We need big picture leadership

Every business school textbook tells you that it is one of the most important traits of a good leader – the ability to see the big picture.
Weak leaders get caught up in the details of the day-to-day management duties.
Balancing the budget ahead of the upcoming board meeting; dealing urgently with the red flags raised in the recent audit report and ensuring that new appointments meet the employment equity targets agreed to with the department of labour.
Then a crisis hits and within minutes you know whether you have a “big picture” leader or one who remains consumed in the minutiae of running the organisation.
Consider recent crises, from the corporate world and from education.
I really do not know what on earth the leaders of insurance giant Momentum were thinking.
When the story broke last week that widow Natalie Ganas would not get a life insurance payout of R2.4m, the Durban family’s dilemma would quickly become a compelling public interest story.
Natalie’s husband, Nathan, was gunned down as he rushed to protect his wife during a car hijacking in Shallcross.
Momentum claimed that the deceased had not declared his high blood sugar levels and that, therefore, he did not qualify for the payout.
Compounding the poor widow’s misery, Momentum further demanded that Natalie Ganas return the funeral benefit payout of R50,000.
Twitter went crazy – this was exactly what greedy insurance companies do.
They take your premiums, but they are reluctant to pay claims.
Talk show hosts swooped on the story like hungry eagles on a fattened bunny rabbit in a lean and hungry news season.
And then the unbelievable happened.
One Momentum executive after another took to the airwaves to defend its decision as they got lost in the legal and procedural details of what counts as a legitimate claim.
The media took them apart as social media went viral.
“He [Ganas] died because of bullets, not because of complications due to diabetes. “Pay the grieving woman.” So what does Momentum do in the face of relentless pressure? It decides to return the premiums paid by the Ganas family – a small fraction of the full payout – and the family can keep the funeral benefit.
Momentum’s executives mistakenly thought they were containing the firestorm informed by that section of the managerial handbook called precedent; if you do it for one, it will be open season by claimants.
After several excruciating days of managerial ineptitude, the penny finally drops for Momentum as the reputational damage from its prevarication and the real threat of business losses dawned on the profitmaking organisation.
Natalie Ganas would be paid the full amount of R2.4m.
By now the damage done by small picture thinking was incalculable.
More than one educational institution has been struggling with big picture leadership recently.
At one of the country’s best schools, Rustenberg Girls’ Junior School, it was found that its only black teacher had resigned or, more accurately, had been asked to leave for her own sake.
Small picture thinking defended the decision, hinting that the teacher was incompetent and failed to deliver despite professional support.
Perhaps. But the big picture questions were overwhelming – in more than a century of its existence and more than two decades since apartheid, the white-dominant school had had no black African teachers.
The crisis was a potential gift to big picture leadership: how can we use the opportunity to address the larger questions of transformation.
Thankfully, this is what Rustenberg is now doing.
Not too far away at Herzlia Middle School, two of its pupils “took the knee” at the point where a vocal ensemble started to sing the Israeli national anthem at a school graduation event.
Small picture leadership jumped to the fore: the pupils would be sanctioned for this simple, non-violent act of protest.
If only Herzlia had big picture leadership that said something like, “What a wonderful teaching moment to discuss civil disobedience?” or even some self-congratulatory slap on the back that “Maybe we are doing something right – our pupils have learnt to act on the courage of their convictions!”
Instead, shortly after the event the parents received a letter that displayed classical small picture reasoning – the pupils had demonstrated “blatant and flagrant disregard for the ethos of the school … flouting of the school rules … [and] Herzlia’s Zionist values”.
As at Rustenberg, social and traditional media responded angrily.
Several agonising days later, as criticism of the school mounted, United Herzlia School announced the crisis had been “resolved amicably”.
In all three cases small picture reasoning comes at a cost – unwanted publicity, reputational damage and, in the case of corporate organisations, the loss of revenue far exceeding what was withheld, as in the case of Momentum.
Now more than ever, SA schools, universities, businesses and, needless to say, government, need big picture leaders.
It starts with a simple question: what is in the best interests of the organisation?
Or better still: what is in the best interests of the country?..

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