A conversation with Zainal Samodien – Area Manager Kimberley Kopano Central



What is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?


The world faces a crisis of confidence in leaders across the public, private, Sports, religious, and traditional sectors. We have seen spectacular public fall of global and local icons who are now disgraced, humiliated, facing trial or are in jail. These range from: 

  • Politics: President Zuma (South Africa); President Park (South Korea); President Lula

(Brazil) and Prime Minister Razak (Malaysia) 

  • Sports: Oscar Pistorius (South Africa); Lance Armstrong (USA); OJ Simpson (USA) and Ben Johnson (Canada).
  • Business: Markus Jooste (Steinhoff); Robert Madzonga (VBS Bank); Leon Kirkinis

(African Bank); Arthur Brown (Fidentia); Brian Molefe (Eskom); Hlaudi Motswaneng

(SABC); Lucky Montana (PRASA) Hisao Tanaka(Toshiba); Roger Ailes (Fox News) and John Stumpff (Wells Fargo); 

  • Companies: KPMG; Bain; McKinsey; SAP; Enron; Oxfam, FIFA; Bell Pottinger  

All these political, corporate, sporting and religious scandals have contributed to a huge loss of confidence in leaders across the world, with growing scepticism and cynicism engulfing leadership circles. This has affected even highly respected educational institutions who groom and train young leaders and they have had to examine their curriculum and their approach to ethics. 

I have strongly argued that integrity is the fulcrum upon which ethical leadership rests – I hope that this leadership platform and other leadership engagements will help produce a new generation of leaders characterized by selflessness; service, probity, and humility. 


What is the one mistake you witness leaders making more frequently than others?


The most prevalent mistake I see Leaders doing is bullying and domineering Leadership behaviours based on their authority and role. Across the African continent, we are witnessing depression, anxiety, mental illness; suicides, miscarriages, stress and fear as leaders cause untold misery to thousands of employees. These bullying leadership behaviours include: 

  • Belittling their efforts; 
  • Constant changes to structures and roles;
  • Harsh and negative feedback resulting in humiliation; 
  • Unrelenting pressure for results;
  • 24/7 constant communication and work pressure without regard to family time or rest; 
  • Domineering attitude in meetings, giving no space for any other ideas; 
  • Ego driven decisions and projects at great organizational and personal costs; and 
  • Leaders whose mood swings determine the quality of the working environment. 

Many of these leaders are blind to their impact on others, others have made cosmetic changes when these are brought to their attention; whilst there is a strong group that actually does not care at all. This dominant group justifies its actions by pointing at results, or hides behind powerful backers within organisations, or worse of all, blame the victims. 

Our hope against these bullies is the growth of social media, no horrible deeds goes unnoticed in our current world, and sooner or later, these bullies will be exposed. 

My hope and prayers are that our young and aspirant leaders will create a more humane, fulfilling, challenging, productive, fun filled and empowering working environment. 


What is the one behaviour or trait that you have seen derail more leaders’ careers?


I think that the behavioural trait that has seen more leaders’ careers being derailed. I’ve seen so many amazing careers being derailed because of hubris and pride. 

Our greatest mistakes and flaws are often exposed at our moments of greatest triumph. It is at this point of high altitude, in the true “death zone” of leadership, that we lose our knowledge of ourselves and become arrogant and self-serving, committing acts that may bring about our downfall from the highest peaks of adulation and admiration. 

As leaders’ progress in their career, as glory, fame and fortune beckon, it is increasingly difficult, but absolutely, critically important, for leaders to remain grounded in “knowing thyself”. That is the oxygen of leadership survival in the dreaded “death zone”. 

Throughout my life, my father played the role of a key advisor, occasionally scolding, advising, or inspiring, always teaching me what true leadership was about. There were many times he held me back – I now know it was for my own good. There were times he pushed me too hard – now appreciate he did it because he had my interests at heart.

While ruling Rome, Marcus Aurelius was concerned he might let his power go to his head. As legend has it, Aurelius hired a servant to literally follow him around as he walked the empire’s streets. Every time a citizen bowed a knee or called out a word of praise, Marcus Aurelius instructed the servant to whisper this reminder in his ear: “You’re just a man. You’re just a man.” We all need those voices that whisper to us, that tell us what we may not want to hear, that ensure our fidelity to principles and values and that always make sure that the role and mission is more important than the position or personal ego. 

I urge each one of you to have a Council of Advisors around you. These are the discreet people who listen without broadcasting your troubles and failures; they are the wise counsellors who temper your enthusiasm with a dose of realism and constantly, yet gently, remind you that you are a mere mortal with great flaws and weaknesses. In my own life, my beloved wife, Sva, has been the Chairperson of my Council of Advisors for over 28 years together, giving both solicited and mostly unsolicited advice in my personal, professional and spiritual life. She and other advisors (some are friends, others are family members, while others are colleagues) have kept me grounded and pointed towards my True North.

My advice to young and aspirant leaders, beware of pride, arrogance or hubris – never allow your success to cloud your judgment and always ensure that you surround yourself with great advisors. 


What are a few resources you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?


