ATHENS, 19 MAY 2005


The Effective Management of Great Changes

and the Role of Leadership in Social Modifications.


As is the case with so many areas of human enquiry, the first person to think deeply about change was a Greek – Heraclitus of Ephesus.  500 years before Christ he observed that  “You cannot step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.”  He believed that everything was in the state of permanent flux and, thus, that reality was nothing more than a succession of transitory states.


He was right.  Our species – homo sapiens – is defined by change. Perhaps the most significant difference between us and all of the billions of other species that have evolved since the beginning of creation is this: every single one of those other species depended for its survival on its ability to adapt successfully to its environment;  in contrast, our phenomenal success lies in our unique ability to change our environment to suit our own needs.


The ability to manage change is much more pressing now than it was in the relatively tranquil and static times of Heraclitus.  Now, 2 500 years later, we can make the following three observations about change:


During the past century – and particularly since World War II – there has been an exponential acceleration in the pace of change.  Our society probably has changed more during the past ten years than it did in the first ten thousand years of our development as a species.


Change is also unpredictable. Some of the main developments that have fundamentally transformed the world, were entirely unforeseen only twenty years ago:  think of the internet and the world-wide web; the collapse of the Soviet Union and international communism and AIDS.


The change that we are experiencing is also fundamental.  It affects virtually every aspect of our lives.


The question for us as countries, as companies and as individuals is how we should deal with the uncertainty that this accelerating, fundamental and unpredictable change is bringing to our lives.


Sixteen years ago we South Africans began a process of historic and fundamental change.  How did we manage the process and what was the role of leadership?


In the mid 1980s South Africa was caught in the grip of a seemingly irresolvable conflict.  Indeed, it was difficult to imagine parties that were further apart than the National Party, the IFP and the ANC.


What  enabled these parties and the other twenty-three that joined them in the multi-party negotiations to bridge the enormous chasms that divided them?  I should like to suggest the following.  There was common acceptance that:


There were also certain objective circumstances that had created a window of opportunity for us:


What were the requirements of leadership in the management of the ensuing transformation process?  From the perspective that I have gained during the subsequent twelve years I have been able to identify the following  requirements for leadership of major change processes:


An impartial and dispassionate assessment of reality

At the beginning of the ‘eighties, it was becoming increasingly clear to many of us in leadership positions in the National Party that we were on the wrong course.  We were becoming more and more isolated from the international community with each year that passed.  The great majority of black South Africans were increasingly adamant in their rejection of our policies and the solutions that we were trying to sell to them.  As a result, we had become involved in a downward spiral of resistance and repression that threatened at some stage in the not too distant future to erupt into full-scale conflict.


All of this was having an increasingly damaging effect on our economy and was threatening to shut down the engine of economic growth that was, and remains, our best hope of bringing all our people a better life.


My colleagues and I spent a great deal of time identifying our problems and wrestling with the need for fundamental change.  In open and often brutally frank discussions we examined the hard and unpalatable facts that confronted us.  Our greatest challenge in managing the transformation process was to acknowledge these realities, to admit our failure to bring justice to all South Africans and to confront our fear of radical change.


Our analysis led to the inescapable conclusion that white South Africans and the Afrikaner nation would have to accept a future as part of a non-racial South Africa.  This, however, would mean the end of their own historic right to exclusive national self-determination as a separate people in their own sovereign territory.


An essential element in leadership is the acceptance that decisions must be guided by strong values and principles.

The main reason for our acceptance of change, was not the pressure that we were experiencing from the international community or rising discontent in South Africa.   We could have remained in power for many years to come.  We could have weathered sanctions and withdrawn into a grim fortress of national isolation.  After all, this is the kind of option that many other embattled states have chosen.  However, we also struggled with the question of what was right and what was wrong. For me the key point was simply the realisation that the policies that we had adopted, and that I had supported as a young man, had led to a situation of manifest injustice.  It was this, in the final instance, that persuaded me and my colleagues that we had to accept the risks of radical change.


The next requirement is to accept the need for real change. 

Knowing and admitting that you are on the wrong course and being able to do anything about it are two quite distinct issues.  The prospect of imminent disaster has not always persuaded those at the helm to alter course.   History contains a woeful tally of leaders who have resolutely steered their countries into war and their companies into bankruptcy, despite the direst warnings of dangers ahead.  Others, just as often, have, through indecision and inaction, allowed their countries to drift rudderless onto the rocks.


Resistance to change is deeply ingrained in us.  We fear the unknown and dread the prospect of moving into uncharted waters.   In our case, in South Africa, the whites and other minorities had well grounded reasons to fear change.  We were deeply concerned about:


For this reason leaders have to accept the need to take calculated risks.  We realised that the greatest risk would be to do nothing at all.


Some of the followers of the ruling National Party were not prepared to take the risks involved in radical change – even though they could see the breakers smashing on the reefs ahead.  In 1982 some of the most die-hard elements left the National Party and established the Conservative Party.  They did so because the Government had, by that time, already begun to change course.


The departure of the Conservatives greatly facilitated the task of those of us who remained behind.  It was no longer necessary to make unwieldy compromises to keep them on board.  Leaders must be prepared to encourage those who are steadfastly opposed to their vision, to disembark.  It is better to accept a smaller power base than to allow a faction in one’s power base to block what must be done.


One of the most notable risks that I had to take occurred in 1991 when the National Party started to lose bye-elections – primarily to the Right.  The Conservative Party claimed that we had lost our mandate to continue with our new course.


I decided – against the advice of some of my closest advisers – to call a referendum among the white electorate to renew and strengthen my mandate for reform.  In the event, the referendum, which was held in March 1992, resulted in a two-thirds victory for the continuation of our transformation policies.  If I had lost the referendum I would have had to resign.


