Leaders and the art of the smokescreen


Leaders can have charm, vision, self-confidence and charisma. These are endearing and even inspiring qualities. Yet sometimes there is another side to the typical leadership profile; some leaders can become arrogant, impulsive, egotistical and reckless.

Southern African country control has been in the international spotlight over the past week. Rulers continue to be opposed and even deposed. People around the world are slowly learning about a leadership sickness called Hubris Syndrome. This is understood to be similar to Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which is a mental illness, defined under the DSM-5 (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: American Psychiatric Association-2013).

It seems politicians and top businesspeople are particularly prone to this acquired mental disorder, especially those that hold (or hold on to) office for lengthy time periods.

But how to some bad leaders manage to remain in power for so long?  Do humans tend to face or forgive anything except the truth?

James Peron may be on point when he asks whether the main motivator for humans is not their virtues or abilities, but their deficiencies. And how many of us act not from the best within us, but from the worst?

A good place to start facing up to the truth is with de Coubertin’s Olympic credo, ‘To participate is more important than to win’.  An accomplished historian, Pierre de Coubertin was considered the father of the modern Olympic Games. His idea of competing being more important than winning was couched in an interpretation of Ancient Greek ideals.

Yet for the Ancients, the idea of losing in a competition would have been incomprehensible (and even insulting). For them, winning and victory was paramount (Perrottet T. – The True Story of the Ancient Games: Random House-2004). The Olympic Games’ credo may sooth bruised egos and even assist people to strive for improvement, but it fails at the altar of an inconvenient truth; that failure is a natural and necessary human constant.

Even the goal of the Olympic movement; to promote amateur sport and build a more peaceful, progressive world by developing friendship amongst nations is a smokescreen. The reality is better contained in over a century of strife within the IOC, political interference, boycotts, sports sanctions and lots of money blurring lines between amateur competition and professional sport. In truth the International Olympic Committee is just a big company, with athletes being the product and billions of fans as customers.

And do we care about who came second or even second best? Most people may wonder who John Garner, Ernst Schmied or Jurg Marnet were. John Garner was Vice-President of the US during the 12-year administration of Franklin Roosevelt. Other than being the longest-serving President of the United States, Roosevelt rated among the best statesmen in history and arguably was the most significant leader of the 20th century. One would think Garner, Roosevelt’s deputy during an astonishing period in world events would score a mention, or maybe just a memory.

Similarly, fame and accolades are preserved for Sir Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay, the first humans to summit Mount Everest. The efforts of of Ernst Schmied and Jurg Marnet were no less challenging or spectacular, but they were the second team in human history to summit the tallest mountain on earth. And who remembers second place?

Addiction to the smokescreen and cult of personality is not so easy to admit to, especially when the personality is the doyen of the world’s technology entrepreneurs- Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors and visionary extraordinaire.

Following third quarter results which delivered a $2.5 billion (R35 billion) pre-tax cash profit, investors were delighted to hear that two new electric vehicle (EV) models will be launched by the end of 2018, followed by a further 18 EVs after five years.  In September 2017, their particular affordable EV  car outsold the nearest competitor by a factor of 10. Moreover, the world’s first mass-production self-driving car was unveiled, developed in less than 14 months, and meeting industry safety requirements.

What could be more exciting than solid sales, innovation, excellent dividends and a six-year environmental-dream vision? But the personality making these announcements was not Elon Musk – it was the comparatively unknown Mary Barra, Chairperson and CEO of General Motors.

Elon Musk and Tesla have some serious problems. They have made the cardinal business error: overpromising and under-delivering. Eighteen months ago, Tesla requested advance deposits of one thousand Dollars (R14 000) for their EV Model 3. Some 500 000 customers placed orders and were promised deliveries commencing July 2017. Production was to ramp to 20 000 Model 3s per month within five months.

But Tesla has delivered only 87 Model 3s per month since launch, many of which were given to employees to test. Notwithstanding huge government tax incentives and a workaholic CEO, Tesla Motors is haemorrhaging cash, having spent over $2 billion in the past six months, with another $2.5 billion expected to be burnt by March 2018.

But Musk, unfazed by the inconvenience of reality, morphed into distraction mode at a recent press launch spectacle and sold glitz and hope – the thing his competitors seem to lack. Captivated by the smokescreen of cult, Musk unveiled the ‘brand new’ EV Semi-truck, the first of its kind. But that will only be available in 2019. He also encouraged his mesmerised audience to part with an up-front $50 000 deposit for a new Tesla Roadster. Delivery date: 2020.

Ford and General Motors, both over a century old have navigated financial depressions, World Wars and the challenges of the 20th century – but most importantly, they have concentrated on their core business. They sell cars, not promises.  And they don’t suggest upfront payments for products to be sold in three years.

Another cult figure was Karl Marx. He famously declared ‘From each according to their ability to each according to their need’, the maxim under which communism blossomed. In a single cliché, equality of outcome was made more important than equality of opportunity. It’s altruistic and it satisfies a populist narrative. Arguably, it is also the basis for Zimbabwe’s, South Africa’s and even Grahamstown’s social and economic woes. Throw in some patronage and corruption and you end up with the perverse mix of incentivising need and penalising ability.

Seems Karl Marx, Elon Musk and some of our smokescreen leaders may have some of the art of under-delivering in common?

  • Ron Weissenberg is an international citizen and Grahamstown resident who started his first business at age 7.  He is a Certified Director (SA) and mentors people and their enterprises.
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