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The Essence Of Leadership – Gil Oved and Vukani Mngxati

Context tends to define course and style of action.

Over the centuries our understanding and definition of leadership has constantly changed. And it should. Different times and epochs bring on vastly different challenges and characters.

We all recognise a good leader when we see one but defining qualities and practices is so much harder. There are so many variables in the debate. Are successful leaders simply defined by accomplishment, or how and what their followers feel? How does nature versus nurture factor in? Can leadership be learnt? Is it a formula? And where do trait, circumstance and behaviour fit in?

Tribe Business Magazine sat with CEO of Accenture in Africa – Vukani Mngxati, and prolific investor and entrepreneur – Gil Oved, to speak about modern leadership and what it means in a context ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic, digital transformation and globalisation.

 “Every business is obviously about growth, but it’s also about people. It is critical to get people to trust themselves, to trust one another and to trust those tasked with leading them. But leadership is also collective. If a group does not have trust in one another and their own capabilities it impacts on critical thinking which leads to action and ultimately results. When you see companies performing well it’s likely there is a huge element of trust in the room,” Mngxati explained.

 Famous entrepreneur, Gil Oved, concurs. He notes trust is paramount and is based on a consistency of values which in turn provides safety and sustainability in any organisation. He lists this trait as principle among a list of contemporary leadership behaviours. He adds that in a safe and trusting environment people can ultimately relax and apply their brain’s higher capacity for engagement, creativity, and innovation. He adds to that list, giving people enough space to self-organise which he believes leads to exponential value creation.

Mngxati strongly believes that entrenched trust in a business is based not only on having strong internal values but also in the ability of staff to receive and retain those values. That’s a tough ask. It’s about finding what he terms the right headspace for a company to do important and meaningful work.

But lest you think he’s painting an impossible utopian vision, trust he says is not at odds with vigorous participation. In fact, one of the ingredients of trust he says is continual and robust debate. “As a leader you need to create a space where people are able to share their own views without holding back. This is where creativity and critical thinking comes from. If you disagree with me, you have to say so, because if you don’t, we lose out on the opportunity to hear you out and potentially change direction.”

Oved feels great leaders must toggle between flexibility and focus as well as nurture growth. “In any speech of gratitude, we generally thank our parents, teachers and mentors. Nurturing offspring comes naturally to us humans so when leaders perform that role, the response is unfathomably powerful.”

“Every business is obviously about growth, but it’s also about people.

The American/Canadian economist John Kenneth Galbraith said all great leaders have one characteristic in common, a willingness to confront unequivocally, the anxiety of their people in their time.

Mngxati says in the current pandemic environment where uncertainty is the prevailing sentiment, dealing with collective anxiety has been among his tougher leadership challenges.

A second challenge was creating a safe working environment in which people could express themselves. Part of his ongoing leadership approach is to constantly make sure that sacrosanct space is always available and open.

Mngxati’s incorporative approach has paid significant dividends since he took the top job with Accenture having grown its business consistently in the past three years. That philosophy is also a driving dictum for Oved who is involved in many exciting ventures and assumes many roles including that of co-founder of Bella Thaler Investments, a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) focussing on the African TMT (tech, media, telco) space. But if their optimistic trajectory is to rise, a more stable national operating climate is needed.

“While leadership is an evergreen innate societal need, it presents varying degrees of importance, subject to the extent of stability and the level of the unknown at any given time. This applies equally to companies and countries. The greater the instability, the greater the need for decisive leadership. The scourge of Covid-19 as well as a large-scale changing world order means that resolute and courageous leadership will become the fundamental marker between success and failure,” Oved explains. “The rate of technological innovation, demographic shifts and geopolitical changes we are currently experiencing means that there are too many variables to predict, with any significant certainty, where things are going to go. And yet, people need to be offered a vision for what they could strive for, courage for what they should fight for and optimism for what could be. Only strong trustworthy leadership can be the lodestar,” Oved adds.

Mngxati brings the debate squarely back to trust. “I think the real problem is we have a lack of trust, as a nation. Sadly, South Africans inherently don’t have sufficient trust in each other. And I also think those who occupy the broad centre of the population don’t feel led anymore.”

