Our national leadership is characterised by its fear of making decisions. The reason things don’t get done and the entire delivery structure is in limbo is because there is a pathological unwillingness to make decisions. Being accountable scares many of those who could make a significant difference to our leadership.
Living in a time of rapidly changing circumstances, the opportunities for confusion are endless. In spite of all our great information technology, getting hold of the proper facts is, for some reason, not a widely held skill. Inappropriate delegation of responsibility and finding others to blame for what has not worked are now becoming endemic habits.
Marshalling the facts of a case and focussing on the objective that has to be achieved are critical skills for leaders.
We know that in any set of circumstances, whether it is business, or local government, or national government, or anywhere else, a leader’s first job is to create a vision. We also know that the strategy must be defined and there must be agreement about what it is that has to be achieved. The next step must be to make a plan, and to work out how this is to be done. The strategy must then be implemented. At each stage a decision has to be made in order to move on to the next stage. If for whatever reason this does not happen and the decision is not made, the system fails.
Failure of the system is what we are seeing now all over the place. Planning Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel has led the charge of setting up the National Development Plan. So at this point, in theory, we have the strategy. But it is not happening. There has been talk that Manuel and his plan are being sidelined. Is it because the commitment to action it demands is just too onerous and scary? Fear of making the decisions to implement has resulted in the government wanting to establish a “Presidential Task Team” to address the very economic problems that the National Development Plan has already addressed! It will be a task team to lead the task team.
This is a process we are getting to know quite well. When things don’t happen because no decision can be made to press the starter button, establish a Task Team to find out why not.
The disgraceful situation in the Ministry of Defence beggars belief. The Minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, admits that 109 Agusta helicopters and 26 Gripen jet fighters, bought in 1999 as part of the notorious arms deal, are at this time out of use and are gradually falling into disrepair. This is happening because the government is unable to decide about a future strategy for the defence force. Could it be indecisiveness, pure and simple, that puts the country’s defence at risk and not even to mention the criminal waste of money?
God bless Gill Marcus, Governor of the Reserve Bank, who put her finger right on the button when she implored government recently, in her own words, to show “decisive leadership” to tackle the challenges of South Africa, which have now, according to her, reached “crisis proportions”.
One of the biographers of Winston Churchill, still one of the most admired leaders of history, has said that his defining leadership quality was his decisiveness. His wife Clementine, it was said, claimed that Winston was hopelessly indecisive sometimes about the most trivial decisions. But when the big and important wartime commitments had to be made, he was “ruthlessly decisive”.
Teddy Roosevelt, ex-president of America, said “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst you can do is nothing.”
Why has this critical element of leadership somehow eluded so many of those currently in charge? Where does so much national befuddlement come from? Is it that there is not enough information to make the decision? Or is it fear of facing the consequences of making a mistake? Or is it just laziness and hoping that the question will go away and resolve itself?
How do we account for the president’s inability, dragging on since last year, to make an appointment of the head of the National Prosecuting Authority, when he knows very well that he will have to face up to it some time? He may of course be avoiding the decision for fear of being prosecuted himself, but with the sure knowledge that he will be held to account on this, why has he procrastinated so long? And now the pathetic “promise” to the Constitutional Court to do it by the “end of next month” anything to stave off making a decision.
People in the construction industry who heard with relief after the 2010 sink-hole that the government had earmarked more than R800 billion for the up-grading of our deteriorating public sector infrastructure, are still waiting. Delays in issuing the large tenders are said to be due to a shortage of project management and engineering skills. There is always a reason. Nothing is happening. Does someone need to make a decision?
Is the positive African attribute of unwillingness to offend and passion for ‘ubuntu’ in any way part of the cause? Is it that appeasement of people and a desire for everyone to agree to every decision at the heart of it? We know that individual assertiveness does not work in a society where group-think is a strong driver. Consensual decision-making always takes longer, and in a country where competing factions and in-fighting dominate it is no wonder that we fail to get moving.
Long-established bonds of loyalty and tribal affiliations take their toll when leaders have to take action. Even when a decision is finally made, there is unwillingness to work with it and it results in a dispute. The on-going election saga of the mayor of Tlokwe is a good example. The council votes, and a decision is made, but it is then disputed.
There are numbers of senior executives who have been removed from government or state-owned-enterprises who have refused to accept the decision, and have started dispute proceedings. The former CEO of SAA Vuysile Kona is only one recent example of challenging his axing by Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba.
We do not need a government task team to lead us out of this, just a decision to be more decisive. Or is that asking too much? DM
Johann Redelinghuys is a partner at Heidrick & Struggles the international leadership consulting business, which bought the firm Redelinghuys & Partners of which he was the founder. He has been deeply involved in career management and executive search all his life. He is the chairman of the South African company and now heads up its board practice working with chairmen and CEOs focussed on CEO succession, strategic leadership review and board evaluation.
The 2016 Rio Olympic medals are already showing defects including rusting and chipping.