Leadership beyond Nelson Mandela

In today’s Sunday Times, former President Thabo Mbeki called on South African’s to reflect on Madiba’s values. “Mandela’s memory would be best honoured if South Africans assessed whether the country was living up to the icon’s vision of a non-racial society”, he said.  

This is a noble thought and worth reflecting on. I think it is more useful though to think about what we could do personally. Real change always start at home.

We can do this by considering what Madiba would do in the situations we find ourselves in daily.

Finding our own inner Madiba would go a long way to providing us with a tangible and very symbolic moral compass. As with Mandela, leadership like this can go a long way.  

This would also be more in line with how Mandela saw himself, as described in his autobiography, “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.”

The extraordinary circumstances of today are the perception of widespread corruption in government leading all the way to the door of the president. 

With Madiba now belonging, as Barack Obama described, to the ages, is there someone living who can hold the moral authority which he has vacated?

There are plenty of people shouting from the sidelines about corruption. Most are however, safely ensconced in the ranks of the opposition parties or deep within the political setup such as COSATU. Their cries are expected and seldom with any consequence for themselves or others.

Advocate Thuli Madonsela, the public protector, has on the other hand many potential consequences in her quest for the truth. She has in recent weeks shown many characteristics of a true leader. She has been resolute, brave and principled. Unwavering despite the numerous attempts that have been made to discredit her and her organisation’s work. 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu in his obituary to Madiba had mostly glowing praise for his friend and colleague. “People cared about Nelson Mandela, loved him, because of his courage, convictions and care of others”, he said.

The only fault he could identify was Madiba’s tolerance of mediocrity which he said, “arguably laid the seeds for greater levels of mediocrity and corruptibility that were to come.”

Perhaps in Madonsela we are seeing the emergence of a new leader of significance in South Africa. Although a completely different person, she appears to be guided by her own inner Mandela.

As Mandela, she has a stubborn disregard for anything that attempts to distract her from her role of being the public protector and seeking the truth that benefits the people of South Africa. 

Is Thuli Mandonsela the new Madela





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When listening to customers doesn’t work

The customer is not always right.

If we listened to all customers and they were all correct all the time then what we had to offer would be watered down to the lowest common denominator and would be worthless.

The other aspect of customer relationships that we sometimes get wrong is working for people who haven’t yet paid.

Customers by definition only become customers once they have agreed to exchange money for what we have to offer.

Letters of intent don’t pay the rent (thanks David McWilliam 1999).

People and companies who threaten to be customers by making promises which they do not follow through on, do not deserve to be treated as customers.

The same goes for those who were once customers but stopped paying. 

These are two cases where listening to customers doesn’t work. 

Save your uniqueness for the customers who appreciate it.

If you are running around hoping that your customers one day miraculously turn into well paying and supportive advocates for your work, something which has not happened to date, then you are possibly in an abusive relationship. 


Customers by definition only become customers once they have agreed to exchange money for what we have to offer. 











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Taking the noise out of situations

Some people add to the noise and some people reduce the noise. 

I think this is one the most endearing attributes of the people we work with. In a noisy world with many dramas, near misses and stress, the people who can remove some or all of the noise are significantly valuable. 

And the question we have to ask ourselves is, are we adding or subtracting from the noise?

Taking the noise out of situations










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The limitation of experts

Whenever we spend too much time looking for an expert. When we have an expectation that someone out there knows the subject so deeply that they will be able to advise us to make the right decision. When this happens, we are in danger of making a poor decision. 

The number of experts in the world has increased in proportion with our ability to communicate easily. Some ‘experts’ even offer courses on how to be experts. Others put themselves out as guides to the world of experts, the meta experts who help you navigate the experts. All in all we are awash with experts on any topic we can imagine.

Perhaps the growth of experts is in line with the amount of information available to us. The world appears more complex with data on just about every topic imaginable starting at wikipedia and spreading through portals, blogs, Linkedin and Twitter. Decisions appear a lot harder with so many choices. It is natural to want to find guides to help us navigate.

Unfortunately the expert guides do not have a good track record of getting their decisions right. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Philip Tetlock interviewed 284 experts  who are paid for offering advice about political and economic trends. He gathered more than 80,000 predictions over 20 years. The outcome was that these paid experts performed worse when compared to assigning equal probabilities to each of their predictions. This very serious study on the success of experts in politics and economics confirms the numerous instances where monkeys throwing darts beat professional money managers (see Forbes and Toronto’s Globe and Mail for two examples).

Listening to an expert who has spent time studying a particular area is useful. Making a decision based on the decision they would make is not. At the end of the day we are left with ourselves and our decisions. The experts provide context, we have to live with our own decisions. 

All those in favour of delagting decisions shrug your shoulders











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Can we assume Blackberry will still be around?

Assumptions are filters through which we see the world. With too much information flowing past us and too many decisions to make on most days, we do a very human thing which is to assume. 

As assumption is like a mental shortcut. It allows us to move forward without doing all the detailed work. This makes a lot of sense most of the time.

