourish, it has to be driven from the top. The leader must not only spread the message (talk the talk) but also walk the walk. Integrity and consistency are non-negotiables.

An excellent example of effective leadership is how Johan van Zyl changed Sanlam from an old economy to a new economy business – from a parent-child culture to an adult-to-adult culture. The spectacular performance of Sanlam during Johan’s tenure is testimony to the value that culture can unlock.

The South African business landscape has many strong leaders who lead their organisations exceptionally well. I am fortunate to work with great leaders such as Johan van Zyl and Ian Kirk. I am also inspired by Koos Bekker for the way he turned Naspers from an old school print publisher into the eighth largest media company in the world through his focus on innovation. I also admire Jannie Mouton for growing PSG into a R422bn business in only 20 years. One of his many successes, Curro, is an example of how a negative (the educational crisis) can be turned into a positive by spotting the opportunity to establish affordable private schools.

Like most South Africans I am also in awe of Nelson Mandela’s leadership style.  He managed to create a culture of optimism and nationhood through his message of reconciliation and his unflinching personal integrity. The way he saved the country from a blood bath after the Boipatong fiasco, by going live on television before he became President and asking the nation in an authoritative manner to stay calm, made a lasting impression on me.

Barack Obama captured the impact of Mandela’s legacy brilliantly in his speech at the latter’s funeral, when he said: “He makes me want to be a better man!” The country could do with some of the optimism of the Mandela era.

There is unfortunately not a lot of depth and substance among the current crop of political leaders. Mandela’s rainbow nation has been replaced by a culture where self-interest, nepotism and corruption have become the norm. It is indeed tragic to witness how our country has degenerated from being the leadership pace setters of the world in Madiba’s era to being mere also-rans today.  The harsh reality is that “a fish rots from its head”.

I am inherently an optimist.  I believe things can be turned around, but it will take authentic, inspirational leadership – something which few of the current crop possess. It will also take time to dismantle the current dysfunctional culture in our beloved country and replace it with an effective one.

My biggest leadership blunders have occurred every time I tried to force behaviour instead of trusting the organisation’s culture to drive the desired behavior. The biggest mistake a leader can make is to become too prominent. The organisation should be built around the vision and the culture, not the personality and charisma of the leader. 

The true test of a leader can be summarized in the words of management guru Tom Peters: “Leaders don’t create followers….they create more leaders”.