There are many resources out there from YouTube; to books, to Podcast to University articles and journals. I fear that there are more leadership books, journals and documents from Liz Wiseman; Steve Covey; John Maxwell; Marshall Goldsmith, Simon Sinek; Ken Blanchard; Robin Sharma; James Kouzes; Barry Posner; Ram Charan and many others. I have also benefited from great lectures and interactions with amazing leaders. 

The most profound impact in my leadership journey has really been many unsung heroes and heroines who have shaped my life. When I look back in my life, the people’s whose teachings have left an indelible mark on my life are my parents, my grandparents, uncles, priest, sport coaches, line managers, and liberation struggle veterans who crossed my path. It is their kindness, their time, advice, words of support, reprimands, coaching and guidance that still ring louder for me than any management book read, leadership lecture attended or leadership intervention experienced. In your own life, Zainal, it is the words and more importantly deeds of those who have touched your life that will resonate more with you than leadership books – those leadership books are and resources are important to merely reinforce what exists as your leadership foundation. 

There are many of these people to mention, but each one of them, left a huge impression on me. They are my main resources and reservoirs of knowledge and advice, some way beyond their time on earth. 


What advice would you give to someone going into a leadership position for the first time?


I may sometimes sound like a stuck record, but there are 5 key things I would advise them about, namely; 

  • Understand why you want the leadership role, is it more about personal goals or is there a higher purpose as well. If you took the role for a much higher purpose, you will find your personal goals and fulfilment because of your role in fulfilling a higher purpose. That is the joy and fulfilment I have received in my career.; 
  • Have a humility to accept that the team may not know you, may not like you, or may not trust you. It is your role as a leader to break down the barriers, get to know the people as a team and as individuals- always remember that trust is earned; loyalty is earned and leadership itself is earned; 
  • Try and fully understand the team, it’s needs, requirements, and expectations. Also take time to understand the way they work; the nature of the business and solicit views from the team before you make any changes; 
  • Always remember that before you became a leader, you succeeded as an individual, now your whole success, your progress, possible promotions are all dependent on the success of the team. Make them succeed, and you will succeed, make them shine and you will shine; finally 
  • Create a fun, vibrant, empowering and an awesome place for people to work and succeed. When people do well, celebrate them publicly, as individuals or as a team, but when things go wrong, reprimand privately. 

As you grow in your leadership role, as accolades and praise come your way, you must always have that small voice that says: 

  • It was not possible without this team; 
  • I want my team to be more recognized and I want them to grow as I grow; 
  • It’s never about me; it’s always about them; 
  • When things go wrong, I will take accountability- when things go well, I will always give credit to the team; and finally 
  • Always challenge yourself about how you are challenging your team to become not only better professionals, but better leaders and better human beings. 

Allow your staff to be themselves, to bring themselves to work, to talk about and share their personal journeys. 

Enjoy the journey of leadership, it’s a life fulfilling mission. 


What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow and develop as a leader?


Leadership is a discipline, a skill acquired and developed, it must always be nurtured, honoured and improved as any good artist would. There are three things I do to keep improving my leadership skills: 

  • Firstly, I am my own harshest critic, I always want to get better and I am always benchmarking myself against the best objective measures. This requires brutal honesty with yourself, an ability to send correct, huge self-awareness and the ability and humility to admit when you are wrong;
  • The journey of leadership is lifelong learning. I am a keen student of leadership, I’m always learning from other leaders, from my teams, from leadership books and from learning and development interventions geared towards leadership. Because leadership is about people, I also take a lot of time to learn about different styles, races, cultures, religions, and other dimensions of human life; and lastly 
  • Receiving regular feedback from your teams also enables you to improve, to appreciate your blind spots; to understand your weaknesses and to build on your strengths. 

There will be times when you feel down, when you feel that you have let yourself and others down, part of your growth is about digging very deep and to find that inner fire in your belly that wills you towards success. 


How do you become an authentic leader and what is the core competencies you require?


The most critical step required towards authenticity is to know who you are, what you stand for, what your value system is; and how strong your values are. There is an old saying that says, “when someone shows you who they are, believe them”. So, people will take what you Project yourself to be the embodiment of who you are and what you stand for. Being authentic and staying authentic therefore is about staying true and being consistent to who you portrayed yourself to be in the very beginning.

This means that you have to say what you mean and mean what you say. The more gap there is between your words and your deeds; the more different your actions are today versus yesterday and the more opposite your words are depending on the context and setting, the more you lose your authenticity and your credibility. Some people are very skilled and smooth, they can create a particular image of themselves, sustain it over a long period of time, but unfortunately the day the mask is removed, the loss of confidence becomes fatal. 

Being authentic does not mean you cannot change your mind, that you are inflexible etc, it just means there is a strong correlation between the private you and the public you; a strong coloration between your words and your deeds; and a strong coloration between your values and your actions. 

Do become truly authentic you require integrity- this is important as who you are, what you are, what you believe in and your core values are likely to be consistent regardless of the circumstances, adverse impact on you or the different settings you find yourself in. 


Other than your title, why should anyone be led by you?


