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Leaders see beyond what is to create what might be

17th May 2022

I wonder what it’s like to work in the Post Office. What set me wondering was fetching a parcel on 12 May, posted in London on 1 November last year.

On the one hand I was impressed that it reached me after six and a half months of travel. No one stole it. It wasn’t buried in a storeroom and eventually destroyed. It reached its intended destination. I didn’t realise this was still possible with the SA Post Office.

On the other hand, I have often wondered whether senior managers in the Post Office reflect on just how useless the postal service is, and if so, why do they live with it? I know it is a hugely complex operation at a scale most of us have never had to manage, but it puzzles me that the core business of delivering items within a week or so cannot be rectified.

I was served perfectly competently at the counter. There was no problem with the clerk’s skill, knowledge or attitude. The processes also seemed quite adequate. She found my parcel without a problem, processed the payment by card, and I was out about three minutes after I entered.

It seems to me that the solution isn’t with the people doing the work, but with senior managers’ ability to see beyond the way things are now, to create something new.

The same is true from small private businesses to large public entities. It is even true of presidents of countries. If the entity for which I am responsible is not achieving the ends for which it was created, then I am failing. To stop failing I need to take whatever legal and ethical steps will achieve those ends. That is no one else’s job.

This may seem obvious, but I have found that it is often not obvious. Problem is, we do not see the most important work that responsible leaders do. This happens out of sight in their heads as they observe, think continually about the future and search for different solutions. So instead of driving, we become passengers in a driverless organisation. That can work for a while, but sooner or later it will leave the road or run out of fuel.

Paradoxically, times of crisis can make the challenge of leadership easier, because we can see the threat. The more insidious threat is the slow erosion of capability and loss of direction that happens invisibly during normal times.

There is a kind of organisational entropy in which energy and structures gradually dissipate unless they are renewed.

The Post Office is just one of many examples. Transnet and Eskom are other high profile examples of organisations that lost little bits of the intricate systems that kept them effective until one day too many were gone and we discovered they were no longer fit for purpose. There are plenty of less prominent examples of small companies that disappeared.

Using a clockwork analogy, the mechanism simply wound down. If you are not looking for it, this is not something you notice until the clock stops. So an unrecognised but absolutely essential responsibility of leaders is to understand what their organisation will need in five, twenty or fifty years, and take steps now to acquire it – whether that be people, technology, money, innovations, strategic pivots, or power stations.

We also have amazing organisations that give us hope. At the head of organisations like Discovery, Gift of the Givers, Treasury, the courier companies that do deliver our parcels on time, and the restaurant that delivers hot food to your door, are people who never stop looking out for opportunities and threats. The best are preparing now for what will be required even after they have gone.

Jonathan Cook is a Counselling Psychologist and Chairman of the African Management Institute.


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