The Assassin

The sun rose quietly over Dawn Park, a suburb on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa. It was Easter weekend so most people were away on holiday. In many ways it was the perfect African morning. A refreshing cool breeze in the air gently hinted at autumn’s arrival, but it wouldn’t be long before the sun climbed higher, warming the African landscape. It was sure to be a beautiful day, Nomakhwezi, a pretty fifteen-year old girl saw it that way. She was waiting for her father, who had gone out briefly to buy a newspaper, to return. Her mother and sisters were away for the weekend and she had been looking forward all week to spending time alone with her Dad. Today he was going to be all hers, he’d promised. Nomakhwezi stood at the front door, she couldn’t wait for his return.

The year was 1993 and like the seasons, most things in South Africa were changing fast. Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) had been unbanned in 1990 and the great man himself had been freed after 27 years of imprisonment. The ANC were now in a position to negotiate the transformation towards democratic and free South Africa. But progress had faltered. The Convention for a Democratic South Africa: CODESA I and II had seen parties walking away from the negotiating table. The ANC’s back up plan of rolling mass actions to bring the white ruling party back to the negotiating table was backfiring. Their mass action rallies had resulted in too much bloodshed and a recent confrontation with police in Bisho had resulted in twenty-eight supporters being killed. South Africa was on the tipping point and heading fast towards civil war. A group of right-wing extremists wanted to help give South Africa a push into racial turmoil. They’d drawn up a hit list of senior ANC officials. On the list were Nelson Mandela, South African Communist Party leader Joe Slovo and the charismatic ex-head of the ANC’s military arm (the Spear of the Nation or Umkhonto we Sizwe) and now Communist Party Secretary General Chris Hani was third on the list.

The same morning that Nomakhwezi waited for her father to return, Janus Walus a keen Shokotan karate devotee and right-wing extremist headed off to find his dojo empty. He’d forgotten that it would be closed on Easter Saturday. Not perturbed, he headed to the local Gun Exchange and emerged with 25 rounds of 9mm subsonic ammunition. En route home he planned one more detour, a stake out of Chris Hani’s house. Driving his red Ford Laser, he came up to the gentle bend in the road where Hani lived. The driveway was secluded with only a limited view from neighbouring houses. It was then that he noticed Hani driving away from his house. Walus floored the pedal to catch up, he’d been a rally driver previously, so he quickly got in behind Hani’s car and followed him to the local shopping centre. There he guessed Hani was out buying provisions for the morning. Double-checking he noticed that Hani’s bodyguards were not present. This left him with a dilemma. He hadn’t planned to carry out a killing that day nor did he want to shoot Hani in a shopping centre. Quickly he made up his mind and raced back to Hani’s house –  an opportunity like this would not come around again. He stopped his car outside the house and pulling on his gloves, he waited. Over the next few minutes, events unfolded that would change the course of South African history far quicker than anyone could have expected.

Chris Hani returned, drove into his driveway and climbed out of his car. Nomakhwezi stood at the door, smiling now her Dad was back. It was then that she noticed that a man was walking up behind him. Walus called out “Mr Hani”, as he didn’t want to shoot him in the back. But as Hani turned, Walus shot him once in the body. Hani fell to the ground and Walus raced forward shooting him three more times in the head. He calmly turned and walked away as Nomakhwezi began to scream.

Across the road Retha Harmse, Hani’s neighbour had been driving past in her car. But before she could fully comprehend the scene, it was all over. Walus climbed back into his car with an arrogant stride and drove off. As quickly as possible, Retha pulled into her driveway. Running inside, she picked up the phone and called the police.

It was the quick action of a white woman that ensured the apprehension of Janus Walus. Police on patrol were quickly radioed and within ten minutes they had his car boxed in. He was found with blood-splattered clothes, gunpowder on his gloves and inside a carrier bag was the gun he’d used to murder Hani.

Friends of Hani found Nomakhwezi sobbing the word “They shot my daddy. I saw it. It was a white man…my mommy is not here”. In one heinous act the dreams of both a young girl and the nation were shattered.

