Leadership And The MTN Saga

Almost four months ago I wrote an article in this very paper about MTN and its top leader. I sketched a scenario that depicted some of MTN SA’s history of leadership changes – four CEO’s in just over seven years.  Read it here

I explained that

“there comes a time when the top leader cannot shift blame any longer…”

I stated: “It never ceases to amaze me how patient boards can be; or, how lethargic they are when the obvious reason for non-performance of a business stares them in the face – the top guy; the CEO! But this truth can get lost for a while in a large corporation where a CEO has place to hide; space to blame downwards and shift individuals sideways. When too much of this is taking place a board should sit up and take notice as it may be a sign of weak, outdated or toxic leadership, even when it is done under the so called policy of ‘rotating leaders’”.

I felt a need to take this issue on and be bold because “MTN is a national treasure, a remarkable success story emanating from South Africa.” I pleaded, saying “we cannot stand idly by and ignore what may be unfolding as ‘the obvious’.” And then I implored the board “to start looking for the problem from the very top down, for the good of a magnificent organisation and its people.”

It is now almost four more months down the line and only after irreparable damage has occurred does the board decide to force a resignation? Then what happens? The very board that acted lethargically takes control by appointing its non-Phuthuma Nhlekoexecutive chair Phuthuma Nhleko as executive chairperson in a temporary position for six months.

Perhaps it is only right that he attempts to save his own legacy by sorting out the mess, for now, while we try and work through a maze of unanswered questions: Does not only MTN Group management team but also the board need a re-shuffle? Should Nhleko himself not be held accountable for acting too late? After all his experience as a former MTN CEO that most would agree seemed like a huge success, does he not possess the ability to detect the detrimental leadership weaknesses of Dabengwa? Perhaps he couldn’t, because he proposed to the board that Dabengwa be his successor, thus acting on him would have reflected negatively on himself? Did Nhleko fail the difficult test of placing MTN before his own ego and pride? Did everyone on the board relax because they assumed their experienced chairperson would naturally be in touch with the very organisation he used to lead? Should former CEO’s act as non-executive chairpersons? Should boards operate closer to their businesses? I can go on and on.

The fact remains, in today’s unpredictable, fast paced, ever changing and dynamic world boards dare not tune out, become complacent or assume anything. They need to expect of the CEO to be a certain kind of leader. As I wrote in my article four months ago, about the expectations of MTN’s newly appointed SA CEO Mteto Nyati – and the same applies to a group CEO – he needs to not only be engaging, with the right credentials, but the latter “must take its form in at least three areas: 1) Competency – natural and developed ability; 2) Leadership fitness – the ability to take pressure; adapt; recover; adjust – to have a healthy heart, body, spirit and mind; 3) Leadership and life wisdom, maturity – knowing how to get the right things done with the right people at the right time in the right way – being street wise”, explained Prof Theo Veldsman from UJ University on my Cliffcentral leadership show some time back. This leadership wisdom I concluded “is also the ability to think universal, big picture; to think and achieve the impossible; a no boundaries attitude; the ability to simplify complex situations and zoom in on the essence.”

The challenge however is that if board members do not comprise of leaders with these very qualities, or if they don’t proactively look for such qualities in their CEO they won’t detect when it is missing in the first place. It is high time that board members take their responsibilities more seriously and not view it as a status symbol or a side-line way to earn a living. Get closer to the CEO and his team, and don’t just measure his short term return on shareholder value but his leadership capacity – does it match the dynamic world we live in, with different, connected, more demanding followers.

This article appeared on 13 November 2015 in the:

Business Report



Adriaan Groenewald (Adriaan_LP) – Author of recently released Seamless Leadership: Universal Lessons from South Africa (@SeamlessLeader); Presenter Cliffcentral Leadership Platform every Monday 12-1pm (@LeadershipPform)

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.






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
Email: info@leadershipplatform.com

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