When The Top Leader Is The Problem You Have A Problem

When movement does not happen as it should the blame can and should almost always be placed at the feet of the top leader!

Here is a scenario or case study to consider:

You are the group CEO of a large international business that is at the forefront of remarkable change, because the industry itself is undergoing radical change. Under your watch the South African business unit is simply not performing, moving fast enough. The group needs a turnaround!

However, looking back a few years, an experienced leader that has been in the business since its beginning was placed in the CEO position before you took over (maybe you even appointed him when you were COO?), but was moved to another post by yourself, perhaps because you felt improvement didn’t happen fast enough. You replaced him with someone that also knows the business well; have also been there since its inception. A little over a year later you are still not satisfied with the improvement and replace that leader with someone from group, pulling the replaced CEO back into group. One year after this the newly appointed CEO suddenly resigns. Of course as is the case in large listed corporates, we don’t really know the reasons for this – “personal reasons” always seems to be it. You now have to appoint another CEO (which has just been concluded). The South African business unit is still under huge pressure on several fronts and underperforming. Only, by now it has had four CEO’s in a period of just over seven years – the fifth one has just started.

One of the worst mistakes one can make is to judge from a distance, and of all people I know the challenges top leaders face, how their context can easily be misunderstood. But, in principle, who is to blame for the underperformance in this case study? Is it not as obvious as daylight that you are the problem? Does the board have to wait for another two or so years before they realise this?

There comes a time when the top leader cannot shift blame any longer; when moving leaders around and even “firing” some is no longer an option; when it becomes clear that his approach is not to assist, inspire, guide, advise and support; it becomes obvious that he may be a bad judge of character, or that he is not close enough to the business – he runs it from his office – and therefore is not in tune to its needs at that particular time, which means he is not able to match the right leader with the organisation. Or, because of his aloof style he doesn’t understand the context within which the market CEO is trying to shift the business, so he becomes impatient too soon; interferes unnecessarily; does not trust the leader to give him the needed space to do the job. In short, he is not leading effectively.

It never ceases to amaze me how patient boards can be; or perhaps, 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”. We all know a large business cannot be turned around to perform sustainably within a year or two.

Yes, it seems the real obstacle at MTN may very well be its Group CEO. If so he can hide for only so long in today’s highly visible world. If not, great! Why do I feel a need to be so bold here? I have met Sifiso Dabengwa – admittedly years ago when he was COO of MTN I believe – and he is a bright man; an intelligent Engineer with all the obvious credentials a leader needs, even an MBA. However, MTN is a national treasure, a remarkable success story emanating from South Africa. We cannot stand idly by and ignore what may be unfolding as “the obvious”. I implore the board to start looking for the problem from the very top down, for the good of a magnificent organisation and its people.

The newly appointed SA CEO Mteto Nyati has his work cut out for him. He seems to be engaging, with the right credentials. But in a recent discussion on our weekly Cliffcentral Leadership Masterclass my panel (Tracey Webster, Rich Simmonds and Louis Groenewald) and I discussed with Prof Theo Veldsman from UJ that in today’s dynamic, ever moving, challenging world credentials must take its form in at least three areas: Competency – natural and developed ability; Leadership fitness – the ability to take pressure; adapt; recover; adjust – to have a healthy heart, body, spirit and mind. And he must have 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 (Prof Theo Veldsman)”. This leadership wisdom 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.

A competent, fit and wise leader that is authentic, open, engaging yet bold and courageous is unstoppable!

Time will tell if Mteto Nyati is such a leader. We wish him well! One hopes Dabengwa will give him and his team the needed space and time to do the job; to create the anticipated movement.

This article was featured in the

Business Report

For more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation, contact us on info@leadershipplatform.com




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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