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Claudelle von EckChief Executive Officer of the IIA SA

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Shall we dance? Leadership is an art - Part IV

Posted By Claudelle von Eck, Friday, 28 December 2018
Updated: Friday, 28 December 2018

(This is part of a series. I would advise that you read the earlier blogs first before you get your teeth into this one. My normal disclaimer: These are lessons I have observed, but do not claim to have mastered)

It has taken me forever to write this fourth instalment of my blog on leadership lessons from the dance floor. In my defence, it has been a rough ride of a year. So much has happened in our country and being in the space I am in, I wasn’t going to come through unscathed. It was inevitable. Those of us who work in the governance sphere felt the brunt of all the governance failures as the veil got ripped off one scandal after the other. Having been part of the SAICA Inquiry into the KPMG saga meant spending a lot of time out of the office and literally running with three jobs (Yip, I am still acting CEO of the Academy and thus reporting to two Boards). Mercifully the Inquiry is behind us now and I can focus on my two normal jobs. Long-winded way of saying sorry for taking this long to sit down and finally finishing the fourth instalment. It had been sitting at 80% complete for almost a year. Had to do some load shedding (my South African readers will understand this comment).  

In reflecting on the interesting developments within and beyond the South African context, it is clear to me that the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity that we have to deal with as leaders will only keep on increasing.

Our now constantly shifting realities increase the need for strong, mature leadership that is able to thrive in situations where nothing is simple and clear. Part of the complexity is one’s ability to dance with others without losing the rhythm or leaving blue toes behind.  

About a year ago, just before I started working on this particular blog I had to attend meetings in Orlando. It is a loooooooong trip and all I wanted after landing was a nice room with a shower. But, alas, the minute I walked into the hotel, I was disappointed. I honestly did not like the hotel. What can I say, my vibe and the hotel’s vibe simply just did not gel. It made me feel grumpy (yes, I know I sound ungrateful). Everything changed the minute I discovered that a dance Championship was being hosted in the hotel. I of course just had to buy a ticket to go and watch on one of the evenings. Nearly fainted when I saw the price of the ticket (result of living in a country with a fairly weak currency against the Dollar), but it was a unique opportunity and how was I supposed to resist? It was a ProAm (a championship that caters for both professionals and amateurs). They started off with the amateurs and then moved onto what they referred to as the rising stars. Forgive me for sounding conceited, but while watching the amateurs I could not stop myself from thinking that they made me look like a pro. My self-gloating did not last very long though. When the rising stars entered the dance floor they quickly made me eat humble pie. I kid you not, I felt like an absolute amateur, but what a delight it was to watch them dance. It made me so happy to watch them glide over the dancefloor and expressing the rhythm in ways that made me green with envy. And, I have to admit, for the first time I felt a tinge of regret that I had not put more effort into perfecting my technique. When you see the music pulsating through every muscle, one has to bow in awe.

Compare yourself against and emulate the pros, not mediocrity

I have watched pros dance on many occasions, but what was different in Orlando was that I was right next to the dance floor and I could not only see them move to the music, but I could see the music ripple through their individual muscles. I was blown away, and trust me, it is not all that easy to impress me. Obviously these couples spend an enormous amount of time practicing and perfecting their craft.

The reality is that there will always be those who are not quite as skilled as you are in a particular field, and others who make you fade in their shadow. When we are not exposed to those who are better than what we are at performing our craft, we could easily succumb to believing that we are the best. We then run the risk of mediocrity becoming our yardstick over time, as the world moves on.

After watching the amateurs dancing in Orlando, I could have walked out at that point thinking that I am a really good dancer. I would however have deprived myself from seeing what great really looks like. It is so important that we do not become complacent where we are. We need to consistently seek out those who are on the leading edge and have been able to master skills at a deeper level than we have. Then emulate leading practice. Seeking out is a very deliberate action. We should however always remember that the leading edge is a moving target. What is great today may very well be standard tomorrow. The minute we think we have arrived at our destination we will be left behind. If those you have looked up to are not constantly raising the bar, don’t become fixated on them forever.  

There is of course the danger of the inner little monster that loves to whisper “I am not good enough” taking centre stage and dulling our senses into believing that we can’t go beyond where we are. An inferiority complex is as bad as a superiority complex. Both imprison you.

But, when you dance in partnership, it is not just about you. If your partner does not constantly up his game in tandem with your efforts, your growth is stunted. To be able to hone your dancing skills you need a partner who can go to the same depths and heights that you are attempting to reach. When we find ourselves unequally yoked we can’t move at the speed our purpose was built for. I have mentioned before that I was among Tony’s first students who joined him more than two decades ago. If Tony did not keep on chasing the leading edge, he would have become my ceiling.

