A Lesson Worth Noting from the Lonmin Mining Debacle

There are many leadership lessons that can be taken from the ongoing Lonmin Mine issue, but we would like to focus on just one today.

Let us compare Lonmin Mine, or any other organization – perhaps including your own – to a car.

Which part of the car is the most important?  Which part of that vehicle makes it function?  What parts can one do without?   And what parts are invaluable to its functioning correctly?

Now let us compare some of the different parts of the vehicle to the different leadership and functional elements of an organization. 

Can a car function without a steering wheel and its accompanying system?  The answer is an obvious one – it cannot.  We can compare this steering to the leadership team of the organization.  They are there to point the vehicle in the right direction and ensure that it stays on that path.

What about an engine?  Again, a car cannot function without an engine.  The engine can be compared to an organization’s management.  There are a lot of ins and outs, many details that need tuning and constant monitoring.  The engine provides forward movement and in most cases, determines the speed at which a direction and goal are attained.

But can an engine work without petrol?  Of course not.  So to what can we compare the fuel for the engine?  We believe the fuel to be the solid communication of a vision and mission that creates sufficient motivation to make things happen. 

Perhaps the very important presence of oil could be the internal culture of the organization.  If the leadership and management in your organization are unable to supply what is required, the engine seizes or in other words, stops functioning.  This oil could be compared to the manner in which they deal with their people or whether or not they care for those under their stewardship. 

The body of the car could be comparable to the structures that are used to keep all the functioning elements together.  Many of us would think of an office as taking this role, or a very well set up system that allows people to coordinate their work from remote locations. 

So why are we comparing the organization to a vehicle?  What is the principle we want to focus on today? 

There is one thing we have not mentioned regarding our organizational car that determines whether these other elements are able to function at all.  We are referring to wheels.  Who or what in an organization represents the wheels of that vehicle? The wheels – the very things that allow the car or the organization to have any substance and meaning – are the people who often are referred to as those at the base of the pyramid.  These are drivers and delivery persons, receptionists and store men, tellers and personal assistants, clerks, brick layers, street sweepers, sales persons and more.  And if you don’t agree that they are the wheels, imagine in your mind your organization without these people.  What would get done?  Nothing.

Referring back to Lonmin Mine – at the very bottom of the ladder we find the labourer.  These are those who are currently striking.  And what is happening at the mine?  Millions of rands are being lost!  This clearly indicates that all other functional areas really are dependent on these ‘wheels’.

Continuing our comparison:  If you perhaps envisioned your company as a sleek, red sports car, how might you treat that car?  You would most certainly make sure that it looked good, that the paintwork shone and the body was free of rust and dents.  You’d probably pay very special attention to the engine, always trying to get the best out of it.  Fuel – only the best that money can buy would do.  You would probably be constantly monitoring the level of oil and other essential lubricants and liquids.  And what sports car would be complete or able to perform without a good looking set of rims and tyres that were designed and maintained for high performance driving conditions?

Do we treat our organizations the same way we might if it were this car?  If we are unable to answer in the affirmative then we may be headed for trouble. 

Perhaps many of the issues that are facing Lonmin Mine and numerous other organizations today stem from a poor attitude towards maintenance and care.

Harvard Business School have a small survey on the homepage of their Leadership website that measures you as a leader, gauging your ability to develop and manage teams.  The very first question upon which you must rate yourself is:  “I hire and retain talented people”.  Harvard Business School, considered world wide as one of the leading tertiary business education providers, considers your ability to value and retain your people as key to your performance as a leader.

Please test yourself right now.  To what extent do you really value those in your organization?  Do you understand their true value to your vehicle actually functioning?  Are you giving them enough reason to stay and assist your organization to move forward – some think salaries alone do this, others remunerate well and offer a range of benefits, but is this enough?  The real question is do your people know how much you value them?

A very wise mentor shared something invaluable with me one day.  I was exploring how I might take entrepreneurial advantage of some opportunities I had uncovered.  In chatting to him I mentioned how I was trying to cut costs and maximise profits.  One approach I was considering was keeping my people costs to a minimum.  He suggested that this approach was incorrect and would be detrimental to the long term growth and profitability of the venture:  “What would you rather have Gareth – R50 000 all for yourself or 10% of a million rand?”  That was an easy answer, I wanted the 10%.  “But what happens to the R900 000?”  He answered that I should give it to the people that made R1 000 000 happen.  By using this approach, not only would I have doubled my own profits, but I would be ensuring the continuity of my venture, run by a team that had produced a massive 2000% increase in realizable profits compared to my own R50 000 output.  Wisdom and brilliance! 

10/90 may seem extreme, maybe it is, but in the wake of Lonmin and other debacles that come to light so often, what would have happened if this 10/90 distribution had taken place? What if a 50/50 distribution had taken place? 

Fact of the matter is that it hasn’t.  And the wheels have come off.  The Lonmin car, no matter how sleek and shiny, is going nowhere.  And perhaps it came down to a lack of a longer term, wider vision by key decision makers and leaders regarding how they look after their people.

A warning:  As leaders we often have the misconception that we are the wheels and the various other parts of the organization that make it move, but let us not fool ourselves – we may drive things, push things, sell things, even be there on the front line, but there are other high value, functional elements (people) that need our attention, our gratitude and real expressions of it.

So how is your vehicle really functioning?  Do you know the true level of your oil?  And how much do you value your wheels? 

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Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on adriaan@leadershipplatform.com for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




Founder of Future CEOs™ and co-host of the Future CEOs™ show on CliffCentral.com, Gareth seeks to empower high potential young executives and ambitious entrepreneurs as they push for CEO status.

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022
Email: info@leadershipplatform.com

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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