Just over a week ago I attended the 4th annual Discovery Invest Leadership Summit. I remember desperately wanting to attend the inaugural summit 3 years ago. I had relished devouring The Tipping Point the previous year; was enamouredby the hype around Outliers; and was still recovering from the shock that followed my reading Branson (the unauthorized biography of Richard Branson written by Tim Bower). So finding out that both Malcolm Gladwell and Sir Richard Branson would be speaking at an event in my city seemed like the proverbial “once in a life time opportunity”. Unfortunately, it was a missed opportunity since even the entry-level ticket was beyond my humble means as a student. In fact, I think that that ticket is beyond the (personal) means of most professionals - it is a truly exclusive event.
Can you imagine my response when I got a phone call informing me that I would be attending the 2012 summit? Two words: week made! So to honour the occasion I arrived at the summit suited and booted in “presidential colours”. I brought along my moleskin journal in anticipation of the intellectual gems that were to be shared by the incredible line up of speakers.
What follows is a summary of my takeaways from each of the speakers’ addresses – these relate to both the content of the speakers’ addresses and my reflection thereon.
Adrian Gore (Opening address)
A (very intelligent) friend of mine believes that Adrian Gore is amongst the most intelligent business leaders in South Africa. Seeing Gore’s address added some credibility to my friend’s assertion.
Gore’s talk focussed on his belief that there is no reason for the future not to belong to South Africa. He discussed the limitations of a Gaussian understanding of the world, given that many natural, social and economic phenomena are better described by Paretian distributions; and that we should look to the long tails of these distributions for the disruptive innovations we need to overcome the systemic problems that plague our country; as well as to create the prosperous future we all desire for all South Africans.
Neither of these ideas is new. In fact, they have been popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Chris Anderson respectively (both previous summit speakers). What was compelling, was to watch Gore’s ability to contextualize these complex ideas, and lucidly relate them to subject matters that his audience is familiar with.
My takeaway: In the assessment of a leader’s effectiveness, a leader’s ability to lucidly communicate his vision to those meant to help realize it is almost as important as the degree of intellectual effort that constructed the content of that vision.
This chess grandmaster has enjoyed a 22 year reign as the world’s number one chess player and is now a political activist fighting to return democracy to Russia. Unfortunately his address did not live up to his reputation as a living legend. Although his address was charming, it lacked focus and coherency. His talk ended with me wondering what point he was trying to make.
My takeaway: The fact that a person has achieved a high level of success in their field does not mean that they have a reflective and analytic understanding of how they attained that success. Unfortunately this is the fallacious wisdom that drives the popularity of business conferences and the sale of “how to manuals” by famous business leaders.
I like this man. I’m not sure of the reason. It has nothing to do with his competence as the head of Treasury. I find him to have an endearing quality akin to that of wise, no-nonsense [grand]father. It is unfortunate that for many South Africans, he has hasn’t quite escaped the shadow of his predecessor.
My takeaway: Gordhan’s advice to emerging South African leaders:
- Understand the political economy
- Be devoted to non-racialism
- Be trusting and act in a manner that inspires trust
- Be humble – it will make listening to others much easier
- Balance idealism with pragmatism
- Fight short-termism
Sir Terry Leahy
Tesco achieved so much under this man’s leadership that he was knighted for his services to food retailing – BAWSS! He is the epitome of the popularized pre-tech era CEO: fine tailored suit; (intimidating) presence; confidence and eloquence in speech; (unexpected) down-to-earth-ness; and sheer I-worked-my-way-up-from-packing-shelves-ness.
His talk was a summary of his book, Management in Ten Words. It discusses the essential management lessons that emerged from his leadership of Tesco’s run from the 3rd largest retailer in the UK, to the 3rd largest retailer in the world.
