My take on the Discovery Leadership Summit – 2010

Rudy GuilianiThe first thing greeting visitors to my studio-come-office on our Mooi River farm is a beaming yours truly sandwiched between Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger – the priceless memory of my meeting with two financial geniuses known to the world through their creation, Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett and Munger’s old-fashioned values and wisdom that only comes from the extremely well read, has influenced the lives of thousands, myself included. That photograph is a daily reminder that life should be a process of aspiring for more than material benefits.

By the time you read this, a new picture will be hanging next to Warren and Charlie. Another precious reminder of an inspirational journey on a Wednesday in mid-August when 1 800 of us were served a banquet of brain food by perhaps the brightest collection of conference speakers ever assembled in South Africa. A group who would pack out any other hall, any other day, anywhere on the planet.

It’s a reflection on the hectic pace of our lives that writers like myself are often forced to compress events of a day like this into a couple thousand words and then move onto the next assignment. More’s the pity. The Discovery Invest Leadership Summit provided a feast to be digested at leisure. As it will be over the month to come.

The major takeaways?

South Africa is a great place to be. Ironically, at breakfast I’d raised concerns about some dubious corporate deals with our host, Discovery Group CEO Adrian Gore. He smiled and nodded, conserving energy for a bigger audience. As you might imagine for a trained actuary, Gore used that most powerful of persuaders, cold factual data, to make his argument. After another impressive presentation he with the conclusion that South Africa is a nation which worries too much about its weaknesses. Perhaps because we listen too often to the negative biases portrayed in global media and don’t properly celebrate and build on our successes.

Apart from favourable economic comparisons with other major developing countries and the Western World (checked UK tax rates recently? Or American national debt?) Gore offered examples from the spectacularly successful World Cup to support his thesis – like the new King Shaka Airport which was built in half the time and at one eighth of the cost of Heathrow’s Terminal Five; the soccer stadiums completed quicker and cheaper than those constructed for other world cups; and the exceptional approval rating from foreign visitors, 90% of whom said they’d recommend the country to their friends.

All we need, Gore believes, is the kind of road map that was employed so successfully for the FIFA event. Craft it around a bold vision which draws people together and gets them looking upwards (“Why shouldn’t South Africa take a global leadership role?”); discipline; a strong set of values; and a can-do attitude which he describes as a vision for “skyscrapers” not shacks. Next time I’m assaulted by news of greedy politically-connected claim-jumpers, and are tempted to think them the norm, I’ll reach for the notes from Gore’s speech.

But there are areas of immediate concern. A South African with the presence of Maggie Thatcher, poise of Queen Elizabeth and intellect of Hilary Clinton provided the most sobering presentation. Dressed in a royal blue suit with the obligatory string of pearls and speaking over headmistress-like glasses, academic, thinker and globally recognised leader Mamphele Ramphele argued that our collective tolerance of opportunists is stopping the country from reaching its potential. Hers was the kind of treatise which would disabuse anyone from a notion that we’ve run out of leaders who care about building a fair society. She’s a missionary for those unpopular things like equity, honesty and self-sacrifice. Ditto Tokyo Sexwale who reaffirmed how he and other members of President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet are increasingly drawing on the Nelson Mandela Leadership Model. He reinforced that message by supporting Press Freedom, the hottest national topic of debate at that moment.

The split between a locally-dominated morning session and a more expanded follow-up worked well. After the reminder that effective leadership is needed for South Africa to overcome its challenges, we were then treated to an afternoon of fun, jollity and thought provoking ideas. And judging by the spontaneous chuckles and applause, it was appreciated by an audience as diverse audience as Pick n Pay’s CEO Nick Badminton (who flew up specially from Cape Town) to heavyweights like Carte Blanche bossman George Mazarakis and editors from all the major local and some international media (even the Wall Street Journal was there).

Our problems pale when compared with the rest of the world’s. This drum was pounded loudly by bestselling author and economic activist Nassim Taleb and his newfound friend, billionaire Johann Rupert of Richemont/Remgro fame. During the lunch break I eased over to where they were in animated discussion in the VIP longue to be greeted by a newly formed mutual admiration society who, after meeting for the first time, were delighted at how alike their world views are. They’d swapped notes ahead of their presentations and realized they were near replicas. Of all the six billion people on this planet, Taleb said, what are the chances of meeting someone here whose speech is exactly the same as mine? Especially as both he and Rupert are known for, well, being anything but orthodox.

Taleb must have won the toss as he went ahead with his prepared address, his incredible mind shining through the occasional difficulties of following a Lebanese accent delivered in rapid fire New York style. The author of the widely acclaimed bestseller The Black Swan, which accurately predicted the trouble the world is in today, warmed the audience by explaining his new line of inquiry was developed by observations made during a previous visit to South Africa. Life, he avers, is a choice between fragility and robustness. The more we specialize, the greater the fragility – and the bigger the fallout when the crash occurs. So for Taleb the financial crisis was inevitable rather than a shock. And the inability of global leaders to address the root cause, he says, is laying the foundation for even tougher times ahead – the so called “double dip” which he, Nouriel “Dr Doom” Roubini and a handful of other respected commentators keep warning about. Taleb believes Mother Nature’s built-in redundancy (two lungs, two eyes, two kidneys, when one would do the job) provides an obvious model for companies and economies; and is a great fan of what humans can learn from animals, using the matriarchal social structure of elephants as an example: “They keep the experienced old grandmothers around…….who do not tell young elephants what to do – they tell them what not to do.” In direct contrast, it seems, to human beings who see the elderly not as sources of wisdom, but too often worthy only of ridicule.

