World’s brightest minds converge for this year’s Discovery Invest Leadership Summit

By Sipho Hlongwane 21 September 2011

For the third year running, some of the sharpest business and leadership minds gather in Johannesburg. This year’s line-up includes Al Gore, Nouriel Roubini, Chris Anderson, Ricardo Semler, Dan Ariely and Taddy Blacher. Prior to the conference, a few good men had a brief back-and-forth with media in Sandton. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

If last year’s conference is anything to go by, the line-up of esteemed speakers at the Discovery Invest Leadership Summit will be a major talk-athon. The speakers last year were mostly interesting, but there was little space to engage with them on some of their ideas.

While delegates were denied that chance, the media got it on the day before the conference, where they were given an open platform to ask a few of the speakers literally anything. Each speaker is a specialist, and none a generalist, so the press conference tended to go all over the place as each person engaged with their subject area.

Nouriel Roubini, an American economist most celebrated for predicting the 2008 housing bubble burst in 2005, held forth on the euro’s financial troubles. In the wake of the news that Greece was seeking yet more debt to finance its public service bill, he said the solution for the beleaguered country was both painful and necessary. “Greece should default and exit the eurozone,” Roubini said. “It will be painful, but it can be done in an orderly fashion.”

Even if Greece managed to downsize its public service bill drastically (and somehow managed to keep the enraged citizenry from setting the country on fire), and serviced its debt, Nourini reckons it still wouldn’t be enough. He said Greece’s lack of competitiveness and economic growth meant it needed a currency depreciation – which it can’t do. Hence the need for a eurozone exit.

Wired editor Chris Anderson said, in response to iMaverick’s question about Microsoft, the company should not be underestimated. Even though it had repeatedly failed to get into the mobile and tablet markets in any big way, he thought it had a chance with the tablet-capable Windows 8, which will be released in 2012. He said the company had been sufficiently shamed and would do a better job in future.

“The expectation is they will fail with Windows 8,” Anderson said. “The company has shown a capability to deliver great software. And they are capable of delivering Apple-quality hardware. I think the Zune was a brilliant piece of design. I’m usually mocked for saying that. The Xbox is an example of Microsoft doing fantastic work.”

Behavioural economist and psychologist Daniel Ariely thought the very way banking works needs to be changed to prevent events like 2008 happening again.

“If you are paid $5 million a year to view the world in a distorted and selfish way, you will start to believe that is how it actually works,” Ariely said. “Bankers should be paid like judges. No one would want to face a judge who was paid for delivering a certain percentage of rulings in a certain way.”

Ariely and Ricardo Semler, the CEO of Semco SA, disagreed on the issue of freedom. The behavioural economist believes people are demonstrably irrational, even when they make decisions which they believe to be good, and advocates for certain forms of paternalism, especially in the area of personal finance and savings. Ariely cited the Chilean system, where citizens are forced to save a certain percentage of their earnings. Left to their own devices, people tend not to save.

Semler, who achieved fame and fortune through corporate re-engineering and industrial redesign (his company has almost no hierarchy), believes if people are adequately informed, they tend to make good decisions. The two men briefly butted heads on the issue, something that probably will not happen at the summit itself.

Other speakers at the conference include former US vice president Al Gore, Graca Machel, and Absa CEO Maria Ramos. DM

Photo: Sipho Hlongwane for iMaverick. From left to right: Discovery CEO Adrian Gore, economist Nouriel Roubini, Wired editor Chris Anderson and behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely.