Visions of a visionary

BBQ's 2014 Visionary Award winner, Siyabonga Gama

Transnet Freight & Rail Chief Executive and 2014 BBQ Visionary Award winner, Siyabonga Gama, is a leader who believes in leading quietly with a “silent commitment” to vision.

The definition of a visionary: “Thinking about or planning the future with imagination or wisdom.” A long list of synonyms follows “inspired, imaginative, creative, inventive, insightful, ingenious, enterprising, innovative, perceptive, intuitive, farsighted, prescient, discerning, penetrating, sharp, shrewd, wise, clever, talented, gifted, resourceful”. The 2014 BBQ Visionary Award winner, Siyabonga Gama, Transnet Freight & Rail’s Chief Executive, ticks most, if not all, these boxes.

Being taken completely by surprise winning the award, Gama says he believes that his role at the organisation is far from some of the portfolios which are usually celebrated by the mainstream – and the recognition is a huge boost for his existing burning passion for what he does. To head up an organisation as instrumental as Transnet Freight Rail to support and help grow South Africa’s economy requires an extraordinary amount of focus. The BBQ Visionary Award solidifies the fact that Gama is steering his ship, or train for that matter, in a progressive direction.

“I was not expecting to win an award because what we do as a company is far from the public eye. To receive the award was an amazing experience because it meant that, somehow, what we do is highly appreciated. The award is a sign that there is a level of awareness of the work we put in everyday. Awarding a leader for me qualifies as also awarding the organisation he/she is attached to -- and I am glad that the transformation we have brought within the company is being recognised,” he modestly says.

Talking about leadership, Gama, who started his career with Transnet in 1994, says first and foremost, a leader is someone that most people would aspire to follow. “It is an individual that people identify with because they feel that the individual represents everything they stand for. It is an individual that possesses a strategic clarity of vision and values. In many cases, you will find that people often want to be associated with the ideas of this individual.”

He says when an individual has ideas that are seen to have the potential to create a positive change within a particular context, that individual is often looked upon as a leader. 

“One has to be lofty in order to represent the ideals of a community or an organisation. How those ideals are treated will determine whether it is possible to move from one point to another in pursuit of the desired change.”

According to the popular proverb: “Where there is no vision, people perish.” It means that a fruit is a direct interpretation of its tree. Gama believes: “People (in a community or a business context) look to follow and be guided. As a result, this positions the person they look up to as a leader in a very powerful position. They put their livelihoods in their leader’s hands.”

“That is why it is very important for a leader to create self-belief in people. Once your people have achieved that, the next step is to make them believe that the vision at hand is meant for their well being.”

Gama’s core belief is that a leader who is able to instill optimism in his team is able to push them towards owning the vision -- and lead that vision forward by themselves under the guidance of a leader.

 “There's an unimaginable sense of drive in the knowledge that many people look up to you as a visionary. There is a natural burst of energy that comes from understanding how your team perceives you as a leader. Transnet Freight Rail is a big Division within Transnet that has around 38 000 staff members. As a leader, knowing that you have such a big team that depends on you always serves as sufficient fuel to drive one.”

Taking from his learning at a number of international institutions such as the University of Swaziland, Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, New York University and the University of Singapore, Gama believes that although people could be ‘born’ visionaries, they can also be nurtured, learnt and taught -- it can even be acquired through observation. “By observing leaders such as Napoleon, Winston Churchill, Bill Clinton and many others, one can observe exactly what it takes to be an effective and influential leader,” says Gama.

BBQ’s Visionary Of The Year believes that the important lesson that one can learn from observing established leaders is how they translate vision into execution. “In addition to that, by combining the different elements, you can pick up how they manage to create a powerful picture the future for their teams. It is also equally important to observe how those leaders position themselves to take the necessary action needed to make the vision a reality, and the necessary steps they take to ensure that their teams are tagged along -- while executing their work,” he says.

Gama, who was also voted the 2008 National Business Leader of the Year, as well as the BBQ Young Business Leader of the year in 2004, is of firm belief that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step -- and that the vision by itself is never enough. “One must face the necessary challenge that comes with fulfilling that vision. The bigger the vision, the more intense the challenges! It is important to break down a vision into bite-sized chunks. Create milestones and celebrate each one as you go along but don’t celebrate for too long.”

Gama emphasises that it is important for a leader to listen to his subordinates and be open to criticism, as valuing everyone’s input is one way of creating a positive energy within a team. “In order to have a deeper influence on people, you have to be able to acknowledge their views even if they are far removed from yours. This way, one can be able to use all diverse elements to unite the team instead of being divided by it.”

People the world over often perceive visionary leaders as people who are immune to the challenges that everybody else face. But despite their successes, leaders and visionaries also find themselves facing personal obstacles to overcome. And it is in situations like these that they find themselves having to take the lead in their own personal lives and overcome individual struggles. Gama’s view on overcoming personal obstacles: “Obstacles, even on a personal level, are merely opportunities disguised as challenges. Obstacles give one an opportunity to have a different perspective of the landscape. It is important to embrace them because that is the only way one will understand where they are coming from.”

Transnet’s top man, who had his fare share of challenges in 2010/2011 when he faced harmful publicity surrounding false charges of corruption and/or dishonesty, believes that when obstacles are managed properly they can yield highly valuable lessons as they are a normal part of progress. Similarly, it takes fire to sharpen an iron.

 “As a visionary one needs to have a deeper knowledge of the self - and a well-founded belief system. One needs to completely master one’s personal values in order to pull through the most trying times.”

It is viewed that understand the importance of tenacity in order to be an effective visionary, and Gama believes that people tend to trust visionaries who show tenacity when situations require them to do so. “Tenacious people do not stop pursuing their ideals in the face of turbulence. Instead, they come up with much more creative ways of dealing with their situations.”

With a strong management pedigree in transport, logistics, operations and finance, Gama believes that no man is an island and that we all learn from others as we go about our business.

He sites Giovanni Ravazotti (the founder of Italtile), Saki Macozoma (prominent businessman and President of Business Leadership South Africa), the two Drs Johan Van Zyl at Sanlam and of Toyota, Mafika Mkwanazi (Transnet’s Chairman) and Brand Pretorius (renowned businessman and author) as some of South Africa’s to visionaries he looks up to. What attracted him to their excellence is the enduring vision that they all possess for organisational pursuits. “I look up to many business leaders, for various reasons, but if there is one thing that they all have in common it is that they have all achieved great things in the world of business; quietly and with little aplomb! These individuals have a wealth of knowledge, which they have put in practice and when you study their achievements, it is impossible not to get inspired by them. More importantly, regardless of what they have achieved, they have managed to maintain their humility.”

Gama, a leader that believes in a quiet commitment to vision realisation, sees empowering subordinates as a way of allowing them to take the lead.

“It is important for one's vision to be heard -- and to turn a thought into a heard vision. Learning how to let go of control is important for a leader -- and this is one of the most undervalued traits of authentic leadership and leading from behind sometimes, while ensuring that the vision is not lost. Leaders need to know when to learn and unlearn things, and letting others lead your vision is just as equally important as having one,” he wisely concludes.

Levi Letsoko


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