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The lesson of Trafalgar

By Clem Sunter

The reason England beat France and Spain combined at the naval battle of Trafalgar in October 1805 is simple. Lord Nelson and the captains of the fleet he commanded had plenty of years of sea experience under their belt; whereas the French and Spanish top naval officers were chosen from the aristocracy, some of whom had had no time at sea at all. The English commanders were professional: the French and Spanish commanders were amateur.

For exactly the same reason, if you look at the managers of virtually any sports team – be it rugby, cricket, soccer, golf, tennis, hockey – they have virtually all played the sport themselves as professionals and understand every aspect of the game. Their knowledge is built up over years of successes and failures and being au fait with all the other players and sides in the game. There no such thing as instant wisdom in sport.

In business, the identical principle applies. The best CEOs are the ones that have come up through the ranks and know the ins and outs of most of the jobs down the line. They have walked the job for years and have immediate empathy with their employees. They can put themselves into the shoes of their staff and customers and thereby anticipate their needs. Equally, they can think strategically and select the best tactics because the game they are in is in their blood. During their years at work, they will have gained the financial instinct which tells them what are good bets and bad bets in terms of projects and deals.

In education, the best principals are the ones who have sniffed the chalk on the blackboard and participated in the dynamics of the classroom – in other words they have been teachers themselves. They can tell the difference between a good and bad teacher a mile away. They put their heart and soul into improving the intellectual potential and life skills of the young people under their control.

With NGOs, the best directors are the ones who are regarded as champions in their field, tirelessly fighting for better conditions for the communities and the individuals they serve. Over time, they have developed close relationships with their major donors such that real trust binds the two parties. Trust never comes overnight. It always takes time.

The bottom line is that with leadership of any organisation, a primary requisite is professionalism. That can only be gained through experience combined with ethical standards which are never compromised. This would suggest that the leadership of every single parastatal in South Africa, every single municipality, every single hospital, the police, the justice system, the ports and harbours, all other infrastructure and all development agencies should be chosen on one single criterion: a thorough knowledge of the game and excellent performance in it over many years. In most cases, this means promotion from within.

Parachuting amateurs in for whatever reason – connections, gratitude for other work, nice guys that think in a similar vein – will result in the same thing that happened to the French and Spanish at Trafalgar. Defeat.

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