We’ll never know whether Johann Rupert’s prepared talk would have outshone Talebs, but there were no complaints about his hastily refashioned off-the-cuff presentation. Like Taleb, Rupert has a gloomy view of the global economy (so pessimistic that London’s Financial Times long ago dubbed him “Rupert the Bear”) and in the years before the meltdown, had been warning his wide circle of associates through a seemingly never ending string of fretting emails. His mind hasn’t changed. Rupert kicked off with: “When I saw that I was speaking behind Mr Black Swan I called my friend, who you probably know as Dr Doom, Nouriel Roubini, for advice on Nassim. Nouriel’s answer was that when he, Nassim and (historian) Niall Ferguson got together they were called the Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse. He said the FT’s moniker of Rupert the Bear was too banal and he called me Dr Armageddon; he thought that I should also fit in – so I welcome Nassim here as one of the Four Horsemen!” Another nice touch was during the time allocated for questions after each presenter’s talk when Rupert invited Taleb to join him on stage – they joked their way through small disagreements (Rupert likes gold, Taleb not; Taleb recommends farmland, Rupert not) with their informal banter providing one of numerous highlights on the day.

The clash that never happened. Like anyone absorbed by the classic bestseller Freakonomics, I wondered about possible fireworks between the other two imported speakers, the book’s co-author Stephen Dubner, and former New York Mayor and the man tipped by many inside the Republican Party as their future US President, Rudy Giuliani.

Let me explain. In Freakonomics, Dubner and co-author Stephen Levitt went into great detail to argue how a 1973 Supreme Court finding which legalized abortion in the US (Roe v Wade) was the real reason behind the famous drop in New York’s crime rate – rather than the more popular version ascribing it to Giuliani’s management when Mayor of the city. Perhaps there’s some code between high profile conference speakers, but neither Dubner nor Giuliani referred to what would surely have been a fascinating debate. Indeed, Dubner pre-empted any possible showdown by effusively praising the man who topped this year’s bill: “I live in New York City, I’ve raised my family there – my kids are nine and eight – and I promise you, I would not be living in New York City with my family had Mayor Giuliani not been the Mayor for those eight years, that’s the kind of job he did. So I know you are excited to hear him speak, but I am excited and grateful on top of that.” After removing that potential conflict with the headliner his style that reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s equally superb address to the Summit in 2009. Dubner challenged many pre-conceived ideas by peeling layers off case studies ranging from how hospital disease is linked to doctors who lie about washing their hands to using behaviour of monkeys to prove we’re not innately altruistic and then emphasising the value of asking unpopular questions.

The six principles of effective leadership. On a day like this, it’s hard to pick a highlight. But as he was kept for last, the organizers engineered that position for Giuliani, the man who shot to global fame through his calm and efficient management of the crisis which hit his city on 11th September 2001. He lived up to his top billing. Giuliani’s auto-biographical bestseller Leadership has been widely criticized in the US mass media for being one-sided. But that could be part of the phase the country is going through. An avowed Republican who regards his former boss Ronald Reagan as a great man, Giuliani is out of step in a country where it’s now fashionable to be a Democrat. But when American political support swings, as it surely will in that attention deficit disordered nation, the man’s star is sure to shine. He is clearly aware of that reality and certainly came across as a US President in waiting.

Giuliani offered the right balance between humility – admitting research for a book on leadership just ahead of “9/11” helped greatly in his handling of the atrocity – personal empathy by sharing what he learnt through overcoming prostate cancer and his forthright opinion. He stuck closely to the brief, sharing what he regards as six principles necessary for any effective leader to live by – having strong beliefs; being optimistic; possessing and exhibiting courage; remaining committed to meticulous preparation; living the team by surrounding themselves with people who are strong where they’re weak; and communication (“you have to care about, love people, because people have to be led by human beings, not numbers.”).

Much of what Giuliani said is still working its way through my mind. But one of the gems was a lesson he turned into a chapter in his book called Weddings discretionary, funerals necessary. He explains: “My father taught me from the time I was quite young that it’s more important to go to funerals than weddings…..because people need you more at a funeral. Weddings are great celebrations, everybody wants to go, but at funerals, somebody really needs you, they’re having to face loss, no matter if it is a young person or an old person. And they need their friends, they need people around them to share it with them.”

He added: “I translated that in every organization that I was in into meaning that when things went wrong, that was the time to be there. If everything’s going right, if you can be there, that’s great. But when things are going wrong, that’s the time that you have to be there. You have to be able to give support, to give help, you have to be able to give advice – and this means also in somebody’s personal life. We all have personal lives where things go wrong. You’ve got to be there to help them. If you do that, if you are there for them, they will be there for you.” What a wonderful thing to trigger when my work day is greeted by that picture of the relaxed politician next to tense journalist grabbing a freshly signed book like the precious treasure it truly is. Somehow I don’t think the world has heard the last of former Mayor Giuliani.

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