Tony Leon is a familiar face to many South Africans. For almost 20 years he has been a Member of Parliament, and for 13 years he led the DA and its precursor, the PFP. He is the longest-standing leader of the opposition in parliament since 1994. He grew the DA from the verge of political extinction into the second-largest party in SA. A trained attorney, Leon actively took part in the pivotal constitutional negotiations that gave rise to a democratic SA. He also served as a co-chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly’s Theme Committee on Fundamental Rights.
In 2007, Leon stepped down as leader of the DA. He was SA’s Ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay from 2009 to 2012. Since then, he has been writing, speaking and consulting to businesses about issues in SA and the world. He has authored three books: Hope and Fear: Reflections of a Democrat, On the ConCon trary: Leading the Opposition in a Demo- cratic South Africa and The Accidental Ambassador – From Parliament to Patagonia. Looking back, what are Leon’s biggest career mistakes? He narrows it down to three key areas:
Not following my gut instincts “This covers a variety of situations and encounters in a number of fields. Too often I have followed a cerebral approach to decision-making and shut down the emotional side. While I do not believe the heart should rule the brain, it does need to be in balance. Most of the mistakes that I made happened when I shunted aside my ‘inner voice’ or warning that a particular situation required a rethink because it left me feeling discomfited, initially. Events often proved the initial concern to be justified.”
Contracting out my thinking to others “While I generally have enjoyed a robust ‘ inner comp compass’ that points in the right direction, sometimes som I allowed myself, especially when un under pressure, to delegate some key decision decisions to subordinates. There is, again, a fine line l between proper delegation to other trusted truste members of the team on the one hand, an and always remembering that there can never nev be room for leadership to allow others t to make the key decisions on its behalf. A full and rational checking of available evidence is one thing, but allowing this through pre pressure of timing and events to let decisions decision be determined by others who have marshalled mars the facts and evidence can be co costly later on. ‘Time to think things thro through’ and reflect is often left at the back of o the mental queue when, in fact, it should sho be front and centre.”
SuccumSuccumbing to pressure “Mostly, I avoided this trap, but sometimes I was w wrongly swayed by the instant or moment of peer or media pressure into making a decision that I later regretted. Once again, there is a narrow but important distinction between listening and responding to outside and critical voices – which need to be heard – and allowing these to sway you off a necessary course of action.” And Leon’s learnings from these regrets? “All these are judgment calls, but my various careers and decision-making roles have confirmed that we mostly operate in less than ideal circumstances. A friend of mine, who held a senior position in the White House, put this best: “The essence of being a decision maker is making decisions with real consequences with imperfect information and with too little time.” So whatever lessons I learned from these ‘mistakes’, there is no iron-clad guarantee that they won’t be repeated in some instances again; as simple, and as complex, as that.” So, looking at their experiences, what are the key takeaways? Even though these three remarkable individuals have had very different stories and learnings, what they all share are humility, keen selfawareness and an ability to take ownership of their mistakes and turn these to their advantage. Even though it looks like things have come easy for them, just like the rest of us they have also their fair share of mistakes. The difference is that they don’t run from their failures. They embrace failure as an opportunity to learn and grow and to hone their craft – this is the real lesson in their stories.
Colette Symanowitz is Founder/MD of www.MBAconnect.net, a social network exclusively for MBAs from all business schools in South Africa and worldwide.