Category Archives: Articles

Articles of mine that have been published elsewhere

Measurement and wonder – counting and celebrating

This is an article I posted on my business website, but I thought my readers here might enjoy it too – those of you who haven’t entirely given up on another Wondering Preacher post.)

‘Soon man will count all his days, and then smaller segments of the day, and then smaller still—until the counting consumes him, and the wonder of the world he has been given is lost.’    Mitch Albom, The Timekeeper

Ians HourglassMitch Albom has hit on one of the missing ingredients of our modern pressurised existence. A sense of wonder. We seldom get or make the time to stop and enjoy. Counting and measuring is far more important to us.

I read Mitch Albom’s book, rather significantly, while preparing a workshop on performance management. Managing performance comprises a great deal of measurement. We measure success against our targets, of course, but we also want to know how we fared against others chasing the same targets. Because everyone knows that first is the only position that really matters.

Measurement is essential in business, of course. In manufacturing, mere seconds saved in one part of the process can translate into thousands of rands off the price of the product. In accounting, accurate records ensure efficient management of funds. And cash flow is one of the most important measures in any business.

However, in all the measuring, it is easy to forget the wonder. Wonder? In business? Has all this ‘soft skills’ training made Simply Communicate soft in the head? Actually, no.

Steve Jobs, for all his drive and lack of people-management skills, never forgot the wonder of innovation. He delighted in what he could show us, and delighted us as well.

Richard Branson has always been ready to throw out measures that restrict rather than empower, and in his latest book, The Virgin Way, he explains that he has thrown out the measurement of annual leave.  With employees expected to be available 24/7, a company can no longer measure time spent on the job; how can one justify, therefore, trying to measure the time spent off the job?

It comes with a risk, but it will deliver more empowerment to employees than dozens of other initiatives might. Employees are expected to be up to date and organised before riding off into the sunset, of course, which presupposes that other measures are in place. An employee must know what their job is, for example, and what their deliverables are.

Brand Pretorius writes in his book, In the Driving Seat: Lessons Learned in Leadership, ‘I’m all for chasing the numbers in business, but … I found more satisfaction in the so-called “soft issues”.’
‘I believe that business is about much more than just the numbers. It is about making a difference to the lives of employees and the community. It’s about doing what is right for the benefit of all.’

Do the things we measure add to our employees’ sense of wonder, their enjoyment, their sense of achievement, or do they act as a burden, slowing employees down? Do employees become focussed on the measurement rather than what the measurement enables them to achieve? Indeed, are we so obsessed with measuring achievements that we forget to stop and applaud the achievement itself?

When a child comes home, excited at having come second in the race, do we ask them why they didn’t come first? If their report card says 80 percent do we ask them why they didn’t get 100?

Albom pleads with us to celebrate the moment. Take time to wonder. Applaud the achievement. Most people respond with enthusiasm to recognition and applause. We want more of it and we will do anything to get it. Give your employees and your children something they will want to experience again and again. Celebrate the moment; take time to wonder. And that goes for your own achievements, your own moments of celebration as well.

What have you stopped to celebrate recently? Tell us in the comments below.

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Filed under Articles, General Writing

Nelson Mandela: friend of the world

We have lost an icon, a friend of the world, a statesman; Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela has died.

We knew this day would come but it is hard to express our feelings. I am relieved that his suffering is over and he can rest in peace. No one would want him to linger on. But he was, as President Jacob Zuma said, ‘Africa’s greatest son.’ And President Barak Obama said, ‘He was one of the most courageous, influential and profoundly good individuals.’ It has been a huge privilege to live under his shadow and under his influence.

Read more of this post on my website, Simply Communicate


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Adapt or Fly: people matter

Pieter-Dirk Uys brought his show, Adapt or Fly, to Pietermaritzburg last week.  We joined a group of friends and saw it on Friday evening. Uys took us on a roller-coaster ride through South Africa’s recent history, parading Prime Ministers and State Presidents, from Malan to Zuma, before us on stage.  Each one came alive in front of us through Uys’s extraordinary ability to adapt his voice and facial expressions while using a minimum of props.

