Friends & Friction: Accountable leaders don’t appoint yes men

2014-04-29 10:00

On May 3, four days before the general elections, it will be the birthday of Niccolò Machiavelli.

His book The Prince brought him notoriety and equated his name with crooked leadership.

It is an unfair charge because all he ever did in his book was to map the political terrain just like a cartographer mapping a hostile territory.

“Politics have no relation to morals,” he wrote, and for most people that is an uncomfortable truth, but life is a spectrum of truth that varies in levels of comfort, the most comfortable of which is self-deception.

Machiavelli would know more than most because he was both an Italian politician and a diplomat during the Renaissance, and three cheers to him for his honesty.

He wrote about politics, but his thoughts are equally applicable to business because it bears the twin evils of politics: money and power, the two reasons for so many boardroom coups.

“He who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command,” warned Machiavelli. Many people I know go into business for the wrong reasons. “I want to be my own boss,” they say. Well, there is no such thing as “your own boss”.

You only find that in cheap “how-to” ads that promise you the world and take all your money. There is always someone to report to – starting with the customer.

Customers pay for everything just like the boss at work. They have demands that if you fail to meet, they simply walk next door. End of story.

Accountability is the wheel of progress. It takes you forward. Never fear people who do as they please.

Even with all its deficiencies, democracy works because every few years leaders have to account to the people, who decide whether they have been good or bad – the majority wins.

So if you have intentions of starting a business, it is better to appoint a small board of advisers to whom you will account. As the business grows, the appointment of managers is important.

“A matter of no small importance to a prince [leader] is the selection of ministers, for their competence or incompetence will depend upon his capacity to judge, and the first estimate of his intelligence will be based upon the character of the men he keeps about him.”

Some ANC veterans say Thabo Mbeki’s biggest mistake was to keep Ndaweni Mahlangu as the premier of Mpumalanga after he had said it was “acceptable for politicians to lie”.

It made people doubt his judgement, or worse, that he wanted to surround himself with weak people that he could easily control.

Some decisions might look insignificant when put into perspective, but many diseases start like the common flu and grow to become an epidemic. Likewise, a company’s success cannot be greater than its management team.

Film producer Sam Goldwyn famously said: “I don’t want any yes men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their job.”

Kuzwayo is the founder of Ignitive, an advertising agency

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