A few weeks ago I wrote about the protracted and damaging platinum strike and declared this: “It seems this strike is unprecedented and smells not only of egos and extraordinary hunger for power, but also leadership and societal failures that stems, in large measure from our mining and even political history.” My conclusion at the end of the piece was as follows: “After all the dissecting and debating, what is needed is extraordinary leadership where the wellbeing of workers and the country become paramount. It will take visionary symbolic actions from leaders in all corners of this battle…In the end it really calls for Mandela leadership. It may be a cliché, but leaders might do well to ask: What would Mandela do?”
I am happy to report that there is hope. Recently Business Report reported on the successful conclusion of a three year wage deal between Royal Bafokeng Platinum and NUM – no strikes and no violence. So perhaps the hope for extraordinary leadership, or Mandela leadership wasn’t in vain. We decided to unpack this apparent success story on Cliffcentral Leadership Platform by engaging the CEO of RBPlatinum Steve Phiri and Deputy General Secretary of NUM Tshimane Montoedi. They described their journey as “constructive, respectful and mature.” We wanted to know why and how, so that leaders out there can learn and hopefully follow suit.
Both leaders referred to a relationship built on trust and respect, which was of course acquired over a period of time. Phiri commented one needs to savour the relationship on an ongoing basis for this to develop, guided by a surprisingly simple philosophy of “treating one another like people,” he says.
Both parties had the maturity to look at the bigger picture and allow their attitudes to be positively influenced by it. They considered what the platinum belt had just been through and consciously wanted to be an example of how it could be done differently; to be leaders in this regard. Early on in the negotiation process they decided that their guiding principles would be trust, good faith and respect.
Another core ingredient of this success story was a decision not to isolate the agreement from the bigger strategy of the company – these had to talk to each another. According to Phiri the wage agreement reflects the company business plan moving forward. Everyone seemed united around a desire for business imperatives like productivity and efficiency to form an integral part of the final agreement, so that profitability could conquer, closely followed by wealth creation for all parties. This includes not only acceptable wage increases but other benefits like a housing scheme that will roll out for the building of houses worth billions.
In this instance long term aspirations and planning truly affected short term negotiations in a positive manner. This included preparation for the process of negotiations starting at least six months before, so that expectations for what the issues were could be clear and there was time to populate necessary detail. Both my guests used words like “moving forward in unison” and “we”, “together”. There was little if any of “us” and “them”.
According to Montoedi a key to their success was also that their “negotiations were conducted within the parameters of law”, doing what “is good for humanity rather than being destructive”, as he put it. As union to members they used every forum possible to emphasise the importance of staying within the legislative process. It makes sense that he views this as key, because all the guiding principles would be in vain if one of the parties decided not to respect the rule of law. Montoedi explained that when a union and employer come together it should not be viewed as a battle field but simply a platform for negotiations.
All of this wasn’t easy, but as Phiri states, “it’s about leadership, and leadership is about personalities.” Their company leadership culture stems from a belief that the CEO is a worker, an employee and an equal, and by default so are other senior managers. With this as a backdrop it is easier for him to treat employees as he wants to be treated, because there is no underlying belief that he is different and as a result needs to be treated such.
One can be cynical for a moment and refuse to be convinced that such a noble belief permeates across their organisation; or that the behaviour of most senior managers is directed by it. Yet the mere fact that they are working at instilling such a culture may place them ahead of where other organisations find themselves.
South Africa needs more “constructive, respectful and mature” engagements. We need leaders that allow their attitudes to be positively influenced by the bigger picture; of course leaders that respect the rule of law. We need to be cautious of an emerging culture where leaders of specific causes intrinsically believe the only way to attract sufficient attention of decision makers is to act aggressively, to push boundaries of law and common respect. This is why leadership stories like this one must be shared. There is a time to be tough and even act assertively, but only after an authentic attempt to exhaust the model that Tshimane Montoedi and Steve Phiri followed.
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