Willie’s Blog Posts

Strategy At A Crossroads

There has been much hand wringing recently about the role of business strategy. The cause for alarm is simply this: in a world full of surprises and disruptions, no competitive advantage is sustainable for very long. True enough. And this is certainly an important reality. But what should we actually do about it?

This is where viewpoints start to diverge. Some have begun to argue that the traditional concepts of strategy should simply be ditched in favor of pursuing an opportunistic stream of innovative activity. Out with the old products, in with the new. No longer do we need the rigors of mapping out an actual strategic roadmap.
So why does this approach worry me? I’m all in favor of innovation. Who isn’t? My concern is that this argues for exactly the wrong philosophy. It is now more important than ever to strengthen the foundations of acting strategically, not to abandon them.

Let’s examine these foundations. Strategy is, and always has been about answering three crucial questions. Where will we compete? How will we win? What will be our priorities for success? The answers to these questions will determine our destiny. Strategy is about making choices that cascade through an organization. The alignment of our business system, asset deployment and support of our people in pursuit of a common cause is essential for success.  We can’t achieve this strategic coherence through an ad hoc approach. This is true in military strategy, in national policy and also in business strategy.

So back to our challenge. What should we do about the fact that the competitive environment is changing faster than ever? Abandoning the three questions is certainly not the answer, because this would remove our navigation system.  Instead we need to add a fourth question. How can we master a learning-based process for refreshing our answers to the three questions as the environment changes?

Our need for a sustainable competitive advantage has not gone away. But its essential nature has changed. We will not find it in a particular product or service – the shelf life of these is getting shorter and shorter. Our only sustainable advantage is the organizational capability to be adaptive through a process of rapid learning. This requires a robust process for understanding patterns and trends more quickly than competitors, and then updating our choices accordingly. Successful organizations move from one focus to another in a cycle of renewal; they never allow themselves to become unfocused.

The answer is not to reject the fundamentals of strategy. Choice-making is its wellspring. Our survival imperative is to master strategic agility.

Posted by Willie Pietersen at 11:52 AM

What Nelson Mandela Taught the World About Leadership

By Willie Pietersen


Nelson Mandela is widely acknowledged to have been one of the most iconic leaders of the past century. His death at the age of 95 on December 5, 2013, brought forth an outpouring of  accolades for what he achieved and the legacy he left behind.

One message emerged above all others: The world will be a better place if we can carry forward Mandela’s values and not let them die with the man. So we need to take stock. What did he achieve? How did he do it? What can we learn from his life and work?

As a former CEO and now a professor at Columbia Business School who has long studied (and striven to practice) the art of leadership, these questions are of professional interest to me. As someone who was born and raised in South Africa, and witnessed the cruel injustices of apartheid first hand, they also matter to me on a deeply personal level.

What did Mandela achieve?

After spending 27 years in jail, Mandela became South Africa’s first black president in 1994. The challenges he faced were daunting. Black South Africans were bitter and hostile about the decades of oppression they had suffered; whites were apprehensive about their potential loss of privilege and frightened about the likelihood of violent reprisals by the newly empowered blacks. South Africa felt like a powder keg ready to blow up.

Yet during his five years as president, Mandela led a peaceful transition from a discordant, racially segregated country to an inclusive democracy, and against all odds, ushered in a period of harmony and stability. This achievement probably has no precedent in history.

Underneath this monumental achievement lies a remarkable journey and a revealing portrait of a man’s character. Together they provide priceless and enduring lessons in leadership.

Mandela’s lessons in leadership

Nelson Mandela showed us that in order to bring about transformational change, certain leadership qualities are essential:

– Deep self-knowledge, humility, and a strong moral foundation

– Dedication to a cause larger than yourself

– A clear vision for success, supported by unwavering determination

– An ability to build trust by empathizing with the needs and concerns of others

– The personal strength to overcome bitterness and forgive one’s enemies

Together, these represent a unique combination of focus, principles, courage and compassion.

We live in a world beset by sectarian hostilities. Imagine the possibilities if political leaders everywhere could summon the moral strength to apply Nelson Mandela’s teachings.

Note: The full text of this article can be seen on my web site under the section “Author”, sub-section “Articles.”

Posted by Willie Pietersen at 11:50 AM