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‘Relentless leadership’ was the theme for our Lean Summit Africa 2014. It was a theme that arose from conversations I’d had with Toyota personnel. They wanted me to know that the drive for improvement was relentless, and driven by their leaders. It reminded me of my earlier research in Toyota when I identified that leaders in the best-performing part of the SA factory were both more demanding and more patient than the leaders in a more disappointing area. I coined the paradoxical compound word: demanding-patience.

Let’s consider another paradox, one named by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great, the Stockdale Paradox. James Stockdale was a US Admiral captured by the Vietnamese. He spent seven years in captivity. Many of his fellow internees did not survive the experience. How did he? This is his brief advice:

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

He reported that those who insisted on maintaining optimism in the face of the abysmal circumstances, did not survive their internment. Nor did those who were preoccupied with their dystopia. (Sadly, ‘dystopian’ is now a frequently used adjective.)

Times of crisis, from the personal to the pandemic, call for leadership, to mobilise for action, to set the agenda for what needs to be done, and to raise vision above the crisis.

In recent days I have been privileged to participate in a multi-party phone call which included a very senior SA public executive.  I felt strangely encouraged by the executive’s admission of sometimes lacking confidence. In the current situation would you share with me a wariness of leaders who exude an “I’ve got it all in hand” attitude? Another experienced senior executive on the call pointed out that top executives often have to make decisions with consequences that will not be known for years. That takes courage: leaders in times of crisis have to make decisions and live with the consequences.

Who would want to be a nation’s leader now? Then again, what characteristics would you want to have exhibited by your nation’s leader now? I’d like to know from you.

What do you think of these characteristics for your leader?:

  • relentless, realistic commitment to the well-being of all people
  • the Stockdale Paradox, i.e. describing the stern reality whilst projecting hope beyond the current situation
  • the paradox of ‘vulnerable conviction’, i.e. vulnerable in not having the answers people want and yet projecting conviction that the answers will come through tapping into the best science and wisdom available
  • credibility, strength and humility

I speak for myself when I say I’m glad we have the national leader we have. As he asked, let’s show compassion. For him too.

Take care. Stay well.

Norman Faull
Chairperson, Lean Institute Africa