Sometime however assumptions can cause real problems. Like in an environment where misunderstanding can have high costs. I remember my flying instructor explaining how we do radio calls to the control tower at Cape Town International airport.

A quick piece of context here is that we were flying in a two seater Cessna and were using the same runway as the local and international Boeing’s and Airbuses. His line which has always stuck with me is that if we assume something in this situation we are at risk or making an-ass-of-u-and-me.  

In business making assumptions is a key part of being entrepreneurial and growing a business. If we spend too much time analysing, we don’t ever get out the door. To get out the door we need to make some assumptions.

The deceptive thing about assumptions is that if we have made them once and they worked out, then we are likely to feel more confident the next time when making a similar assumption. This has been the downfall of many a business person who has been very successful in one area and tried to do exactly the same in another without checking their assumptions. Michael Jordan attempting to play baseball for the Chicago White Sox is also an example of this. 

Blackberry’s challenges over the past years is a modern day example of assumptions gone wrong. Coming from the success that RIM and now Blackberry had, dominating the business smartphone market for all those years, it must have been hard for them not to assume that they would continue to dominate.

Their assumption was that an iPhone was impossible back in 2007 when it was announced. A former employee of Blackberry revealed that the assumption internally was that what Apple were promising in the iPhone could not work. Imagine the panic when they realised that they were wrong. They have been playing catch up ever since. 

It is hard to be at the top of your game and then have someone join in who changes the rules to your disadvantage. Assuming it will never happen in a world where technology changes as fast as it does is perhaps a little naive. Andy Grove of Intel took his distrust of assumptions to an extreme level by calling his autobiography, ‘Only the paranoid survive’.

Blackberry’s current roll out of Blackberry Messenger (BBM) to iPhone and Android is looking like further poor assumptions. From the outside we can only guess at the impact giving BBM away free to their competitors will do for their floundering business.

Internally Blackberry must have made a couple of assumptions that look something like this:

  1. Keeping BBM proprietary to Blackberry will sentence it to obsolescence on a shrinking client base,
  2. Bearing (1) in mind, people other than the dwindling Blackberry population, will use BBM if it is available for free; and
  3. BBM available free on the competitor iPhone and Android platforms will be good for the Blackberry business.

Supposing I am correct about the assumptions above, then it is clear that this is a delicate situation for Blackberry. Perception has changed about Blackberry’s ability to deliver a popular smartphone. This is reflected in its market share of 4% at the end of August (against iPhone’s 40.7% and Android’s 51.6%), a fraction of the 20% they held in 2009 (source Gartner).

This makes the manner in which they have rolled out BBM disappointing. This included delivery in late October despite aiming for early September, mixed messages from their partner Samsung, no communication to people who have indicated interest and when it did arrive on my iPhone the only thing the app does is to say that I am in a queue to get it later. Really?

Perhaps there is an assumption that the whole world is anxiously awaiting BBM. This may be the case or it may be that many people like me are wanting it to stay in contact with the handful of people close to them who still insist on staying with Blackberry. I hope for Blackberry’s sake that when it does actually arrive it is a strong contender for WhatsApp and paid for text messages.

BBM assuming everyone is waiting with bated breath for BBM






















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All time is not created equal

“Time flies”, may be one of the most cliched sayings we use.

My physiotherapist on a visit this afternoon said, “I can’t believe it is already October.”

My father regularly shakes his head in dismay that another year has passed. 

I remember my childhood friend Carol asking her mother, ‘Which corner?’ after being told that Christmas was just around the corner. Everyone laughed at the naivety of a child thinking about time in a way different to months, weeks, hours and minutes. 

But is it really naive? Is time really fixed or can we think about time in ways other than what the clock tells us?

Here are some challenging thoughts about time:

  • Why do some events feel like they have flown past while others last an eternity even though they have taken similar amounts of time?
  • How come when we really decide to do something like go to gym regularly, the time opens up and we manage it even though it felt impossible before?
  • Why do tax returns take longer to fill out than visa applications for a desired holiday?
  • Why does the first day away on holiday feel so timeless and the last day before we leave feel so lacking in enough time?
  • Does time really go slower when we are anxiously awaiting something? 
  • Or more specifically, does a watched kettle really never boil? 

Author Bondil Jonsson observes how the arrival of measured, accurate timekeeping became first our tool, and then our master.

As with everything we all have a relationship with time. Some are better than others. Is time our friend or our enemy? 

Can time be used masterfully? For many business people, the constraint of time drives us to achieve more in less. Conversely creating open space, time with no expectations, allows creativity to be fuelled. 

With time maybe it is a case of friends close and enemies closer?

Time can be our friend or our enemy
















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Looking for answers is a poor substitute for good questions

For the past seven years I have  taught a course on strategic thinking to students at the University of Cape Town. I ended up doing this by accident.

Prof John Simpson, well known for starting and leading the UCT Unilever Institute of Strategic Marketing was the previous convenor of the course and asked me to help him out after a guest lecture I did on the changes we were navigating in our startup bank.

With the Prof’s wanting to focus on the Unilever Institute after his retirement, I took over the convening of the course a few years later.

