Business Maverick


After the Bell: Ramaphosa, renewal and the vision thing

After the Bell: Ramaphosa, renewal and the vision thing
President Cyril Ramaphosa at the 55th ANC National Elective Conference at Nasrec, Johannesburg. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

There is an old joke about a journalist who asks three CEOs the same question: What is the secret of your success? Amazingly, they all answer the same way, asking, ‘How did you get into my office?’

There is a subtext to the joke which is all too real, and not funny at all, which relates to why the CEO of a company is disproportionately important. In some ways it’s obvious. As the person at the apex of the organisational pyramid, the CEO is a vital cog in the wheel.

But I’m talking about something beyond contextually important, which is the dramatic effect great CEOs tend to have on their companies. It’s not just about being at the apex; it’s more.

I think it comes down to something quite simple: There are hundreds of people in most large organisations who can and do say, “no”. There is only one person who can say “yes”, and that is the CEO. All important decisions about what to do, rather than what not to do, can only be made with the acquiescence of the chief executive. There are some things only the CEO can do.

The vision thing

Saying “yes”, if you think about it, is almost the same as what some people call — much more grandly — having “the vision thing”. A hallmark of great CEOs is that they can plot a set of actions which engender results that customers like.

How did Steve Jobs know that people would love a telephone without a physical dialling mechanism? Simple. He believed it so. He had the vision thing. He conjured, in his mind, a result that could be implemented in a cost-effective manner that customers would pay for. So, when the phone without a dial was proposed by the then senior vice president of Apple’s design team, Jonathan Ive, he said “yes” — and the rest is history.

Having a creative vision and being in a position to implement it are absolute prerequisites for a successful company. Perhaps that’s not entirely true: there are hundreds of CEOs who are pretty successful just steering an existing successful business through economic waters. In this case, the vision was created by someone else, and the successor CEOs just surf that vision. I suspect this is often why founder-CEOs are often so successful: they are implementing a vision they conceived, and they do so with great passion.

The Ramaphosa thing

This is all rather basic stuff, but I find myself wondering about it today because of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s emphatic victory at the ANC’s elective conference.  Ramaphosa achieved this victory against absolutely enormous headwinds: a floundering economy, load shedding, the PhalaPhala inquiry, and, last but not least, a vociferous, angry and retrogressive faction of the party.

Yet, Ramaphosa succeeded and did so with some flair, beating his opponent Zweli Mkhize by a margin roughly three times as large as his victory over his previous opponent, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. Loosely speaking, his slate won most of the senior positions and his authority over the organisation has been reaffirmed.

I’ve met Ramaphosa plenty of times and he is an extraordinary person. Even as someone who doesn’t always agree with his politics, I like him a lot. He has wonderful generosity, consideration and thoughtfulness, and he is enormously sensible about most things.

What’s more, and perhaps this was most on display these past few weeks, he remains a great tactician. And, despite the frustration of his supporters, he has some steel. I’m frankly delighted he has won the race, roundly dispatching the ghouls of the regressive and thieving Zuma faction.

But does he have the vision thing? This, I’m not so sure about. I’m not even sure that you need it if you are a politician, particularly in the modern ANC. What you need is what Ramaphosa has: tact, patience, resilience and a very intense, strategic nous. But vision? Who needs that?

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The people need vision

Well, as it happens, the people who need it most are us. The rest of us. The us out there. 

I once met one of SA’s greatest visionary leaders, Derek Keys, former finance minister and much more, at Exclusive Books, and I asked him about the new Zuma government. Keys, always the careful diplomat in front of the press, repeated a line by former American president LBJ that you imagine Ramaphosa using all the time: “It’s better to be inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in”.

I didn’t say it then, but I thought later that what I should have said in response was, well, that’s fine for him. But if you happen to be outside the tent, as we members of the public are, and everyone is inside the tent pissing out, then it gets pretty “fragrant” out here.

One of the problems with vision is that people confuse it with aims. SA has a mountain of economic documents that set out the government’s “vision” for the future. But what they actually do is set out the government’s aims. And aims are easy.

Personally, I aim to be a billionaire by my next birthday with a string of Michelin star chefs on speed dial and a plane to take me to Acapulco. But that’s not going to happen because it’s just an aim.

Vision is also often confused with the airy-fairy stuff you often see in corporate vision statements. Please. God help us. This is not what I mean by vision at all: vision is a set of sequential, implementable steps in a realistic scenario that will have a fairly predictable outcome that people will actually respond to, in some way.

There is at least as much “how” as there is “outcome”. This is sadly Ramaphosa’s great weakness — and that of his party, too. They have become used to playing the political game and thinking that is a kind of progress in itself. But ideological presuppositions, habits and traditions, and constituency politics are all the enemy of vision. And they are now really deeply ingrained in the party.

It’s positive that Ramaphosa has won, but we need more. A lot more. Creative more, innovative more and even revolutionary more. 

And I’m not sure he has it in his repertoire, as impressive as that repertoire may be. BM/DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    After his fairly emphatic victory, Ramaphosa now needs to be bold and put the country first! He tried the unity bullshit and they all were only too ready to stab him in the back. Get rid of the corrupt, deceitful, immoral and incompetents and thieves who permeate his government at every level such as NDZ, Sizulu etc. Those crooks in parliament heading portfolio committees such as Zwane, Bongo, Maphumapelo etc. He needs to act decisively- the question is – has he got the guts to do what it right and long overdue?

    • Steven Burnett says:

      We are doomed as long as the interests of the ANC and the interests of the country do not align.

      If the RET thieves could only split the ANC in two we could have something worth fighting for.

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    So Ramaphosa’s Vision Thing beat out Mkhize’s Detonation Boulevard, but you can be guaranteed that no matter the sweet and generous congratulations that the losers are offering right now, the clock is already ticking, the WhatsApp groups plotting, the funders being nudged and the shadowy crooks of the embedded ‘security cluster’ Zuma put in place, are sharpening their knives and redoubling their efforts to get rid of Ramaphosa. If Phala Phala doesn’t work, it will probably be when the ANC tanks below 50% in 18 months time and they lose even more opportunities to snout the trough, because, when all is said and done (and to complete the Sisters of Mercy theme):
    Some people get by with a little understanding
    Some people get by with a whole lot more
    I don’t know, why you gotta be so undemanding
    One thing I know, I want more, I want more

    And that is the ANC – they are addicted to More.

  • Nick Fredman says:

    What a pleasure “After the Bell” is. A well mixed daily tonic.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Sci-fi inspired the mobile phone, sliding doors, credit cards and much more. Vision, imagination and ideas come from, or are improved, by reading: this means politicians and everyone else. Do our politicians read? Listening to the nonsense they spout and their general lack of empathy or awareness, I think not. Libraries are disappearing, so I assume people are reading less which means less vision and less critical thinking in the future.

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