Having accepted the need to change, leaders must avoid the temptation of pretending to change.  Very often countries, companies and individuals who know they must change, pretend to change.  They think of brilliant new ways of doing the wrong thing better.  Smokers, like myself, will tell themselves that if they cut down the number of cigarettes they smoke they will be addressing their problem.   Others who are overweight will fool themselves that by taking no sugar in their tea, that they are really coming to grips with their problem.  The same thing happens on an international and national scale.  For example, when he launched his perestroika reforms, President Gorbachev continued to insist that there was basically nothing wrong with communism.  It just had to be reformed and implemented in a more open and democratic manner.  In the same way, countries and companies will, for sentimental reasons, cling to industries that are no longer relevant instead of breaking through into entirely new cutting edge technologies.


For years we white South Africans also fooled ourselves that we could ‘reform’ apartheid and thereby avoid the traumatic decisions and risks that real change always involves.  It was only when we accepted that we would have to take extremely uncomfortable decisions and risks that real change could begin.


Once a leader has accepted the need to change he must articulate a clear and achievable vision of where he wants to go.  On 2 February 1990 I presented a new vision to the South African Parliament of a peaceful and democratic solution to our problems.  I said that our goal was “a new South Africa:


By 1994 – to the astonishment of the world – we had turned our vision into reality.


A vision gives direction and purpose to our actions and provides a way of measuring our progress.  Without a vision, we have no idea of where we are going or of how far we have come.

Leadership  requires special  communication skills.

We live in a world of perceptions – and perceptions are created as much by how we communicate as by what we do.  For us it was very important to convince the media and the world of our vision.  It was also essential to encourage our own supporters and reassure them that we were on the right path.   Most people can deal with change and are even prepared to make painful sacrifices – but they cannot deal with uncertainty.

Timing is crucially important.

Even when you have become a leader, it is foolish to be vociferously right at the wrong time or to move so far ahead in the right direction that your followers can no longer hear or see you.  History and events move at their own pace – sometimes agonisingly slowly, at other times with frightening speed.


A leader intent on managing change must watch the tides and currents and must position himself accordingly.  More than this, however, he must also be ready to ride the wave of history when it breaks.


After my inauguration in September 1989 the great historic events that were occurring in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union created such a wave.  The collapse of international communism helped to allay fears of Soviet expansionism and of the influence of the South African Communist Party within the ANC Alliance.  The stage was ready for the speech that I made on 2 February 1990 in which I announced our diametric change of course – including the release of Nelson Mandela, the unbanning of all political parties and movements and the launching of constitutional negotiations.


Another principle that I followed in taking these far-reaching steps – some of which I knew would cause great concern to many of our followers – was to announce all the decisions at once,  rather than to do so in a piece-meal fashion.  If one has to cut off the tail of a dog, it is much better to do so with one clean and decisive stroke, rather than by cutting the tail off piece by painful piece.


Leaders must persevere.

Having taken the decision to embark upon radical change, the main challenge to leaders is to maintain control of the process and to persevere until they have achieved their objectives.


I realised that the decisions that I announced on 2 February would unleash a chain of events with far-reaching and unpredictable consequences.   It was rather like paddling a canoe into a long stretch of dangerous rapids.  You may start the process and determine the initial direction.  However, after that the canoe is at times seized by enormous and often uncontrollable forces.   All that the canoeist can then do is to maintain his balance, avoid the rocks and steer as best he can – and right the canoe if it capsizes.   It is a time for cool heads and firm, decisive action.


We experienced many such crises after we began our own transformation process.  The boycotts of the process by the ANC and the IFP;   the violence that continued to scourge the country during the negotiations; the ANC’s campaign of rolling mass action involving strikes and massive demonstrations;  the assassination of Chris Hani – the leader of the South African Communist Party – all of these crises almost caused the process to capsize.


Finally, one must accept that there is no end to the process of change.  As soon as one has achieved one’s transformation objectives one must start the process all over again.  In a world in which change is accelerating, fundamental and unpredictable there is no respite or time to rest one’s laurels.  One of the most difficult decisions for any leader is to accept that he,  too, will one day be swept away by Heraclitus unrelenting river.  The wise leader will  know when to leave and when to pass the baton to a new generation.



These principles are, I believe, relevant to any leaders who attempt to manage change, whether they are leaders of countries or companies or whether they are simply trying to manage the inevitable changes in their own personal lives.


You, who are the leaders of Greek business, will be in the best position to judge how these principles should be applied to great processes of change with which your own country is grappling:


No-one is immune from the challenges of our rapidly changing environment.  But be of good cheer:  our species has survived and prospered precisely because of its ability to deal with change.


Is there then nothing that is immutable – that is not affected by Heraclites relentless river?


I believe there are certain things that do not change – that are impervious to the assault of time.  Interestingly enough, they are not the concrete objects that we associate with permanence – but rather the ephemeral  stuff of great ideas.   The seven wonders of the ancient world – with the exception of the pyramids – have all been erased by time.  The statue of Athena has disappeared; the Parthenon has suffered the ravages of the centuries, war, Lord Elgin and acid rain.  Today it is but a shadow of its former glory.


But consider these words of Pericles that are almost as old as the Parthenon itself:

“Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands, not of a minority but of the whole people.  When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses.”


These words are as fresh and as true now as they were when they were first committed to paper by Thucydides twenty-four centuries ago. Likewise, his view of ancient Athens’ material success:

“Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft.  We regard wealth as something  to be properly used, rather than something to boast about.”


In a world of accelerating, fundamental and unpredictable change great ideas such as these can continue to provide us with certain guideposts to the next horizon.