A conversation with Khaya Dlanga

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Prominent Author and social commentator

KD:   Is it better to make decisions fast, although you may be wrong and have to fix things afterwards, or to take long to make decisions, but be right once you have made them?

LM:   I think I’ll give you the old, evergreen answer: “It depends.” In circumstances where speed is of the essence, quick decision-making is a key skill, but in circumstances where the interests of broader stakeholders are at stake, a leader may have to be deliberate and consultative in making a decision.

I could illustrate this by giving some examples of the kind of decision-making I face in my current role. I may be involved in making a decision about launching a product, making a huge IT investment, making a crucial management appointment or partnering with a fintech.

I won’t be making any of those decisions alone. The more senior or experienced you become in an organisation, the fewer decisions are yours and yours alone. What is critical is that, as the person with the ultimate responsibility in a business unit or division, you are always accountable for those decisions. 

You may ask why this should be so. It is because, as a leader, you should have very good people with experience, skills and expertise in your team. They should be empowered to make the vast majority of decisions in their area of expertise, control or influence. The job of the leader is to guide, coach, counsel and ask the right questions to aid decision-making.

So, the more senior you are, the fewer decisions you make, but you have to accept that the more senior you are, the more consequential those decisions are. 

Finally, leadership is about lifelong continuous learning. I have learnt some harsh, but valuable lessons from decisions I have made:

  • Sometimes I have made decisions without all the relevant data. This is an almost fatal flaw. It is vital to keep trying to get better at data driven decisions.
  • There have been moments in which I took decisions too hastily and did not confront my unconscious bias.
  • There have been times where I did not fully consult and engage my key stakeholders.

In the end, leadership is never about you. It’s not about your role; it’s about the larger cause. It is therefore very important not to personalise decisions. It is equally important always to be ready to explain your decisions lucidly to those most affected by them. If you do this well and regularly, people get to understand your logic and the context of your decisions, though they may not agree with the actual decisions.

KD:   What is your take on personal vs. public morality when one is in a leadership position?

LM:   Leaders face high expectations of their ethics in conducting both their private and public lives. There is very little room for any difference between public and private morality. Followers, shareholders, stakeholders and the public expect leaders to conduct themselves with the highest levels of integrity in their public and private lives. In fact, part of the meaning of the word “integrity” is that there is no difference between who you are in private and who you are in public.

For instance, in view of the prevalence of violence against women and children, sexual harassment in the workplace, abuse of power by those in positions of responsibility and rampant discrimination, prejudice and bigotry against women in all spheres of society, leaders cannot have a different stance in public than in private.

These gender issues are not something that should be tackled only by women. They have to be the overall responsibility of all of us in positions of leadership and influence. This means that, at all material times, in word and deed, we must champion the rights of women and create environments where women will proposer and succeed.

I’m blessed to have been raised by very strong women, to have worked and been led by some of the most talented women available and to be raising two fiercely independent and assertive young women. Those I lead and those with whom I interact every day, socially and professionally, will judge by my words and actions whether or not I believe in women empowerment.

KD:   Recently, the New York Attorney General, who was seen to be a champion of women’s rights when he went after Weinstein, and who is vocal about equality, was found to have been abusive towards women. He is considered to have done a huge amount for women. His public image was one thing, his private actions another. Should personal and private morality be one and the same?

LM:   The case of Eric Schneiderman, the former New York Attorney General who resigned in disgrace, shows that it is important to realise that all our actions, current and in the past, may come back to haunt us as leaders. Schneiderman isn’t alone. Just think of Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, Bob Hewitt, Jimmy Saville, Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Norman Mashabane, Anthony Weiner, Mduduzi Manana and many others accused of sexual harassment, the abuse of women, violence against women, rape, and so on. 

When these incidents happen, those closest to these people and their most ardent supporters ask themselves how this could happen. Surely there must be a mistake, they may think. Often, they resort to victim blaming.

However, we are all made up of good and bad. Choosing the good is a constant battle. Our idols or role models may sometimes allow the evil in them to prevail. Their resulting behaviour could scar their victims for life and could change their own lives completely.

Each of us must reflect deeply and lead ourselves to be better before we seek to lead others. We cannot lead ourselves to be better unless we know ourselves.

The timeless words inscribed at the Oracle of Delphi read: “Know thyself.” When it comes to leadership, this challenges us to appreciate that integrity is about self-discipline and self-control, or self-mastery: You do the right thing because you genuinely believe it is the right thing to do and not because you are being policed or watched.

If we do this, our private thoughts and conduct will barely differ from our public pronouncements and profile. It is the way to avoid the scandals that have destroyed many careers and reputations. 

KD:   How do you decide which choice to make when faced with two terrible choices: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t?