My takeaway: Many of the management principles correlated with business success are well known i.e. I doubt there are any “management secrets” left. What is inaccessible to (populist) readers is an understanding of the often irreducible intricacies of putting those principals into practise. I imagine that writing on this subject would produce a comparably inferior yield of best-sellers – Robert Kiyosaki stays winning…
Professor Tim Noakes (and Chad le Clos)
Noakes is a legend in the field of Sports Science having published more than 450 papers, garnered more than 11000 citations, and run more than 70 marathons and ultra-marathons. He was undoubtedly my favourite speaker. The essence of his talk:
Limitations in physical performance often have their root in psychological impediments about what is physically possible. The best coaches are the ones that help their athletes overcome these psychological impediments. Coaching is analogous to leadership. Therefore, the best leaders are the ones who are able to get their teams to overcome psychological impediments about whether their intended aim is achievable.
The argument is valid – its soundness is difficult to verify.
Chad came on towards the end of Noakes’ address to discuss the 8 yearlong obsession with Michael Phelps that culminated in an Olympic victory against the most decorated Olympian of all time. I use the word “obsession” deliberately: Chad knows the time and stroke count for every single competitive race that Phelps has swam in the last 8 years. #knowyourenemy
My takeaway: Prior to the pursuit of any challenging goal, it is critical to ensure that any psychological doubts about whether the goal is achievable are resolved; otherwise the probability of success will be severely compromised.
Professor Michael Porter
This man is described as “the father of modern competitive strategy”. I must admit to being underwhelmed by his address. I expected that a man who is an advisor to both 14 governments and the leaders of some of the largest firms in the world would reveal at least one insight that I have never stumbled upon in my clumsy pursuit of interesting ideas – alas my expectations proved too high.
Porter’s address focused on the evolution of (big) business’ role in society, as the sole creator of wealth. He discussed the shift away from traditional business models where wealth is created through commercial operations and then (arbitrarily) distributed to society through philanthropy and corporate social investment initiatives; towards the emerging trend of the corporate shared value (CSV) model. The CSV model is characterized by a business seeking only the (social) problems that they understand and have a stake in; and then using their resources, expertise and market knowledge to develop a separate (and often innovative) business model for addressing the problem profitably.
Two such innovations came to mind: M-PESA and Sproxil.
My takeaway: Maintaining a culture of erudition will limit the likelihood of being indiscriminatingly impressed by individuals with inexhaustible credentials.
Sizwe Nxasana, Stephen Koseff and Richard Gnodde (Panel discussion moderated by Alec Hogg)
There was nothing but glibness here ladies and gentlemen. Personally, I blame the moderator.
My takeaway: If you’re going to have an opportunity to converse with the leaders of some of the biggest companies in South Africa or the world, ensure you prepare some questions that haven’t been widely covered in popular media or broadcasted in interviews they may have given in the recent past. Hogg should have followed his own advice: “practical tip, invest at least as much time planning ahead of a meeting as you will spend attending it.”
Blair is a near perfect replica of the image of the politician often presented by Hollywood: intelligent, devastatingly witty, articulate, and the right balance of charm and being guarded. His (parliamentary) address focused on the European debt crisis and the revolutions in the Middle East. He didn’t touch on anything particularly insightful. However, I really enjoyed listening to some of the humbling lessons he picked up during his tenure as the UK’s prime minister.
I must admit to being disappointed with his response to a question about his using a post-hoc justification for going into Iraq. His response can be summarized as: “I thought it was the right thing to do”. An appeal to emotion that managed to appease most of the audience without any presentation of evidence supporting that it was in fact reasonable to conclude that it was the right thing at the time.
What had the greatest impact on me was his sincere admission about creating real (and lasting positive) change being incredibly difficult; and that modern governments need to have a more business-like character i.e. they should have no more than 3 short-term priorities (markets) and a strong implementation (operational) bent. There is nothing novel about that notion, but it often emanates from sources outside government. This is a welcomed difference.
My takeaway: Interviews with South African government leaders could be so much more interesting if they displayed the intellectual agility I saw in Blair – perhaps the quality of public discourse would also improve.
Overall the experience was valuable and brought some welcomed corrections to my perceptions about exclusive business leadership conferences. I’d like to attend the summit again in the future - but my preference would be the one behind the podium (and mingling with other speakers).