Defend Truth


Being a CEO – and playing the leadership game – is tough

Johann Redelinghuys is previously founder and chairman of Heidrick & Struggles South Africa, now The Director of the Chairman's Institute and of Portfolio&Co

If business and government leaders could be appointed for the right reasons, like the top performers in the Olympics, our country would become a shining star. 

Imagine we had an Olympics of Leadership, with different events for Leadership in Education, Leadership in national Health, Youth leadership, Leadership in Business and so on; Leadership in every sphere of life. Would there be any hope of South Africa qualifying for such an Olympics? Is it conceivable that there could be a medal or two? 

Look at what a couple of gold medals have done for the mood of the country. Imagine we could have star leadership athletes whose performance could give us goose bumps and how we would choke up when the national anthem was played.

The thing about the Olympics, and the reason we are so mesmerized by it all, is that what we are seeing is excellent, outstanding performance. The best in the world. The professionalism, the devotion, the pride in performance overwhelms us. The only thing that matters is skill and the ability to win against the best in the world. Athletes are selected to participate not because they are adequate, not because they belong to some or other ethnic group, are the relative of a judge or can pay their way into the top echelon. They are there because they can perform and everyone can see how they do it. The single criterion is ability.

When selecting leaders, the game changes. Whether it’s in the private sector where CEOs run businesses, in government where ministers and other top comrades are effectively CEOs or in any of the organizations in between, pursuing pure excellence is often only a dream. In business, where the Talent Wars are still very much alive, leaders are increasingly being appointed because they are only the best available and not because they are an outstanding candidate. Desperate searches for top chief executives too frequently result in the appointment of a no-more-than-adequate internal candidate. Excellence is beyond reach. In government, goodness knows what the criteria are. But we see extensive tribal loyalties, and party political influencing, let alone friends or relatives of the Top Dog. 

The integrity and inspiration of the Olympics create great goodwill for the athletes, for their families in the stands, for the coaches, and everyone else concerned. How much goodwill do we feel for the leaders of the country? If it’s not much, then why is it so? Is it because we fail to see integrity and the honest pursuit of inspiring performance?

What used to be a long-distance game with senior executives and leaders staying the course of a career, more or less for life, has now become a sprinting event. A board of directors will select a chief executive and before the ink is dry on the agreement the media is out to comment on any perceived chink in the armour or supposed poor performance. The profit and bottom-line driven shareholders are relentless. 

All over the world, this year, leaders have been dumped for their poor and sometimes corrupt performance. From politicians like Sarkozy and Berlusconi, to bankers and corporate high flyers like Bob Diamond of Barclays and Michael Woodford at Olympus There are quite a number more.

So how did these people get into the jobs in the first place? Was it manipulation of the masses or just old fashioned bribery and corruption? Or is the job of a CEO just so tough that it beggars survival at all?  Or has the world been using the wrong criteria, and failing to pursue the Olympian ideal of practiced excellence?

On the home front, just last month announcements were made about the departure of two listed company CEOs, Neville Nicolau from Anglo Platinum and Pieter Uys from Vodacom, both after relatively short careers in their jobs. The vultures are out for Cynthia Carol at Anglo American. Were these people appointed for the wrong reasons? 

Don’t even talk about government and the comic-opera of ministers like Angie Motshekga and a raft of others. Already there is much speculation about the potential leadership outcome of Mangaung. What will be the criteria for the final selection? Wouldn’t it be inspiring to believe that it might be real leadership ability, with an outstanding track-record? Why are we cynically shaking our heads in the belief that the whole thing will be dense with intrigues and power plays based on all the wrong reasons? 

If we all played the game like in the Olympics only selecting people for outstanding ability would we not be better off? Should Olympian level leadership not be about strength of intellect, appropriate experience, impeccable integrity and strong ability to work with and inspire people? Would we not do a better job of leadership if we got over ourselves with the endlessly swirling issues of demographic representation, party loyalty and tribal nepotism?

The nomination committees of listed company boards are torn in opposite directions. They have to appoint a new CEO or other senior executive and want the best for their business, but… “Please, it has to be a black person”. Head hunters are now regularly being asked to “find me a black woman to be the Chairman of the Audit Committee” Not, “Find me the best Chairman of an Audit Committee; someone who will bring skill and excellence to the job.”

Yes, of course I understand the imperative for transformation and I know that we damn well have to get these playing fields level, but something is being lost in the process. The Olympian ideal eludes us. Nobody says the team of athletes representing South Africa has to be selected to represent the demographics of the country. It is just about talent and ability. We want the best people to go in and bat for us. Lawrence Ndlovu was not there because of some concession to his race. He deserved to be in the lightweight crew because he is an excellent oarsman. Nothing else.

The sooner we start using the appropriate criteria for selecting leadership performance the better off our business institutions and government will be. DM


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