Lessons from Brian Molefe, CEO Transnet

Brian Molefe has been at the helm of Transnet for sixteen months now. He embodies a wonderful success story of someone that moved from being an ordinary, active child, to leading an organization that is strategically placed to directly impact the economic success of a country with approximately 57 000 employees and a plan to spend R300 billion over the next seven years.  According to Molefe this “is three times more than what was spent in the last 7 years and over and above that we will increase the size of the organization by 25%, and indirectly the jobs that will be created would be 220 000”.

Molefe showed signs of leadership at a young age: “I played softball, tennis, chess, and I was usually elected as captain”. As a young adult he was involved as a leader in student and youth resistance politics and later on served in leadership positions within the ANC. This background, together with his leadership exposure in several positions, including National Treasury and CEO of the Public Investment Corporation, backed by sound academic qualifications in business, hopefully prepared him well for this audacious leadership task of driving the vision of giant Transnet.

The vision, and ultimately moving this large ship, will require sound leadership. Someone that knows Molefe well says this of him as a leader: “He will definitely stretch you; He gives you space to grow; One always comes out of his office with more; He inspires me to think out of the box. One would walk into his office with a bright idea to solve a problem and he would not shoot it down, but asks wise questions, prompting one to do more. He partners with me so that I can grow”.

One of the ways in which his former leadership positions prepared him was to desensitize him to big numbers. Thinking in terms of hundreds of billions of rands is par for the course for the CEO of Transnet.  At National Treasury he was responsible for the entire borrowing program of South Africa and we know the numbers are big at the PIC.

Then there is the daunting task of mobilizing at least 57 000 employees. Molefe has learned to see the simplicity in this, which is a common attribute of great leaders: “I just think about it as having 57 employees, and not wanting to know and interfere everywhere, but making sure we touch the critical big picture – be able to make critical interventions.” He compares the task at hand with hunting an elephant: “When you are hunting an elephant and you only have one round of ammunition then you must find that one spot on the elephant that’s going to bring it down.  If you shoot it on the toe, you’re only going to irritate it and it’s going to kill you because you don’t have any more rounds.  You only have one shot, one round, and you must bring the elephant down.  Make it count.  So every decision must be like that – you must remove the clutter and go the heart of the matter.”

His first leadership challenge was to stabilize the ship, because leadership was in disarray. As Molefe explains:  “None of the generals were employed to do certain tasks – they were acting and there was a lot of uncertainty.  We said to people, that is your trench, you work there, and that motivated the organization and it came with the instruction that none of the people under them must be in acting positions either”.  According to Molefe this did wonders.

Then they developed the concrete vision, mentioned above.  When he communicates about the meaning of their seven year R300 billion programme to middle management it is about “the impact it will have on the man today that is unemployed and tonight must go and face his children and his family and say there is no food tonight because I couldn’t get a job.”  For Molefe this galvanizes people into action as everybody knows somebody who has been unemployed for some time.  He believes their approach has galvanized the organization to action: “And so we saw tremendous improvement and productivity last year – tremendous growth in profitability and being positioned to execute this R300 billion programme.   For me that is what has been achieved the last 14 months.”

The challenge ahead is clear for Molefe: “The greatest challenge is to get through that middle to senior management level, to get buy in not just from managers but from the whole organization.  That is the single biggest challenge – if you can do that then you can consider the programme done because it doesn’t need me, it needs people to be motivated to execute it.  There will be execution risks, there will have to be review of some of our assumptions and so on – open the tap and close the tap as we go into battle – but the most important thing is if the hearts and the minds of the people are in the right place, then we can go very far.”


  • A CEO can never communicate enough and should never overestimate the understanding that employees at the bottom have of the strategy. One can almost never declare complete victory in this regard.
  • Consider finding ways to consciously test the understanding of strategy on all levels of Transnet. There is always a ‘leadership barrier’ between the leader and his people. The position and title results in people not acting ‘normal’ around the leader and feeding selective information.
  • Ask yourself if your top leaders and even middle managers are sufficiently “leadership fit” to implement your market demand strategy, within an ever moving, dynamic and complex sociopolitical, economic and technological environment? Are they sufficiently “environmentally fit” to see the big picture and how ‘everything impacts everything’? Are your leaders able to think universal – in other words, to understand what in this complex environment will never change and what universal leadership principles will always remain relevant?
  • Continue working tirelessly to connect with your direct reports on a one on one basis, but also ensure your leaders do the same, and their leaders do the same, and so on all the way down the structures of the organization. Addressing large groups is important, but it will never create as deep understanding as critical one-on-one sessions will. One on one connections can change perceptions and increase buy-in, even of individuals with entrenched and outdated views that may have been around for decades.
  • Continue building trust (consistently delivering on promises) and respect (performance) with direct reports and employees across Transnet. Leaders that are trusted and respected ‘land’ their messages time and time again.


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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.




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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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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