The assassination of Chris Hani sent the nation of South Africa into a state of shock. Over the next few days many waited for the first clashes of what was sure to be a bloody battle between blacks filled with hatred and revenge and indoctrinated whites fearing change.

I was a young white man in my first job at the time of Hani’s death. I’d just left university and was working for a large Bank whose head office was in the centre of Johannesburg. I was shocked and angered by Hani’s murder. Who was this Polish immigrant who had committed such an atrocity? How could a foreigner be responsible for plunging my country into civil war? If it came to it, I felt determined to fight with the ANC, to fight for the dream of a democratic and free South Africa. I recall looking out of my office window, there had been news of mass demonstrations in the centre of Johannesburg and as midday approached so did tens of thousands of mourning, angry black warriors. I could hear them chanting and toi toing as they took to the streets and sang their way into Johannesburg and past our office building. There was a throb of helicopter blades in the sky, but conspicuous in their absence were the military forces in their Buffalo anti-landmine personnel carriers – a symbol to many as the enforcer of Apartheid. At Mandela’s request, FW de Klerk, the State President of South Africa had ordered the army to stay clear and to allow the ANC to marshal the grieving masses as they drove into the city. I left my office and joined the march. It was important to me to show that it was not just Blacks who were angered by Hani’s death but Whites as well.

Mandela stepped in and even though he was not yet head of state he addressed the nation. In a now famous speech, he called for calm and restraint. He pointed out that it was the quick action of an Afrikaner woman, the very ethnic group that Walus believed he was fighting for, who had led to the killer being apprehended:

“Today, an unforgivable crime has been committed…a crime against a dearly beloved son of our soil…We are a nation deeply wounded…This killing must stop…we must not permit ourselves to be provoked by those who seek to deny us the very freedom Chris Hani gave his life for. Let us respond with dignity and in a disciplined fashion… The ANC dips it’s banner in salute to this outstanding son of Africa” – Nelson Mandela

What followed Hani’s killing , was something which Walus and his conspirators had not envisaged. The atrocity brought the leaders of the negotiating parties closer together and made them more determined to negotiate a peaceful ending. Leaders from both the ANC and ruling National Party recognised the urgency and importance of collaborating. A channel of communication was quickly required and so it was decided that Roelf Meyer and Cyril Ramaphosa would form this channel.

The fishing hook

Meyer and Ramaphosa were both trained as lawyers, but  in 1993 the similarities ended there. Roelf Meyer was the son of a Boer, an Afrikaans farmer. He studied law at the Afrikaans university of the Free State and was president of the conservative student council. In 1979 he entered politics and by 1991 was Minister of Defence and later Minister of Constitutional Affairs. Cyril Ramaphosa by contrast was a trade union leader and political activist. Growing up in Soweto, he studied law at what at that time was the  ‘black only’ University of the North. Whilst at university he became involved in student politics, which resulted in him being detained in solitary confinement for eleven months in 1974 under Section 6 of the South African Terrorism act. In 1976 he was detained for a second time and held for six months. After being released and finishing his law degree he started the National Union of Mineworkers and later the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

To form a bond between two very different individuals a catalyst was needed. The story of how Ramaphosa and Meyer came to trust each other has entered African folklore and the events themselves were in many ways as miraculous as South Africa’s transformation to a peaceful democracy.

Meyer and Ramaphosa along with their families were invited to spend a weekend at a trout farm in a beautiful mountainous region. This “family holiday” was a gamble, it was still unheard of in South Africa for a white family to holiday with a black family. As you can  imagine the holiday got off to a slightly uncomfortable start and to ease the tension a fishing trip to one of the trout lakes was suggested. Meyer and his children had never fished and it was Ramaphosa who undertook the task of teaching them. Suddenly there was a scream of pain. Meyer had imbedded a hook deep into his hand while casting. Ramaphosa’s wife, who was a nurse struggled to free the hook from his bleeding hand but to no  avail. Ramaphosa fetched a pair of pliers and handed Meyer a glass of whiskey. He looked at Meyer and pulled out the hook. It is reputed that afterwards Ramaphosa joked with Meyer saying that he’d always wanted to hurt the Nats (members of Apartheid South Africa’s ruling party) but never that much. After this Meyer and Ramphosa became good friends and negotiated a constitution that bonded the majority of the parties at the negotiating table. The rest as they say is history. On  27 April 1994, little more than a year after Chris Hani’s assassination, South Africans of all colour lined up to vote for a government of their choice and on the tenth of May, Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected President.

