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Leading through a crisis: A personal note

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Leila Fourie is Group CEO of the JSE.

I feel like I have experienced my entire CEO career in the past fortnight. I am sure other business leaders feel exactly the same way. There is no playbook, no studies at business schools that can prepare you for the coronavirus pandemic.

Since we are in a war, a world war against a virus, I have been looking at what some of the greatest war leaders of the 20th century did, people like Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt, during their own incredibly uncertain and existentially threatening times like Dunkirk and Pearl Harbor.

As my sense of isolation, like yours, has ebbed and flowed I’ve sought inspiration in the teachings of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who endured 27 years in jail only to emerge energised to rebuild a shattered country and forge a nation out of all of us, against incredible odds and the expectations of a cynical world.

But perhaps the example that’s particularly relevant to me as a mountaineer has been Ernest Shackleton’s doomed Antarctic expedition of 1914. It was a horror show. He lost a ship in the ice cap and had to keep his people sane, while they tried to get to safety. It would take five months. But he did it. I know Antarctica. I had the privilege of summiting Mount Vinson there two and a half years ago at -37℃. It’s a forbidding landscape, the conditions are relentless, but Shackleton triumphed.

How did he do that? He had a purpose and a vision, he was a leader but also a manager. He never lost sight of the details. He never for a moment forgot the people around him, irrespective of their seniority, or their welfare. He made sure they had a plan too and work to do because he knew they were scared. But he was also scared. The trick was that no one ever knew this. He made mistakes, learnt from them, owned them – and then he moved on resolutely. He improvised. He made a plan.

One of my early mentors was the great Jacko Maree, who taught me that all big decisions require equal measures of self-confidence and self-doubt. The role of leaders is to navigate between those, to lead safely through crisis, containing the panic of those around you.

The heart of every crisis is that it affects people. But none of us is on our own, teams exist to do what individuals can’t. It’s vital to empower and trust those teams to do just that. We need to delegate, not abdicate authority, but never absolve ourselves of the responsibility of taking all the big decisions, swiftly and resolutely.

Looking back, I seem to have lived through a lot of crises during my lifetime: Black Monday, when the apartheid government defaulted on its loans in 1987; the Asian crisis in 1998; 9/11 in 2001; the 2008 global financial crisis; and, now 2020; the very first time in modern history that we have had to deal collectively with a common global enemy that has infected the real economy.

We will get through this one. We will do it by putting our people first; looking after them but also depending on them. We need to speak more not less. We will do so by relying on our judgment and walking a tightrope between complacency and catastrophe. We will be courageous without losing our vulnerability and – most importantly, we will take a long term view of this immediate crisis. 

As a mountaineer, I know that getting to the summit is the objective, but getting myself and everyone back down safely is non-negotiable. BM

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