I was intrigued to bring together my business experience of strategy and the academic world of strategy. I started on a steep learning curve attempting to create an environment where final year Business Science students could think more strategically about the business world that lay ahead. 

The students come predominantly from a finance background (60%) which is roughly split in half between those aiming to become CA’s and those not. The next biggest segment is marketers and then actuaries, organisational psychologists and a handful of people majoring in technology.

I quickly identified three significant challenges that I faced in teaching the class.

  1. Students adopt a strategy of getting to the other side of exams with as many marks and as little work as possible.
  2. The text books are more suited to academics than to preparing students to be strategic thinkers.
  3. The education system encourages the finding of ‘right answers’ over asking useful questions. 
The first item is a possibly a universal given for any student.
The second I addressed by replacing a single text book with selected readings from contemporary journals and books covering a wide range of topics related to thinking strategically. 
The third I decided to take on as a challenge which still engages me.
My experience of working in my own business and working with many large and small organisations over the past 25 years has confirmed that there are few easy answers in the world of strategy. Leaders who are seeking a single answer to a strategic challenge are possibly naive or missing the point.
The problem with strategy, is that we do not know how the future will play out and despite our best guesses, plans or budgets, to think otherwise is irrational. 

So rather than look for an answer to this dilemma, a good question offers many nuances that are useful to our thinking process. Open and insightful, a question which challenges our thinking can lead us on a much more useful thought process than spending our time trying to find the single correct answer.

While a question is the start of this process,  an answer often signals to us that we have reached the end and can stop looking.  This finality, while tempting, can be fatal for a business person on the way up or at the pinnacle of success.

Questions and answers are of course linked. However we need to resist jumping to answers before we have spent enough time on the question. 

Anyone who has tried to implement the suggestions in a business advice book will confirm there are no model answers in business.

We have more chance of success by getting clear on the question. By refining it and polishing it and allowing ourselves the indulgence of thinking deeply over a period of time, new possibilities can open up. 

In a world with all information available to mostly everyone all the time, the opportunity for eureka moments is long gone.

Our challenge comes in navigating information, making connections, synthesising and integrating. A good question is a great pilot for this navigation. 

And to my students frustrated by the lack of clearly defined answers in the world of strategic thinking, here are some questions.

How can you engage in the practice of strategic thinking?  

How have the answers you have arrived at been tested by insightful questions? 

And, isn’t there something else you may have missed?

Questions are more powerful than answers











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Are famous people good people?

What is it that makes a person a good person?

Are famous public people always good, unless they do something bad. 

Did Oscar Pistorius change who he was overnight?

Is Barack Obama still the same person he was when he became the first black president of the United States? Why has the perception of him changed?

If someone has a fancy title, lots of money, influential friends, fame and success, are they automatically good people?

Logic says no. But many people have taken me aside and told what a good person someone is because they ‘just look like it on TV’.

I have worked with a couple of people who are household names and I am always surprised at how well,  people who have never met them, know them.

Why is it that we want to believe someone is good because they are famous?

And how do we cope when we find out that our idol is in fact a chop?
Are famous people good people?






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Receiving feedback

Despite it seldom being very constructive we do get feedback all the time.

It may be the rejection of our proposal or the pat on the back for a job well done.

It’s worth thinking how best to receive feedback so that it is useful.

The first critical rule is to simply say thank you, whether the feedback is good or bad.

We may ask for some more clarity. If however we feel the need to explain why it is like it is, justifying the feedback that we have just received, then alarm bells should go off in our head.

This is a road to nowhere. Firstly because the person giving the feedback seldom cares and secondly because it activates our own biases to protect us from what is really going on. Thirdly, a poor reaction to feedback will guarantee we don’t get further feedback from that person. 

If the feedback elicits an emotional response (anger, fury, a warm glow), then even more reason to do nothing with it until some time has passed. Once the emotion has calmed, then a few further questions are useful:

  • How do I interpret this feedback?
  • Does it confirm any other feedback or hunches I have about how I am doing?
  • Why did this person give me this feedback now?
  • What agenda, if any, does the person giving me feedback have?
  • Are there things I should be doing differently as a result of this feedback?

Feedback is a gift. Receive it as such. 

Feedback is a gift.








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Reversing the logic

Because we get old we slow down and have to be less active.

When we get into our 70’s we aren’t able to ride skateboards because we may fall.

People in the late stages of their life cannot balance on slack lines. 


Stephen Jepson walks a slackline in his 70's






The video below proves this logic is faulty.

As obvious as it sounds, being active is the best way to stay active.

Often we decide that because of an injury or some other reason, we need to slow down and take things easier as we get older.

This is contrary to what our bodies are made to do, which is to move. And continue moving well into old age. 

If you need more examples then look here, herehere and here

So why is this discourse of getting old and slowing down so common? The reason is that it is pervasive and to push against it is hard. It’s easier just to agree. 

The same is true for business. There are many experts with advice on what we should or could do. However, when the music stops, it is up us to decide how we stay in the game. The critics can watch on the side and say, ‘I told you so


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