LM:   Leadership is sometimes very lonely. Your stance or decision is likely to have an impact on a business, or a person or group of people. That is why leadership can never be a popularity contest. There will be many times when you, as a leader, have to follow a course, make an appointment, decide on a key project or make a strategic investment decision where the difference between the options may be marginal.

I have always consoled myself and counselled other leaders that, in such circumstances, you can be comfortable with the decision and its consequences if you can say yes to the following key questions:

  • Have you fully applied your mind to all the factors involved before you made your choice?
  • Have you objectively and dispassionately weighed all the pros and cons in the choices you face before making the decision?
  • Are you confident that your choice was not unfairly, unethically and even illegally influenced by outside considerations, undue influence or by the need to benefit yourself, your friends or your family?
  • Did you weigh all objective data, relevant advice and the inputs of stakeholders?

If you can satisfy yourself about all this, you can be comfortable with the choice you have made, regardless of whether or not somebody else would have come to a different decision.

Let me use an example: A position becomes available and you have three competent potential choices for the role. Each one of these contenders feels that he or she is legitimately the right person for the job. They may each have one or more key attributes or advantages over the other candidates, but may also have some developmental areas or weaknesses that may put them at a disadvantage.

Whether one is making appointment without an interview process or through an interview process, expectations will be high and a broader community of interest may immediately form around the subject. Those participating in the debate, mostly among themselves, will be clear on the choice they would have made, but the decision is yours.

You have to make that decision, taking into account the role and its requirements; the experience and expertise of the candidates; the considerations of diversity and inclusion; the potential of each candidate; their fit with the culture of the organisation; their leadership and people management skills; their current performance; and their track record. 

You may choose any of the following:

  • The candidate with the greatest potential over the candidate with more experience;
  • The candidate with the better leadership and people management skills over the candidate with more technical skills;
  • The candidate with better collaboration and networking skills over the candidate with specialised knowledge and skills;
  • The candidate whose selection would assist the diversity of your team in either race or gender over an equally qualified candidate; or
  • The external candidate with broader all-round international knowledge and expertise over the internal candidate with more organisational knowledge.

Each of these choices would be a valid choice. In my view, these are not terrible choices but real leadership choices, in which one must weigh different considerations and make a decision on the basis of one or more deciding factors.

Regardless of the choice you make, I must emphasise, again, that it is most important to explain your decisions to those affected. They may not agree with your decision, but they will respect your choice and decision if you do so.

KD:   Is loyalty more important than results? And should you be loyal to someone you know won’t be loyal to you?

LM:   I think one of the things that we, as leaders, have to accept, with lots of humility, is that when we get appointed or promoted in corporate roles, we start out being illegitimate in the eyes of most of those we are expected to lead.

This so for a variety of reasons: The bond that existed between the team and the previous leader, their fears and anxieties about a new leader, the conversations they had with the previous leader… They may even think you are not qualified or suitable for the job.

One of the most common mistakes leaders make is to expect loyalty from the team and its members up front. Leaders have to take time to build a relationship with a new team and the individuals in the team. They need to get to know them and their fears, anxieties, ambitions and expectations.

Leadership is earned, trust is earned and loyalty is earned. So, my view is that, as a leader, it is my duty to earn that trust, to earn the right to lead and to earn the loyalty of the team.

I don’t expect personal loyalty, but loyalty to the team and the overall cause or goals we may have. In that context, the results, or the broader role and the interest of the team are much more important than any loyalty a person may think they have towards me. This is fundamental, as the overall cause and team are more important than I am.

Equally, a leader has to be loyal and trusting of the people who report to him or her regardless of how the people concerned may feel about the leader. It should take something quite serious or material, like dishonesty or insubordination, to cause a break in trust, from the leader’s side. 

KD:   How do you lead a team that doesn’t want to be led by you? 

LM:   As I explained above, you can’t force yourself onto a team. There are sometimes painful episodes, during which teams refuse to accept a leader for various reasons. A number of scenarios can play out in such instances:

  • Some leaders are able to overcome the initial resistance to their leadership, win the team over and are able to lead teams to great success.
  • In some cases, teams may reject leaders for unfair reasons, based on unfounded allegations, gossip or innuendo. In such cases, it is important for the line manager of such a leader to step in and set up a credible, impartial and transparent process to either mediate the situation or get to the bottom of the allegations. Should the leader be innocent, then the leader may be moved to a different department or unit or the team members can be expected to abide by the results of the inquiry or mediation process. This sometimes results in some members of the team leaving the team or the organisation.
  • There are also cases where there are legitimate reasons for the team to reject a leader. In such cases, organisations are compelled to change the leader to protect the organisation and the team.

Over the past few years, I’ve experienced these and many other scenarios. Each case is different and the merits of each will determine how it is resolved.

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