Good leaders don’t fiddle while Rome is burning, ask Panyaza Lesufi

2015-09-14 20.09.53

What are the odds? This morning I was giving a talk at the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Council about the importance of responding to media queries. One of the things I emphasised was leadership.

I told the participants that in times of crisis, the public needs leadership. No amount of spin or delegation can beat the availability and visibility of leadership. I actually used the example of Ekurhuleni’s own son, Gauteng Education boss Panyaza Lesufi (pictured), who has mastered the art of response and showing leadership.

 The legend of Lesufi is there for everyone to see. This is one leader who drops everything in his diary to attend to and show face during any crisis. Whether it is the racial controversy at Curro Schools, or the Roodepoort Primary School debacle, or even the Vosloorus sexual abuse scandal involving under-age schools, Panyaza is there. He is not represented by a media statement or a spokesperson.

 Shortly after my presentation at Ekurhuleni, I rushed to a meeting with a CEO of large listed company. [I am not mentioning his or the name of the company because there is no relevance]. When I arrived I had to be escorted to the CEO’s office by security, which seemed odd. I know the man manages a multi-billion rand business, but I am the last guy to pose a threat to him. It was only upon arriving on his floor, where I was confronted by shouts, screams and song from striking employees that I made sense of the security escort.

What a relief. It would have been a serious inconvenience to wiggle myself past the angry employees. Funny though that being escorted to the boss’s office (suit and all), the strikers assumed I was part of the “establishment” and there were even a few shouts at me. Not all was bad. After all, some of the strikers were young, good looking call centre agents. Candy to the eye. But I digress.

When I got to his office, the CEO met me at the door and immediately asked to postpone our meeting. I was swept from under my feet. This is what I call leadership. Of all tools of public relations and reputation management, there is none that comes close to leadership. You do not fiddle while Rome is on fire.

I had waited for two months for this meeting and I was dying for my 30 minutes with this important person. And yes I was disappointed that he had to cancel me after waiting for so long to meet him. But I confess I was impressed by this stroke of genius. He showed leadership and attended to the most important thing: people. For after all a strike is about people. The issue may be money or working conditions, but ultimately, it is about people. And good leaders put people first.

I was equally impressed by his personal touch too in coming out of a presumably hot meeting with worker representatives, to look me in the eye, personally apologise for the inconvenience caused to me, and then committing in from of his PA that he shall shift Mount Sanai to make sure that our meeting is reinstated within days. I don’t remember what stopped me from applauding this man.

Does this mean he solved the strike by prioritising it and postponing me? Not by any long shot. Although I suspect he will, sooner than most of his peers. All I know is that he responded to the needs of his people and most importantly, in a problem-solving manner. It is one thing to respond during crisis, but it is more important to demonstrate that you are dealing with and solving the problem. That is public relations. That is reputation management.

How many times have we seen leaders send underlings, including PAs sometimes, to stand in for them when crisis hits? How many times have we seen leaders resorting to rosy statements instead of facing human beings and addressing them, even if the address is only to assure them that something is being done? We do not see that often, if at all.

As for him personally waiting to tell me that he cannot see me, that is a masterpiece. Again we know of leaders who are so important they move or cancel meetings with “small” people remotely or at the last minute. Worse still, others even forget that they committed to a meeting. And then they wonder why they have a bad reputation.