Brian Dames – CEO of Eskom, Part 1

The family moved to Cape Town where his one brother and sister were already studying and Dames needed to start his first year at varsity, to major in physics and computer science. The move was not ideal for his mother. She fell ill and they buried her the day after Dames and his brother graduated. She was adamant to work until they completed their education.

One of the siblings in their family had consistent health problems, which was a central feature in the family affairs. Mom and Dad often had to focus on caring for this child, leaving the others to function independently. Their values were clear and they could therefore look after themselves within these parameters. Dames can cook for himself, clean the house (“if he has to” he says), he can iron his clothes, and much more.

It seems these and other personal experiences grounded Dames. Not only does he have a very close relationship with his family, but he developed a clear sense and appreciation for life and knows what his own values are – to live for people around him and not for himself; making his own decisions within certain boundaries; a sense of responsibility; caring for the less fortunate; working hard; staying real; interacting with people at all levels.

His career started at Koeberg as a Nuclear Physicist and he enjoyed it so much that he thought he would do nothing else. A management programme at Stellenbosch changed this perception and he became interested in management and leadership.

A year later he was picked as one of only two candidates in the Eskom organisation to attend a full time two year MBA programme in the US, with his family accompanying him. That experience changed his career away from the fascinating technical Nuclear Physicist path to a challenging yet rewarding future in leadership.

Following much publicized controversies the Eskom CEO position became vacant. A common perception is that putting one’s name in the hat for this position sets one up for failure. Dames wrestled with whether he should go for the opportunity or not. After discussing with his family they encouraged him to put his hand up.

Throughout his career he has had the opportunity to take on difficult challenges and turn these situations around. Today the question on most South Africans’ minds is whether this ‘good guy’ who has depth of character can lead Eskom out of the ‘muddle’ it finds itself in? Being a ‘good guy’ is obviously not enough?

At the time of entering the race for the top job, Dames felt that Eskom needed strong leadership; someone who could boost morale and create some sense of stability, direction and vision. Employees and other stakeholders were anxious, angry, and mistrustful, had little confidence in Eskom leadership and had no sense of pride in working for the organisation.

While the situation was precarious to say the least, Dames started doing all within his power to lead within his circle of influence. Part of his approach was to build a healthy relationship with the Chairman and Board of Eskom.

Then, his first actions as CEO were engaging the Exco team to establish clear expectations – what he wanted and understanding what other people wanted; he opened up Exco and brought in broader management to engage them as well; clear, quick decisions were made early, which included structural change such as closing the executive dining room; they engaged nearly all the staff to introduce Dames so that he could share expectations, give perspective and communicate company results; they launched a strategic review process that involved some 100 managers, who, within certain guidelines had to produce an answer of what it was that Eskom wanted to create – the output was presented to the board and the company has now adopted a new strategic direction; this direction was then communicated to all staff before Dames went away on holiday end 2010; at the same time they engaged externally with government leaders, like Premiers and Mayors in several provinces of the country and the unions.

This inclusive strategic review process will now evolve into a Leadership Academy to systematically prepare and grow leaders, close development gaps and expose their leadership pipeline to the world of leadership.

Executive Management also started focusing on giving employees the freedom to do their jobs, with clear expectations, what behaviours are expected from them and trusting them to do what they have to do.

Dames believes that leadership is what makes the difference. When he graduated, Bishop Tutu was the Chancellor at the university. He encouraged graduates to prepare themselves to lead one day and emphasised that “it is not about you but how you are going to serve the country; it is not about how much you can accumulate”. This advice always stuck with Dames.

He believes as a leader you must first open yourself up and understand your strengths and weaknesses, not only to know yourself but to assist others in getting to know you.  

Only after opening yourself up should you set clear expectations for leadership behaviours, which set the tone and culture of the organisation. Dames defined six clear and simple leadership objectives / behaviours: I expect leaders to grow people; I expect them to have open and transparent communication; I expect them to be coaches; I expect them to live the vision; I expect them to create a sense of passion, energize people; to make decisions and take people with them.

Dames rates his managers against these leadership behaviours and expects this same discipline from every other manager.

He also believes in the need for a leader to sit down with his immediate reports and discuss their development, strengths and weaknesses, career opportunities, and so on. As he says: “We all deserve quality time from our superiors”.

Dames demonstrates all the signs of a Profitable and Happy leader.

Next week Part 2 on Brian Dames – will the lights stay on? What is expected of South Africans? More on what they do to change Eskom culture.


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




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022

Follow Us

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.


By subscribing you will be updated with the latest insights and news from us. We never spam.