Business Maverick


Coach Ramaphosa goes up against flagbearer Mbeki … and scores

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)

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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  • William Kelly says:

    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).

    • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

      I agree hundred percent because that fellow has not coached anyone. He is very much lacking as a leader, His is nothing more than a follower. In 1984, I was in Harare and one of the South African ideologues Edwin Makoti asked me one of the fundamental questions on what constitutes a leadership one tried the long know Sobukwe view of servant leadership, I went to Karl Marx and Harold Wolpe as well as Mao. I then went to Adrian Leftwich. It was when one was doing Executive Development at the Graduate School of Business that one had to do a full course on leadership. Edwin Makoti was no more for me to respond to his fundamental question that leadership is not a position but the situation, the followers of which Ramaphosa is a follower, the personal attributes of the leadership, the influence the ability to solve problems, communication skills of the vision. The business management 101 view of leadership by Tim Cohen is very shallow. He needs to study Jack Welch, Neil Froneman and Rex Tillerson who was the CEO of Exxon Mobil who said that if everything in a leader is a priority then there are no priorities. These business leaders have been successful not because of indecision which is the characteristic of Ramaphosa but because they can make the hard decisions. Cyril does not even understand the theory of a burning platform.

  • Theresa De Wet says:

    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.

    • Paddy Ross says:

      He is a coach of a team where the players won’t follow the game plan and are not interested in the team results. They just want the first team privileges without the skill or effort normally required to get into the first team.

  • André Maree says:

    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…

    • Roelf Pretorius says:

      We have to keep in mind that, visionary or coach, they still function within the context of a political party on which they depend to be able to execute whichever of the two they apply. And Ramaphosa inherited the Zuma legacy of division which has been continuously exacerbated by Zuma and his clan until now – and in spite of that, Ramaphosa has actually achieved a lot. Among those achievements are the fact that he has finally succeeded in marginalizing the whole RET/Zuma lot. Until now he has had to live with the vrot appels in his cabinet; let us see what he does with his cabinet now that he has the party solidly behind him. As for Mantashe, I get the feeling that he is not understood very well. Not only does he also function within the party context, but most of the things he said up till now seem to be aimed at a certain audience. I think he is trying to bring that coal lobby with the executive; in order to be able to do it he has to show they can trust him. We must keep in mind that coal IS going to be part of our energy supply for the short and medium term (at least 12 years) because we need “baseline” energy which Medupi and Kusile can provide once their problems have been sorted out. In the end they will also go, but only after a long time. We also need time to repurpose the coal workers for clean energy work, and for that we need much more renewable energy first. Until then coal will be part of it. And the whole world accepts that the transition will take decades.

    • Roelf Pretorius says:

      . . . We have to keep our feet on the ground and remember that all these politicians have to deal with the political realities too. They can’t just do what they want.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Another good one is

    There are 10 types of people: Those who get binary, and those who don’t.

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    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.

  • Benjamin Cockram says:

    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.

    • Dave Woollam says:

      There are two kinds of people in the world. Those that
      1) listen to opinions, accept them as just opinions and respond with objectivity and respect by playing the ball, and,
      2) those who feel compelled to attack any opinion they dont agree with and play the man

      An old saying comes to mind – blowing out someone’s candle does not make your’s shine brighter.

  • Geoff Krige says:

    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.

    • Roelf Pretorius says:

      I can’t differ more from you. Ramaphosa did not have a choice – if he functioned in any other way, the RET faction would have won in December. You say that a leader must aim to win; well first of all Ramaphosa has won in December, and that was the first step he had to complete, because all politics work on a very long term basis. But secondly the purpose of leadership is not to win; you are wrong. It is to take people with the leader on the “journey”, and in this context it is the people of SA that has to come with and until now it means that the ANC has to come with, because they have been the ruling party. He had to bring them with. His true test actually comes now; is he going to be able to move more decisively now?

  • Lesley Young says:

    In a nutshell, as a revolutionary organisation it won. Now it has to learn how to run a country.

  • Alan Watkins says:

    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.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    There is always the third way, thankfully, where you don’t have to fall into the binary trap. Neither of these leaders and their styles impress. If Ramaphosa’s leadership style includes indecisiveness, dithering and a fear of confrontation with the public he is supposed to lead, then he wins hands down as the loser. Mbeki is an irrelevant ex, and despite my appreciation for his critique of Ramaphosa’s administration, he too is a loser. Seems to me there are no winners in this game.

  • Elsabe Ketteringham says:

    As a teacher, I experienced that at most of the schools where I taught either the principal was the flag bearer and the deputy the coach, or vice versa. As long as these two could work together, the school would thrive.

  • Margaret Harris says:

    A coach needs to inspire his team to win. He has to encourage those who lack self belief and discipline those who have forgotten the importance of team cohesion. If he finds team members selling off the kit and helping themselves to the takings he has to sack them and, if the theft is serious enough, see them in court, no matter how much some members of the public may admire them. Above all he has to keep in mind the purpose of having a team in the first place. Is this what we are seeing in Mr. Ramaphosa?

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    When a person authors this type of comparative analysis about people he has very little knowledge of it is very dangerous and misleading. One did not want to entertain what is clearly nonsensical. To compare Cyril and Mbeki you need to be very dumb. Mbeki did not suffer from indecision as Cyril has a serious diseases called indecision and his cheer leaders call this incompetence a long game. Mbeki was not an economic illiterate, he knew the issues that were actually confronting the country in terms of fiscal and monetary policy and it is at night to Cyril Ramaphosa and he is very much clueless about the economy. Cyril has no grasp that what are the prerequisites for investments in the economy including energy and infrastructure. He thinks making speeches and producing documents resolves the issues. CSIR has come out as a government agency to say that under Cyril there is no plan to deal with Eskom. The issue of Transnet critical to transport of goods for export and imports is well known. He has allowed Pravin Gordhan to destroy SAA. The author has no grasp of what coaching entails in leadership studies and Cyril has none of the traits of coaching. Mbeki was and is a stickler with time and everything with him must be on the dot. Cyril does not know what punctuality means. Not keeping time to Mbeki was a sign of disrespect by a leader to those who he serves and expect timely service. Cyril does not care with his clowns about time.

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