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For whom the bell tolls

20 April 2014, 11:50

Lots of speculation is currently going on about the impending fall of the ANC and Jacob Zuma’s time that’s running out.

On the other hand the ANC is denying this and they are all gathering inside a laager.

There is a lot of emotion involved around this topic, with wild accusations and assumptions accompanying this. All this reminds me of President Kennedy and his inner circle with the Bay of Pigs debacle in April 1961 when the tiny island of Cuba successfully warded off an attempted invasion by the mighty USA.

This is where the concept of “group think” was coined. This concept explains the behaviour of groups who think they are invincible and where dissent from the prevailing view is not tolerated.

History shows, repeatedly, that the mighty can fall. The Egyptian Old Kingdom, the Chou Dynasty, the Hittite Empire, Athens, Rome fell. Even Britain, which stood a century before as a global superpower, came to a fall. This history led to the realisation that when an organisation or country is at the top of the world, its very power and success might cover up the fact that it’s already on the path of decline.

This realisation and history prompted Jim Collins and his team to write book How the Mighty Fall, which is a report on research conducted around the fall of successful organisations.

The team describes the five stages of decline in these organisations. There is a message in there for the ANC, and the hope is that this rot can be turned around before our beloved country gets dragged down with the ANC.

Here is a brief description of the five stages, beginning with
stage 1, arrogance born of success. Great organisations can become insulated by success; accumulated momentum can carry an organisation forward for a while, even if its leaders make poor decisions or lose discipline. Stage 1 kicks in when people become arrogant, regarding success virtually as an entitlement, and they lose sight of the true underlying factors that created success in the first place. When the rhetoric of success replaces penetrating understanding and insight, decline will very likely follow. Luck and chance play a role in many successful outcomes, and those who fail to acknowledge the role luck may have played in their success - and thereby overestimate their own merit and capabilities - have succumbed to arrogance.

Suppose you discount your own success and thereby worry incessantly about how to make yourself stronger and better-positioned for the day your good luck runs out. What's the downside if you're wrong? Not much, if you're wrong, you'll just be that much stronger by virtue of your disciplined approach. Suppose instead you attribute success to your own superior qualities. What's the downside if you're wrong? Significant, you just might find yourself surprised and unprepared when you wake up to discover your vulnerabilities too late.

Arrogance from stage 1 leads right to stage 2, undisciplined pursuit of more - more growth, more acclaim, more of whatever those in power see as "success." Organisations in stage 2 stray from the disciplined creativity that led them to success in the first place, making undisciplined leaps into areas where they cannot be successful. When an organisation grows beyond its ability to fill its key positions with the right people, it has set itself up for a fall. Although complacency and resistance to change remain dangers to any successful organisation, overreaching better captures how the mighty fall.

Taking action inconsistent with your core values is undisciplined. Launching headlong into activities that do not fit with your economic or resource engine is undisciplined. To use the organization primarily as a vehicle to increase your own personal success - more wealth, more fame, and more power - at the expense of its long-term success is undisciplined. To compromise your values or lose sight of your core purpose in pursuit of growth and expansion is undisciplined.

As organisations move into stage 3, denial of risk and peril, internal warning signs begin to mount, yet external results remain strong enough to "explain away" disturbing data or to suggest that the difficulties are "temporary" or "cyclic" or "not that bad," and "nothing is fundamentally wrong." In stage 3, leaders discount negative data, amplify positive data, and put a positive spin on ambiguous data. Those in power start to blame external factors for setbacks rather than accept responsibility. When those in power begin to imperil the organisation by taking outsize risks and acting in a way that denies the consequences of those risks, they are headed straight for stage 4, grasping for salvation.

The cumulative peril and/or risks gone bad of stage 3 assert themselves, throwing the organisation into a sharp decline visible to all. The critical question is: How does its leadership respond? By lurching for a quick salvation, or by getting back to the disciplines that brought about greatness in the first place? Those who grasp for salvation have fallen into stage 4. Common "saviours" include a charismatic visionary leader, a bold but untested strategy, a radical transformation, a dramatic cultural revolution, or any number of other silver-bullet solutions. Initial results from taking dramatic action may appear positive, but they do not last.

When people find themselves in trouble, their survival instinct and fear can prompt lurching - reactive behaviour absolutely contrary to survival. The very moment when they need to take calm, deliberate action, they run the risk of doing the exact opposite and bringing about the very outcomes they most fear. By grasping about in fearful, frantic reaction, late stage 4 organisations accelerate their own demise. Of course, their leaders can later claim: "But look at everything we did. We changed everything. We tried everything we could think of. We fired every shot we had, and we still fell. You can't blame us for not trying." They fail to see that leaders of organisations in the late stages of decline need to get back to a calm, clear-headed, and focused approach. If one wants to reverse decline, be rigorous about what not to do.

The longer a company remains in stage 4, repeatedly grasping for silver bullets, the more likely it will spiral downward. In stage 5, capitulation to irrelevance or death, accumulated setbacks and expensive false starts erode financial strength and individual spirit to such an extent that leaders abandon all hope of building a great future. In some cases the company's leader just sells out; in other cases the institution atrophies into utter insignificance; and in the most extreme cases the organisation simply dies outright.

The point of the struggle is not just to survive, but to build an organisation that makes such a distinctive impact on the world it touches (and does so with such superior performance) that it would leave a hole that could not be easily filled by any other institution if it ceased to exist.

To accomplish this requires leaders who retain faith that they can find a way to prevail in pursuit of a cause larger than mere survival (and larger than themselves) while also maintaining the stoic will needed to take whatever actions must be taken, however excruciating, for the sake of that cause.

However, there is always hope. Many successful organisations took at least one tremendous fall at some point in its history and recovered. Sometimes the tumble came early, when they were small and vulnerable, and sometimes the tumble came when they were large, established organisations. But in every case, leaders emerged who simply refused to give up on the idea of not only survival but ultimate triumph, despite the most extreme odds.

The signature of the truly great vs. the merely successful is not the absence of difficulty. It's the ability to come back from setbacks, stronger than before. Great nations can decline and recover. Great organisations can fall and recover. As long as one never gets entirely knocked out of the game, there remains hope.

Now that you have read through these results, apply your mind and inquire about the significance of this to the South African Government. What are the implications if we do nothing and just carry on with our lives as usual?

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