Oved believes leading in business in today’s world means leading with social conscience and societal responsibility. “Beyond the virtue signalling and empty words and faux concern that has become the hallmark of many companies – getting this balance right is tough but supremely important. The mandate given by shareholders is to maximise profits. And that really must be at the core of everything a corporate leader does. Anyone who pretends otherwise is either lying or about to lose their job. However, other stakeholders are increasingly vocal and important; and the new consumers graduating from schools and universities possess an ever-increasing voice backed up by their digital wallets. Good leaders elegantly traverse between these seemingly opposing mandates – great leaders find a way to marry them,” he argues.

Mngxati believes an inability to execute can have a negative impact on any leadership. But he also argues that in other instances it’s supremely unfair to keep expecting, ‘Pretoria to provide’. He believes it is high time to shift the paradigm and start actively working towards what he calls honest new collaboration between the public and private sector.
A useful starting point he believes would be for the public sector to allow others into the room and for politicians and officials to tap into the unutilised potential of many.
“We have a significant number of our people who sit around with not much to do. These people are smart, hungry, and have needs that are unfulfilled.” Mngxati says in identifying, harnessing, and growing these skills, the private sector can be of huge help to government in a dynamic partnership.

While he preaches a constant gospel of developing technology skills, he believes the debate runs much deeper than that. “I look at the dialogue we have been having with a Cape Town-based creative agency we have agreed to acquire, the King James Group, and we say South Africa is ranked as one of the most creative nations in the world. Yet when you compare what South African copywriters charge compared to a US copywriter for instance there is an imbalance. We should be hiring copywriters putting them in a centre in Cape Town and saying to the world use us. This model can apply anywhere with the outsourcing technology we have right now,” he argues.

Part of that he says would be to create centres of excellence in the professional services space. “Ultimately these centres could be adopted by companies and suddenly, you’ve got ten thousand people and then double that. The centre keeps on feeding itself through incoming trainees and companies keep on deploying work to the centre and growing it across various fields of study. I really think that this needs to be a national initiative. And we need to call a national colloquium on this topic and call on all parties to participate.”
Oved says in the context of business organisations, many of the more technical skills that were a necessity from leaders of the past are being rapidly replaced by technology. “If so, then what, in this brave new world, is the definition of leadership in our time? I think the answer comes from the simplicity of focusing on the things that matter. Cut through the noise and it becomes apparent that nothing has changed really. At the end of the day, it’s about providing a solution to customers and consumers and doing it better than the next guy.

Tech is just an enabler. Humans are still humans. They still need to eat, sleep, be clothed, get around, learn, have fun, have babies, rinse repeat. In a tech-led world, leadership is about being human,” he explains. “I am a contrarian to the traditional leadership and management books. I say leaders today need to be ‘counterstoic’! Vulnerability, humour, and humility allows your people to see you as human and thus be inspired by you,” he adds.

To that end says Oved the current massive global uncertainty is causing a convergence of intrapreneurship and entrepreneurship. “Corporates have traditionally thrived on systems and processes. In the past, the ability to routinise on a large scale have allowed them to flourish. But in the tumult that is our times, routines are hard to come by. Today, a corporate leader is compelled to make decisions with little to go on, to forge new ways, fail quickly and try new things.

Foreign concepts to the traditional corporate executive but stock standard for any typical entrepreneur. Today’s high-flying leader needs to think and behave more like a garage start up entrepreneur than the S&P500 CEO of two decades ago.”

Mngxati and Oved are proponents of the work-life balance given the stresses and loneliness of leadership. The Accenture in Africa CEO says, “I ensure I do not neglect my family – meaning, making time available when I am home to be present. And I don’t need to be present the whole time. I need to be present for my family for them to feel sufficiently valued.”

Oved argues that it’s axiomatic that leadership is generally a lonely place and that it’s rarely been lonelier than in today’s world. “In the past even if you had forged a new path, you would have had someone to reference. Today, there isn’t much reference of anything. But whenever I feel that angst, I reflect on Margaret Mead’s (American cultural anthropologist) sage words. ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’ So, in a way I feel immensely privileged to be considered a leader and know that I have an opportunity in my own small way to make a difference and ‘move the dial’,” he explains.
“However, with privilege comes obligation. It means having courage to take risks and fail. Leading from the front means you may get the glory, but you could also get an arrow,” Oved concludes.

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