It is believed that Hani’s murderers actually speeded up the process of transformation rather than slowing it down or ending it all together –  something thy would never have planned.

Having now won an election Mandela knew that the hard work had just begun. He had inherited a country divided and full of racial tension and fear. The accounts of how he brought a nation together using the Rugby World Cup of 1995 are well known and have been immortalised in Clint Eastwood’s film ‘Invictus’. Suffice to say that what Mandela recognised, was a need to show the people of South Africa that together as a tribe they could be great. Now his challenge was to instil this belief throughout South Africa.

The Power of Tribes

Dave Logan the author of the book Tribal Leadership believes that every company, indeed, every organization, is a tribe, or a network of tribes. His research has revealed that tribes are more powerful than teams, companies and even their leaders. Logan has identified five levels of tribes, who are recognisable by the way they behave and speak.

Level One is the domain of those people who say “Life sucks” – this is largely the space of violent gangs and prison inmates.

Level Two is people who say, “My life sucks” for example this is a group of people who may say things like “My life sucks because I don’t have your boss or didn’t get the bonus.” They blame the people around them or their life circumstances and undermine the successes of people around them.

Level Three is the group of “I’m great” and the unspoken part of the sentence is “and you’re not” Entry to this level is strictly protected and there is a clear divide between the haves and have not’s.

Level Four is the tribe that says, “We are great”. This tribe recognises that collectively they can achieve more than as just talented individuals. People at this level are on a quest and their joint energy and passion propels the group forward to achieving ever more.

Level Five is the “Tribe of Life is great.” This is a tribe who is embarking on a world-changing mission. They are doing things that have never been done before.

Logan’s studies reveal that most tribes cohabit levels two and three and he believes that leaders need to help raise these tribes to levels four and five. Mandela never put it as eloquently as Dave Logan wrote in his book, but Mandela’s actions and leadership clearly demonstrate that he intuitively understood the nature of tribes and how powerful they are. Mandela had inherited a country where the majority of tribes were either at Level Two – “my life sucks” or Level Three – “I’m great and that these two levels of tribes were pitted against one another potentially destroying the vision of South Africa he’d sacrificed so much for”. He also recognised that he had to get the majority of South Africans to believe that they needed each other and that only together they had the capacity to become great. The Rugby World Cup of 1995 provided Mandela with an event that could visually and emotionally help people identify this truth and believe that only collectively could they become great. The 2010 FIFA world cup also goes a long way towards reinforcing this belief, another great event that Mandela fought hard to deliver for his country.

Building Talented Companies (and Countries)

Looking back at these events in South Africa’s history I’m captivated by what was going on behind the scenes. Of course brave leadership from Mandela, de Klerk and their teams saved South Africa from a bloody civil war. And undeniably South Africa still has problems and unfortunately subsequent leaders have not had the visionary insights to continue building what Mandela started. But there is no denying that what Mandela was trying to do was get people, the tribes of his country, to believe in each other. His aim was to unite and most importantly to identify that collectively – not individually  – they are great and that together, they could achieve the impossible.

My research shows that these are the building blocks of creation in what I am calling ‘talented countries’ and ‘talented companies’. What is interesting from my studies and research is that the very best companies can be categorised as Level Four or Level Five companies, according to Logan’s tribal criteria.  Companies like Apple, Google and Zappos are level four and level five companies all display the characteristics of talented companies. There is no doubt in my mind, that Mandela was setting in place the building blocks to build a talented country.