There is absolutely no reason anyone should be led by me. The roles of leadership I have assumed have not been elected nor chosen by those I am meant to lead. For all intense and purposes, I always assume these roles as being illegitimate. It is only through my words, thoughts, and most importantly deeds, over a long period of time that people eventually embrace me as their leaders. 

It is also more challenging for me because I believe in building the teams I find in any new environment. This means that 90% of the people and leaders I find in a team, I leave that role with those people still in that team, or sometimes they may be promoted. This challenges me to work hard to be accepted by a team in a new country, New geography, New discipline etc. I do not like the common management practice of “bringing my own people” that is prevalent these days. 

Finally, some of the teams or individuals may be so opposed to you, for various reasons such as:

  • You were not the right person for the job; 
  • You are not suitably qualified for this job; 
  • You are not from here, you are a foreigner; 
  • This job would have been done much better by X;
  • We loved our previous leader Y, he should have been allowed to stay; 
  • You think you can change us or change the way we do things; and 
  • We know you from reports about where you worked, we don’t like you or your style. 

Your job as a leader is to win over these people and lead them towards higher goals and ensure that they also succeed in their personal and professional lives. 


What do we need to do today to pull the future toward us and beat the competition to the future?


The competition is fierce, there are traditional and non-traditional competitors, and only a few players will win, in order for us to prepare ourselves for such a victory, we need to do the following: 

  • Always focus on what matters to customers by placing customers at the centre of all our decisions. Those organisations that are built around customers, develop appropriate solutions to customers and develop proactive approaches to customer journeys; 
  • Use our rich data to develop data driven strategies, develop data driven products and use data to make proactive offers to clients; 
  • Leverage the current technologies such as Artificial Intelligence; robotics; block chain technologies and augmented reality to create more digitized engagements with customers; 
  • Create an environment of innovation and collaboration with other players such as Fintechs companies to deliver new solutions to customers and 
  • Match the ingenuity of Millennials with the experience and expertise of other employees to unleash the creative and innovative talents of your staff 

All this has to be done at a pace that responds to the demands of our time and the changing preferences of customers. 


What is your “secret sauce” what are the 3-5 leadership principles that you have discovered and executed that have contributed to your success?


I am not sure that there is a “secret sauce”, but the key things that have made sense for me, that I keep using are: 

  • I have found that leadership visibility and engagement creates an environment of trust and commitment between a leader and those he leads. I have certainly enjoyed traveling across different countries engaging customers and staff members and getting direct feedback from the people on the ground; 
  • Treating everyone I meet with respect and dignity, regardless of their position and status has enable me to close the difference between those of us in leadership roles and those on the coalface of delivery; 
  • Focusing on very transparent, genuine, and objective performance based remuneration and reward mechanism have helped me to demystify the reward the remuneration processes; 
  • A strong belief in empowerment and diversity has always helped me to help create dynamic and successful diverse teams, with a huge bias towards women development; and finally 
  • I always want to create atmosphere of fun, energy, creativity and lots of humour. 


Can you please talk about “execution”? How do you insure that your strategic plan actually become reality?


I think that most of the time there is a false juxtaposition between Strategy and Execution. Strategy is about a set of choices a company makes on where to compete and how to win to maximize long-term value. Execution, on the other hand, is about producing results in the context of those very choices. Therefore, you cannot have good execution without having good strategy.

Ken Favaro underscores this point when he points out that everyone would agree that you cannot achieve good results without having good execution; similarly, most would also agree that having a good strategy alone is no sure-fire formula for success. He concludes, “too many jump to the wrong conclusion that this makes execution more important than strategy.”

It is through diligent, consistent and disciplined execution that one can take a brilliant strategy and produce the intended results. It is also through such execution that one can test the efficacy of the strategy in the real cauldron of life. 


What are the keys to developing the next generation of leaders in your world?


The greatest key is to be developing the next generation of leaders is to address three key challenges the next generation of leaders will face: 

  • Firstly, given the lack of confidence in leaders as a result of these huge corporate and political scandals, we must instil a strong sense of values, selflessness, service, integrity and probity in our next generation of leaders; 
  • The next generation of leaders must lead within the context of the 4th industrial revolution and the new technologies that come with it; 
  • Embracing millennials and creating a more diverse workforce is critical for the future; and 
  • Creating a new future through a society that is more humane; more equitable and more sustainable. 


How do you build the heart and spirit of your team and how do you go about building trust?


I think the most important thing is to be sincere and consistent in your efforts to create a real “Gees”. I’ve watched Leaders fail to create the “heart and spirit “or “Gees” in spite of huge efforts and great plans – most of the time it is because the “Gees” is seen as “once off”, or its “an add on”, the rest of the time the environment is characterized by fear, pressure, intimidation and victimization etc. The building of “hearts and spirits” or “Gees” has to be an integral part of the culture of the business, it must complement an environment of trust, empowerment, leadership visibility, staff engagement, high performance and regular communication. 

All these efforts will result in higher productivity; improved staff morale; higher retention; better performance and high levels of trust. In my career, I’ve invested in these efforts, because I believed in them sincerely, the results have been happy people, who then give great service and great financial results.