But it wasn’t all laugh-a-minute.  Ordinary people joined us to tell their stories, along with the extraordinary ones like Nowell Fine and Evita Bezuidenhout, of course.  One of the more poignant was that of a Coloured family on the Cape Flats.  We joined the brother during the violence of the 80’s; his younger sister told her story many years later.  The brother told us about their black granny who lived in a beautiful house in Newlands with high ceilings and a veranda that went round three sides of the house.  She had a piano and a beautiful stinkwood dining-room table with six chairs.  She was moved under the Group Areas Act to a miserable little house on the Cape Flats.  It had an outside toilet with no door.  There was no room for the piano or the grand stinkwood table.  Granny died of a broken heart.  The grandson wondered where the table was, and who was living in the house with high ceilings and a sweeping veranda.  We joined the daughter years later.  She was eking out a living from the same little Cape Flats house.  It was the day when, miraculously, the stinkwood table was delivered to her back door.  But what did she want with such possessions that couldn’t fit into her tiny home or her impoverished world.

Such reminders of the face of pain and poverty are critical for our own humanity.  In South Africa we have become immune to stories and images of violence and suffering.  Communities erupt in violent clashes with authorities, strikes degenerate into excesses of violence, businesses and homes are trashed and ordinary people suffer. We read the headlines, and we say, “Not again,” as we move on to more comforting news about defaced paintings, corruption and the failure of our municipalities to fix streetlamps.

We need to be reminded that violence affects individuals; whether it’s one person against another, a mob taking the law into its own hands, or a nation at war, violence affects individuals.  Individual people perpetrate it; individuals suffer it. We must beware lest, when we turn away from stories about violence and suffering, we turn our backs on real people in pain who need our compassion and intervention.

Last Friday marked the 40th anniversary of an iconic photograph of the Vietnam War,  Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a nine-year-old Kim Phuc running away from a napalm-bomb attack on her village.  Her clothes had melted off her body, her left arm was burning, and she ran down the road, naked, crying, “Too hot; too hot.”  Richard Nixon’s cynical comment on the photo at the time was, “I’m wondering if that was fixed.” At another point, Nixon chided Henry Kissinger for being too concerned about civilian casualties.

If we fail to take account of civilian casualties, if we fail to notice the individuals affected by war, then war and violence have no real consequences; it’s all just unavoidable collateral damage.

In the controversy about The Spear there were those who said, “But it’s not just Jacob Zuma who is being humiliated; what about his wife (sorry, wives) and his children.” Exactly! Individuals matter.  But the individuals that matter in this case are not just the family of a State President who seems to act as if there should be no restraints on personal ambition, lust or self-gratification.  What of those who have died because we have not taken HIV/AIDS seriously, or because we have not taken violence and rape seriously; or because we continue to parade male dominance as a right, and marvel at men of power?

Thank you Pieter-Dirk Uys for reminding us of the plight of ordinary people who matter, who have little room to adapt, and no money to fly.


Filed under Articles, Community, The News

Defeat or Da Feet: The Great Pink-Slipper Controversy

Something quite different, for those of you who don’t get Pietermaritzburg’s local newspaper.  Here is something I had published on the Great Pink-Slipper controversy: the greatest scandal to rock the South African National Defence Force in modern times—and it’s not what you think. Find the story HERE.


Filed under Articles, General Writing

Freedom Day: an inconvenient truth

Freedom Day: commemorating South Africa’s first democratic elections on 27 April 1994, and celebrating freedom everywhere.  Nelson Mandela said, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”  A most inconvenient truth as Al Gore would say.  It does rather suggest that those who justify their conspicuous consumption, and their greedy accumulation of wealth, by telling us they didn’t endure the Struggle to be poor, have rather missed the point.

Jen and I too, no doubt, missed the point of Freedom Day by hiving off to enjoy our own private freedom, meandering up the Midlands Meander.  It was a beautiful day, spent in beautiful countryside enjoying good coffee and good food, practising the three Rs: reading, writing and relaxing.  But Mandela’s challenge is that there can be no individual freedom that ignores the freedom of others.

Companies and organisations, in pursuit of their own freedom, often ignore the freedom of others.  Signal distribution company, Sentech, has had to lower the height of the World’s View tower that provides Pietermaritzburg with its SABC TV signals (“Fuzzy TV to last weeks”, The Witness, 27 April 2012).  The process has resulted in poor reception, driving residents to TV repair shops, but their TVs have been declared satisfactory because no one knew what was going on.

