Q&A with Brian Molefe – CEO Transnet

BRLP:  The foundation of your value system comes from where?  Family life?

Molefe: Family life yes.  I grew up in the Anglican Church – very strict regime, but later on I developed different views.

The foundation of my values come from the time I spent in the ANC – ideas like liberty, equality, fraternity – that we got taught quite young in the struggle – before the ANC was unbanned and as part of the United Democratic Front.

BRLP:  It seems like leaders are finding it more and more difficult to manage the environment – struggling to get a handle on the ever increasing pace.  Are you seeing this?

Molefe: The world is very different to what it was 50 years ago, and largely because of a better informed population.  Now there is more information available to the population than there was 50 years ago – people know more about products, the rest of the world, what they eat, health issues, etc – makes people demand better; we know things are better elsewhere so we aspire for that as well.  If leaders don’t move with the times, the population will catch them out and demand better. If we had the same type of information 50 years ago that we have now the revolution that happened in SA would have happened quicker – because it would have been possible to disseminate information and we could have shown people that there were places where there was freedom and what freedom means.

BRLP: What kind of leaders do we need today?

Molefe:  The most important thing is to be tuned into the desires of what people want – those that you lead – and be able to influence it without being overbearing – to be able to take people to a destination knowing that they won’t automatically follow because if you are leading them astray they will know about it because of the abundance of information.  Things like honesty, integrity, knowledge – all important. Leaders are peddlers of hope.  What hope can you give those you lead to take them to a promised land?

BRLP: What have you discovered are the challenges in leading Transnet – perhaps it’s different to what you thought before you started – what are the barriers?

Molefe: The most important thing in any organization at the top is that you have to have a vision – you have to give something for people to hold on to, peddle hope.  But you have to be realistic.  You have to develop something that everyone can identify with – like this is where we want to be in 5 or 7 years time and once you have worked that out, you have to sell it.  Remember that an organization is like a triangle – and you think of all these things at the top, but in the middle you have a layer of “concrete” – so it doesn’t matter really what you think at the top – it must still go through the concrete which is senior and middle management, supervisory ranks.  They are the people that must buy into what you’re saying and then they must sell it to the most important people in the organization which are the workers where decisions get taken about everyday activities.  In between all sorts of decisions must happen – the train driver must be mobilized – and it’s not possible for me to get to that train driver directly – it has to be through that layer of concrete as I said.  In a large organization that can be the most difficult thing.

BRLP:  What are the key considerations to getting through that concrete?

Molefe:  It’s communication.  Communication is key – that means using the tools of communication that are available to us optimally.  More important what we need to do is perhaps have Fridays as communication days where we set everything aside and we take hammers and chisels and start chipping at the concrete.  That means getting out to the organization and talking to managers, mobilizing them, motivating them, showing them that the organization cares; showing them what it is we would like to achieve and how their role is important.

BRLP: What kind of leaders do you then need in Transnet to do this?

Molefe:  We must inspire people to action, we must inspire people to look forward to coming to work – we must inspire people to be sad on a Friday afternoon because they have to leave work to go rest.  We must inspire people to action in terms of what our vision is and what we are trying to do with this company.  Somehow we have to find that thread that keeps us together, that makes us work towards that common goal and so we need leaders that, over and above their technical competencies, will work as a glue to keep the organization together but more importantly inspire where there is hopelessness to bring in hope and get people moving.  It’s not us leaders that will win the war – it’s the storm troopers, the soldiers – it’s not the generals that fight.

BRLP:  You’re so right, but we see how difficult it can be to change the mindset of middle to upper management at large – to get inspired people who see the value of leading the people and the vision.  How are you attempting to multiply leaders within Transnet?  It’s not a simple process.

Molefe: What we have started to do is to talk to an extended Exco which is an Executive committee – about 150 people – managers two levels below top management and we talk about issues, our common vision and what we want to achieve and it’s important for them to understand what we are trying to achieve.  Because you know what happens when you are preparing for battle – you can have elaborate plans and you can say these are the enemy positions, these are the plans, this is what we’re going to do and so on – but the fact of the matter is when the battle starts and the generals are behind and the middle ranks run into battle and the first shot gets fired, the pressure is on, then people have to use their own intuition and their own devices to get to the other side to win the war. At that moment there is nothing the generals can do to win the war – by that time the generals must have inspired those people to move on and make sure we will win the war.  If not, when that first shot gets fired – then the people will turn around and run.

BRLP:  Briefly – your leadership philosophy – have you carved that out in your mind?

Molefe: My leadership philosophy is to be simple, to put concrete proposals on the table and let that be the vision, make sure everyone understands it, never operate above the heads of the people you’re leading.  Keep it simple, keep it simple. When you talk about safety and Transnet, the safety of 60 000 people, it’s actually simple – it’s about getting all the first aid boxes where they are supposed to be, it’s about ensuring that anywhere in the organization you can call an ambulance and it will be there in 10 minutes or less, and just making sure that things like that work.


  • 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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