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After the Bell: Coach Ramaphosa goes up against flagbea...

Business Maverick


Coach Ramaphosa goes up against flagbearer Mbeki … and scores

President Cyril Ramaphosa elbow-greets former president Thabo Mbeki during the launch of the ANC's election manifesto at Church Square on 27 September 2021 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)
By Tim Cohen
28 Jul 2022 9

Everybody knows the old adage – there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t. There is another one I like – there are two kinds of people in the world: morning people and people who want to shoot morning people.

From there you can edge into the more serious. Those who make your life easier — and those who make it harder. Those whose presence helps you perform better — and those who trip you up. The desire to characterise the world as binary is tempting because it has the attractiveness of simplicity as well as the compelling lure of decisiveness and definition. But, of course, what you gain in simplicity you lose in depth and nuance, as you always do.

I’ve heard lots of “there are two kinds of people” explanations, but few really resonate. And then I heard one I really liked: I’m paraphrasing a bit, but on one of my favourite podcasts, Stern NYU professor of marketing Scott Galloway said there were two kinds of corporate leaders: flagbearers and team builders.

Flagbearers lead from the front, and define the function and aim of the business by carrying the flag. Employees “follow” flagbearers, and benefit from clear aims, goals and functions. Team builders work from the inside out, improving networks and experimenting with solutions, and employees benefit from having the freedom to build out the organisation through perfecting their own skills.

There is no “right way” here. Both styles have their benefits and shortcomings. Often, different kinds of leadership are appropriate for different kinds of businesses and different business predicaments.

Neither are these the only definitions of leadership. I’ve seen other categorisations heading in the same direction by dividing leaders into “visionary” and “coach” archetypes. As a coach, the job of the leader is to recognise and nurture the strengths of each team member. The visionary leader is all big-picture, focused on the company’s mission and gets things done through inspiration.

This came back to me listening to former president Thabo Mbeki giving current president Cyril Ramaphosa a dressing-down at the funeral of Jessie Duarte. 

In the presence of Ramaphosa, Mbeki said the government had “no plan” to tackle poverty, unemployment, criminality and inequality. He added that Ramaphosa had failed to keep a promise to address these through a social compact he pledged would be in place 100 days after his February State of the Nation Address. 

“Nothing has happened. Nothing,” said Mbeki.

It struck me how this difference between “coach” and “visionary” applies differently to both leaders – and helps to highlight their shortcomings, too. 

Mbeki led, or tried to lead, like a visionary, dreaming about the rise of the African continent and constantly formulating grand plans to address poverty and unemployment. Ramaphosa has led like a coach, trying to build a team from the inside.

The problem with the “visionary” leader is that they lose track of the day-to-day, and that was certainly Mbeki’s undoing. He was constantly accused of being “aloof” and “distant”. More critically, he wasn’t able to contain a factional takeover of the organisation when his vision failed to inspire towards the end of his term.

The weakness of the coach style is that it can lack, or be seen to lack, cohesion and direction. Ramaphosa has constantly spoken about maintaining the integrity of the ANC as an organisation. But the price he has paid is a feeling of drift and an absence of direction, to which Mbeki referred.

It’s worth noting, however, that Mbeki was factually incorrect. It’s not that nothing has been done to build a social compact – it’s that social compacts are very difficult to engineer. Behind the scenes, there has been a frantic flow of draft plans. The reason there has been no resolution is that neither business nor labour, for different reasons, have liked the plans.

It’s arguable that leaders don’t actually choose their leadership style, they just try as much as possible to play to their strengths. Mbeki’s intellectual prowess and analytical skills made it easier for him to adopt the mantle of visionary leader. Ramaphosa’s great strength is that he knows and understands first hand labour, business and government, because he has worked extensively in all three spheres.

For both, the problems that they faced emanate from their leadership styles. What happens if the vision of the visionary leader is just wrong? Mbeki tried to pretend that Aids didn’t exist because it contradicted his vision of a great nation. By putting ANC cohesion first, Ramaphosa is in effect permitting insurgence to go unchallenged.

My personal prejudice favours the coach style of leadership. I just think it allows the organisation to respond to challenges more effectively, and to develop in ways that might be unexpected. It also makes the working context more fulfilling. But obviously, visionary leaders can and do make strides, often very quickly.

