Lessons from Vivien: Great management is like the art of Zen — it is observed and mastered in the oblique

The highest recursiveness of greatness is to be surrounded by the best people, themselves often the invisible leaders

2nd February 2023, Daily Maverick


There is a tendency for us all to hanker after glorious leaders who will take the centre stage and show us the way. But what we actually need are the unseen leaders, who just get things done time after time.

The new year is upon us and with that a raft of new challenges in a bed of problems from last year — and even further past — that we cannot shake. The question in the minds of many people is what kind of leadership do we need to allow us to go forward and make the most of the opportunities 2023 undoubtedly holds.

One thing is certain, no sustainable progress is possible without properly addressing the legacy issues that bedevil us all; whether it’s the inability of Eskom to supply power on an uninterrupted basis to the country or to do so without further polluting the air and the groundwater in Mpumalanga especially.

The world is beset by issues concerning the environment, society and governance, but in South Africa, they have a particular resonance.

When it comes to leadership, there is a cacophony of calls for hero leadership; the fabled captain of the ship. One person setting the course, making all the decisions, creating the budgets, picking the teams. Family meetings. The all-wise, avuncular figure at the podium.

That is not what hero leadership is at all, but it’s very much what we are getting more and more of in a world that is mediated through social media and the dopamine rush of selfies and likes. Life isn’t a Hollywood film set and leaders who need this kind of narcissistic affirmation are far more trouble for the business than good.

Cultivating these “heroes” sows the seeds for all manner of problems, key among them cynicism among the one-time believers amid the knowledge that the underlings, especially junior leaders, are only going to get exploited in the big man’s rush for glory.

Eventually, people sit on their hands and wait for someone else to do it — either because they have become cynical or because the leader has demanded that.

What we then end up with is something that used to be printed out and sellotaped to factory walls in the 1980s:

“There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realised that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have.”

A great business leader is one who recognises that they should not be the smartest person in the room. In fact, a great leader sets the scene, makes sure that the executives and managers have the tools — and then gets out of the way. Great management is like the art of Zen. It is observed and mastered in the oblique but disappears when you look at it head-on. If you stare at where you think it is for too long, it metastasises.

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It’s something I have been thinking about a lot recently because I lost a very dear colleague last month. Not many people would have known Vivien Spong outside the business school where she dedicated the last 23 years of her career, before retiring 10 months ago.

She was the senior MBA programme manager at Henley Africa and had been there from the very beginning. But for the thousands of students, graduates, faculty and staff whose lives she touched in so many ways, her presence was unforgettable.

She did the ordinary things extraordinarily well; solving problems, navigating crises, quietly getting on with her job. She did not post self-aggrandising pictures or notes about herself, she never boasted. She would probably be appalled that I am using this space to remember her life and the lessons it contains for all of us.

She refused to accept praise for doing her job, even when she did it better than anyone else, because in her mind she was just doing her job. She was like a pilot who always believes that success is when every take-off and every landing adds up to an even number, otherwise the job hasn’t been done.

There is a tendency for us all to hanker after glorious leaders who will take the centre stage and show us the way, but what we actually need are the unseen leaders, who just get things done time after time. We don’t celebrate the Viviens in this country, more’s the pity; the often-invisible managers who just get on with the job and make the wheels turn, irrespective of the distractions and dramas that life throws in their way.

We don’t hoist them up high and showcase them for their deeply imbued purpose of showing up every day, rain or shine, in good health or not, because they dare not let the business — and the people who make up that business — down.

Vivien’s reward was the incredible quiet satisfaction of doing her job well and enjoying every moment of it, in her quiet way, deriving so much from seeing the journeys of those who she had helped, as they entered as students and left as confident and capable business leaders.

The highest recursiveness of greatness is to be surrounded by the best people, themselves often the invisible leaders. The role of the visible leaders should be to rely on the Viviens and to give them the space to do their jobs to the best of their ability, to give them the resources.

What the top leaders should be doing too is keeping the poseurs, who are only there for the Facebook likes, retweets and the next job in their LinkedIn resumé, in check to give the Viviens the space to flourish.

In January 1961, Jack F Kennedy addressed the people of the United States on his inauguration as president of that country. In words that resonate to this day, he exhorted them: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country”.

It’s high time we started asking that of ourselves as citizens of this country. As business leaders, it’s time too that we asked that of the companies where we work. Leaders should be looking to add value to the institutions and the people within, not their own careers.

This year is going to be tough; it’s starting off a whole lot harsher than 2022. No amount of rhetoric or platitudes will save Eskom or our failing municipalities or create jobs for the desperate.

The options for leaders are stark: emigrate, get out now while you can, or recommit to making a difference. There’s no magical solution, just unremitting hard graft — and the eventual reward of knowing you did your job the best you could.

Let that be your legacy. Just like Vivien Spong.


Professor Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa, and chair of the Association of African Business Schools https://www.linkedin.com/in/jon-foster-pedley-b83805/.

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