by Sean McCoy (@TheRealMcCoyTRM) Leadership has continued to occupy centre-stage since we closed out last year and have seen in the few two months of 2018. While we celebrated the demise of the rule of our neighbour’s despot leader, Bob Mugabe, we too have witnessed Jacob Zuma being ousted by Cyril Ramaphosa for the ANC and republic leadership berths. Sadly, the finger that we constantly point at government and the public sector doesn’t suggest that the private sector is immune to failed leadership behaviour.

Over this period, iconic South African and international success story Steinhoff has fallen from grace, surrounded by a scandal implicating its chief executive, Markus Jooste. What a travesty for this brand and the good people in Steinhoff, of which there are many. It has been a darling performer among South Africa’s Top-40-listed companies for some time, so why the change in leadership behaviour — ego, power, narcissism or sheer fraud and criminality? Perhaps we have simply had the wool pulled over our eyes for a while.

Possibly, the real private-public-partnership model (PPP) should be one of a joint commitment to integrity and a complete stamping out of corrupt behaviour across the board. Starting with our leadership groups, of course. We simply can neither inspire nor expect employees and citizens to live organisational or institutional values while leaders set this kind of example.

Irrational behaviour

Dan Ariely¹ suggests that the issue of motivation is still very much a work in progress and we have yet to fully understand it. He argues that the story of motivation isn’t at all straight-forward; rather, it’s mysterious and complicated. Given the widespread leadership issues that continue to prevail, he seems right and it underpins his theory that, at some point or another, we all become offenders against human motivation when we ignore, criticise, disregard or simply destroy the work of others.

Ariely offers that we are positively driven by all kinds of intangible, emotional forces: the need to feel ownership, to feel a sense of accomplishment, to find the security of a long-term commitment and a sense of shared purpose — the things that make our labour and lives matter. To motivate ourselves and others, we need to provide a sense of connection and meaning — hardly the stuff of corruption, maladministration and thievery.

In an analogy to the realm of physics and the wishful notion of building something out of nothing or creating perpetual motion, he believes that this is possible to an extent with human motivation and therein lies our unique possibility inside organisations and indeed life. We can have perpetual energy as long as we invest in a sense of connection, meaning, ownership and long-term thinking. And if we do this correctly, the return on investment in human motivation and behaviour will be immense.

Shoe dog

Phil Knight appears to have understood this concept fully, from the onset in the creation of Nike. Apart from offering an inspiring read on entrepreneurship and the personal journey of building a great global brand, Shoe Dog² is a compelling story of belief and purpose and how, if correctly applied, it can lie at the very heart of building an amazing organisation and brand.

It’s not a story of pure romance and success; to the contrary, it’s one of significant challenge, trials and tribulations of an entrepreneur. But it’s extraordinary how the sense of shared purpose and belief galvanises every facet of the business-building process, including recruiting talent, challenging conventional financial models, seeking athlete endorsements, taking the company public and guiding shareholder and management decisions throughout the journey.

One of Knight’s close friends and lifelong business partner, Jeff Johnson. describes the act of running as something spiritual and Zen-like. This philosophy virtually transcends the business and lies at the heart of building a high-performance organisation, an obsession with product quality and the development of a very transparent and robust management style in the business that has been a key part of its success. Ironically, in this case, money and wealth were never the focal point.


Turning local, it was refreshing therefore to see Rob Shuter present the MTN case study at a recent Deloitte forum³. It’s a company that is not without its challenges and has faced some real difficulties across the many pioneer markets in which it operates, notably the very significant fine it had to pay in Nigeria. These challenges notwithstanding, he presented a convincing case of restored purpose and shared belief in recalibrating the business and reinstating its startup energy and nature.

BRIGHT is an acronym that underpins each key lever of the business strategy and also translates through both the internal and external communication surrounding the brand — the central idea of brightening and improving staff and customer lives across its markets. His presentation was convincing and his leadership commitment and style feels compelling enough to sense that, by his own admission, the work lies in getting it off the PowerPoint slides and onto the ground. In a refreshing perspective, he left the audience with no doubt that the company will pursue this relentlessly as it aims to drive inclusive growth across some 22 countries in 2018.

It was John F Kennedy who said that learning and leadership are indispensable to each other. Perhaps, as leaders, we can reflect on what is right and what is wrong, with greater emphasis on the former.


¹Payoff — Dan Ariely (2016)
²Shoe Dog — Phil Knight Memoirs (2016)
³Africa in 2018 Outlook — Deloitte


Sean McCoyDr Sean McCoy, MD and founding member of HKLM, is a prominent figure in the branding arena, with his expertise centered on client service, brand strategy and business development. He contributes the regular “The Real McCoy” column focusing upon internal branding to MarkLives.

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