In the context of SA’s myriad problems and the fraught nature of the ANC, I suspect Ramaphosa’s leadership style is more appropriate. There just isn’t anyone in the party who can convincingly balance the cleavages in SA society like Ramaphosa can. 

Mbeki can criticise, but many of Ramaphosa’s problems began during his era, and were caused by his visionary failings. On this one, I’m team Ramaphosa. BM/DM


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All Comments 9

  • Unfortunately Tim, as much as I’d like to agree with you, Ramaphosa’s leadership style isn’t that of coach. It is entirely lacking. You can’t put a label onto something that doesn’t exist. The benchmark for any leader, of any style, is a measure set against a set of criteria. In the spirit of fairness, you can decide for yourself what those criteria are, and benchmark ‘shocked’ Cyril against them for an evaluation, again which I will leave to you. My only request is that ‘mealy mouthed nothingness’ and ‘economic degradation’ be left off your list of criteria because for those Ramaphosa would score far more than the maximum of 10 points. Now. Shall we begin? First round is yours (I am the warm, caring one with a spirit of fair play after all).

  • Thank you and I agree. I think the coach style leadership will create more sustainable change through succession planning and that’s critical. I also think its time to get behind our President instead of non-stop criticism of being weak and scared. He’s been facing an almost insurmountable challenge since 2017 and despite that he’s still pushing forward, and not giving up.

  • With you Tim, but for the coach to be effective there has to be a degree of disciplined, very important, respect. Situations arise where the coach, seeing their advice and/or guidance being ignored or instructions for behaviour on the fields being disregarded, has to assert discipline and earn respect. The coach is also responsible for selecting the best players to the team and put them in the most suitable positions.

    It is on the discipline and team selection side where CR is failing completely. It is almost as if he is fearful of acting, in fear of firing someone like Lindiwe Sisilu, Lindiwe Zule, Gwede Mantashe, all of which should be fired as ministers. There are some capable people that can and would do a far better job than any of the above, but CR is not acting.

    Where Gwede has blatantly ignored guidance from CR on energy policy and strategy, CR should have fired him. BUT, because CR needs Gwede’s support in the NEC the mess is allowed to continue. And there are many more such examples…

  • You are correct – actually most of our problems today started in Mbeki’s era. The BOSASA corruption; just about all of the Eskom problems; cadre deployment; the ascending of Zuma to the ANC presidency; the corruptness of the SAPS; and we can go on. And Mbeki’s vision was wrong too; most of Africa had be then grown tired of the Pan-African dream and started to build themselves as countries by the end of the 1990’s.

  • I don’t know what Tom Cohen is trying to do here. It reminds me of Peter Bruce endorsing CR before the last elections at the start of Ramaphoria. CR has not scored. Such a CR boosting peice of analysis of leadership styles is irrelevant. What CR is doing in the ANC is irrelevant. Trying to defend CR from Mbeki’s criticism is not valuable either. It probably does more harm than good. Mbeki, may have made some mistakes 15 years ago but to blame him for the ANC mess now seems disingenuous. Only clear eyed courageous unflinching leadership can save the ANC and save us from the damage it wreaks on South Africa. CR has had moments he could have seized to decisively act but he has failed to do so every time all the time allowing his ever more desperate enemy to gather themselves.

  • Even a coach leader must aim to win. Ramaphosa has been a coach who has kept on talking about winning, but then proceeded to chose a team of losers. He has been a coach who has had terrible defenders scoring own-goal after own-goal so he has simply moved them up to attackers. His bench has always held bad players who destroyed potentially good moves, but who were kept hanging around and brought back to wreak further havoc whenever things seemed to possibly be turning in favour of South Africa. As a coach leader Ramaphosa has failed South Africa. As a visionary leader he has failed South Africa. I agree on one thing – most of Ramaphosa’s problems started during the Mbeki and Zuma presidencies. But Ramaphosa has not shown leadership of any sort in resolving them.

  • From your article I conclude that you believe Ramaphosa has been or perhaps could still be a better president for South Africa than Mbeki was. Yeah ok, I agree with you there. But you fail to ask the obvious next question. Will either man have been the best president that South Africa needed. I contend that both failed miserably.

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