But this raises an interesting question – can a country or even a company be considered talented? There are clearly talented singers, actors, sport stars and managers. But can a bank, a petrochemical company, a retailer or even a utility company be considered talented? On the face of it, looking around at the economic crisis and environmental disasters we find ourselves in, the immediate answer would appear to be no.

The realm of talent seems to have been confined to individuals or teams and a lot has been written about talent. In fact entire industries and business functions are based around identifying, attracting and engaging talented people. We have created a world that reveres talented individuals – we seek out the star player, the outliers, the ones with the X-Factor and we go to great lengths to reward them for their talent. This is understandable. History is full of examples of people doing extraordinary things. But my research is revealing signs of a shift in how talent operates. We now live in a world that is so connected and networked that increasingly it is no longer individual geniuses but groups of individuals who collectively make amazing breakthroughs and change the world. Take Dr Craig Venter and his team, who recently succeeded in developing the first living cell to be controlled entirely by synthetic DNA. Dr Venter is clearly the figurehead, but it is his team of researchers from around the world, who collectively created this ground breaking technology that will change the world. There are signs that we are entering a world where individual talent is not as effective as collective talent.

There is another reason for this. The 15th September 2008 represents an important milestone in human history. It was the day that Lehman Brothers collapsed and catapulted the world into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. But it was also the day that a number of very talented individuals gave the institution of business a bad name. Over the ensuing months, it has become more and more apparent that a number of very talent individuals, from high profile business executives like Bernie Madoff and Enron’s Jeff Skilling, to numerous investment and hedge fund managers, plus politicians embroiled in expense scandals and even highly respected sports stars, all have behaved badly. The problem with putting our faith in individual talent, is that we build a house of cards and when one card falls, the entire deck comes tumbling down with it.

Like Mandela, leaders need to recognise that great businesses are build on the back of tribes who believe that collectively they are great. This is the realm of the Level Four and Five tribes. Business leaders need to keep putting the building blocks in place that will assist tribes in their businesses and countries to move up to the next level. Together they need to believe that collectively the world is a better place, because they belong to that particular tribe.

There are many lessons that business leaders can take from South Africa’s near collapse. Many of the problems we face today – global warming, financial meltdowns and environmental pollution, to name but a few are bringing the world to the brink of disaster. Rampant capitalism and consumerism culture has dominated and shaped our society for several decades, So there is no denying that today businesses appear to be the cause of many of the world’s problems. But businesses are also responsible for a lot of good. Businesses have facilitated and coordinated the passions and creative innovations of individuals. Amazing inventions, miracle drugs and improved standard of living are just some of the positive contributions businesses have made to society. Today business provides millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in tax revenues each year, improving infrastructures and standards of living, which in turn increases the life expectancy of millions of people around the world. Of course there are problems, but undeniably business as an institution has been one of humankind’s most important inventions.

The trouble today is that businesses are not seen in this light. Most people see businesses as selfish, greedy and even the root of evil. Over this next decade businesses have the opportunity to change this image. If that doesn’t happen, regulators, governments and even customers will force changes upon them, which may not be to everyone’s liking. The time has come for businesses to regain the high ground and be seen as the positive contributors to society that most of them have the potential to be. Much will have to change but there has never been a better time for brave new leaders to build and even reinvent the companies of the future. It’s time for leaders to build talented companies.

Characteristics of a talented company

I’ve identified seven traits of talented companies and over the next few months I will be writing a series of articles that covers them. Talented companies:

  1. Understand that what they do is not (always) who they are
  2. Recognise that no one cares about what makes them different
  3. Deliver the benefits of friendships to their customers, employees and partners
  4. Recognise that collaborating is the name of the game
  5. Chase the vision not the money
  6. Recognise it is not about leading or controlling, but about identifying the quest, a dream, the bigger purpose that binds the tribe together
  7. Recognise that marketing is everyone’s business and that opening up your business to outside scrutiny is good
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