There will always be people who underestimate you. Command respect, do not demand it

I’ve said this before, I am a self-confessed dance snob. I know it is really bad, but please don’t judge me. What I mean by being a dance snob is that I don’t like dancing with just anybody, especially not with guys who are not yet strong enough in their lead technique, and I honestly don’t like sharing the dance floor during my dance lessons, especially not with beginners. I am easily distracted and can therefore not stand being on the same floor with people who do not get lost in the music and need their instructors to count the rhythm for them. When I enter the dance dimension and then hear “one, two, three, one two three”, I want to pull my hair out. For these reasons it is very uncommon to find me at socials. Too noisy and too high a likelihood that guys who are not in my league (sorry, I’ve already confessed my snobbishness), may approach me to dance with them.

After I had started with this series, I realised that I hadn’t been to a social (intended to give students the opportunity to practice in a safe space) in such a long time that I could not really remember exactly how it made me feel. So, in the interest of presenting a comprehensive account of the dance floor, I had to go and do my research by attending a social or two (the things I do for those who read my blogs :-/. It was hard work!).

The most vivid memory from the first social I attended was the fact that when I walked in I was a total stranger. Nobody made an effort to talk to me at the table where I found myself and I had to work hard to get some conversation going. It was like pulling chicken teeth. Until it was finally my turn to dance with Tony and suddenly everything changed. They all wanted to talk to me. See, they thought that because I was a stranger, I must be a beginner. Reality is that whenever you find yourself in a new context, you may very well be regarded as a beginner and second guessed until you have proven yourself. Comes with the territory. Sometimes it is necessary as it helps to keep us humble.

The attitude toward me changed, not because I came in with a haughty attitude and demanded that as the most senior in the room I be treated with respect. I can safely say that I was the most senior in dance years. I did not reveal who I was, but rather in trying to draw conversation, I focused on them. Asked questions about their love for dancing. By the time I got onto the dance floor I knew more about them then they did about me. By the time I got off I could settle into my seniority, but now there was also a sense of goodwill that accompanied the respect.

Too often we become impatient with people not recognising what we believe is the greatness/seniority in us. We can become so fixated with being seen and respected as great leaders that we forget that when people follow us willingly we can lead them much further down the road without fear of mutiny. We also forget that when we are under the cloak of unassuming anonymity, we are able to learn a lot more about the lay of the land than when people think they must impress us.

We command respect. When we demand it, people may make the right noises out of fear. That is not respect.   

I was told that my blogs are too long for the millennials. Concentration span, small screens etc. Part 2 of Instalment 4 will therefore follow in a separate blog :-). It’s already 80% written, so I won’t take a year to post it :-). Where have you heard that before? Lol! 

Tags:  leadership; leaders; leading edge; excellence; com 

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Comments on this post...

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Devoshum Moodley says...
Posted Friday, 18 January 2019
Good reading. I await your next blog. I would however humbly request that you write a blog about the KPMG saga and what lessons were learnt in this regards. Also as internal auditors, are we really needed in the public sector and private sector looking into the whole controversy around state capture? Did internal auditors play a part in state capture? How did we deal with the unfair practices of senior management? Do our audit committees add value based on the fact that in the public sector this is a position that is heavily reliant on whether the Executive authority or the Director General are friends with the audit committee. What about the high fees that are paid?
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Philip F. Hodson says...
Posted Saturday, 19 January 2019
How often have we heard "where were the internal auditors/auditors" when problems are encountered in a business. Purely from where I sit, mainly at home, I find it hard to believe that internal auditors both in the public and private sector have not been to the forefront of the battle against "state capture", when one takes into account the evidence being led at the Zondo Commission. Surely at least one major incident should have identified by IAs. Perhaps it was,
but I missed it. I remain of the view that this remains one serious weakness in the Profession, that IAs do not have the guts to stand up to the very people they are responsible for auditing, I guess because they fear for their jobs. While KPMG have been made "scape goats", how many IAs have been identified for dereliction of duty. To me it is impossible that IAs could not have been aware of what was going on in many cases. Why not volunteer to give evidence to Zondo! Is the IA ethics code being practised? Not having practised for many years I may be expecting too much, but with the amazing development of the Profession over the passed 20 years, and all the qualifications Professional IAs are expected to have, I simply fail to understand where the IAs and indeed Profession has been over the passed 10 years. Please don't write a long saga about KPMG, but rather focus on the IA Profession and its failures in the State Capture issues.
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Devoshum Moodley says...
Posted Wednesday, 13 February 2019
Well said, Philip F. Hodson.
Permalink to this Comment }

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