The SABC didn’t bother to warn anyone because it wasn’t its problem.  “We only warn people if the problem is from our side and is going to affect the whole country.”  Forget the needs and expectations of individuals who pay for one’s product; forget the freedom of others.  We’re all right, thank you; our freedom to make money is intact.

Sentech was also not interested; they were forced to make the changes by the aviation authorities.  “Unfortunately this is inevitable.  Our guys are working there every day.”  And, almost as an aside, “reception should improve by the end of May.”

The Civil Aviation Authority, however, tells us that Sentech created the problem 40 years ago when they increased the height of the tower by 20 metres without permission.  It sounds like the classic tale from the Garden of Eden: Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the snake and the snake didn’t have a leg to stand on.

Sentech and the SABC seem not to understand that while the work and the disruption may be unavoidable; failing to inform your customers is not. 

On a grander scale, the South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral) and the Department of Transport failed to appreciate the national mood, and ignored the freedom of others.  They went ahead in the face of legal and industrial protests, with an exceptionally unpopular and excessively expensive method of tolling the national roads in Gauteng province (e-tolling).  Their actions brought business, labour and ordinary citizens together onto the streets and into the courts in an unprecedented display of solidarity and cooperation.  As a result e-tolling has been put on hold.  The battle has been won, although the war is far from over.

On the advertising front, fast-food chain, Nando’s, well known for its cheeky, in-your-face advertising, created a spoof of an advert flighted by short-term insurance giant, Santam.  Creative advertising is one thing but stealing another company’s ideas is quite another.

Santam might have risen up in righteous anger to protect its own freedom.  Instead, South Africans have been privileged to enjoy a rare exchange of banter that inhibited no one’s freedom, and from which a group of children emerged as the ultimate winners.  Santam responded with another advert inviting Nando’s to pay up for their cheek.  However, the “payment” was to be in the form of 74 specified meals donated to the Johannesburg Children’s Home.  Nando’s rose to the occasion, and rushed the 74 meals to the children almost before the advert had finished airing.  They went the extra mile, and committed to a similar delivery every month for the next year.  So Santam and the children won this battle, but this “war” is also far from over.  Nando’s marketing director Quentin Cronje is quoted as saying, “We might even be doing a little response back to them.  We might even be working on it as we speak.”

Large organisations, and many individuals, ignore Mandela’s challenge and deny the freedom of others.  But there are some who tread gently enough to protect those freedoms, and children are fed.  Neither option is inevitable; each results from choices made every day by people such as you and me.

This post was published in The Witness on Tuesday, 1 May 2012.


Filed under Articles, Freedom Day, Through the Year

Wives, Submit?

Angus Buchan (and others) may be right.  Perhaps the biblical command for wives to submit to their husbands is a valid principle and God’s preferred way of families operating.  I have my own views which aren’t particularly important.  There are, however two problems with the stance of Buchan and others.

First, it is rather over the top to suggest (as some letter-writers have) that, because wives don’t submit to their husbands, the family is breaking up and the world is going to pot.  That’s rather like the Gospel story of the woman caught in the act of adultery.  I like to think Luke intended us to see the irony in the fact that there appears to have been no man involved.  Could it perhaps be the failure of men to learn how to love that has caused the breakup of the family and the world going to pot?  We have a recent horror case of a woman jailed for adultery in Afghanistan because she had a child as a result of rape, and then being offered pardon on condition that she corrects her situation by marrying the father of the child (her rapist).  For some this is simply the logical next step in blaming women for all the world’s woes.

The other issue is that, even if men do have a position of authority and responsibility in the home, men of all faiths and those of none have so abused our position that we can no longer be trusted with the responsibility.  We have the all-too-short 16 Days of Activism Against Women and Child Abuse precisely because women and children need urgent protection against men, including (and often especially) their husbands and fathers.  Submissive wives, and submissive women generally, tend to be trodden on and abused.  As men we have lost the right to tell women about any duty to submit.

What we (and Buchan particularly since his is a ministry to men) should be doing is teaching men to love their wives.  That is the important second part of Paul’s admonition to the Corinthian Church.  It is a message men desperately need to hear.  I confess that it’s a message I thought I knew during my first marriage but failed dismally to practice.

There will always be controversy about submission, but love is an unequivocal call to all of us.  When we, as men, get that right, when we love our wives as we have been loved, no one will have to tell anyone to submit; there will be loving cooperation all round.  But until we get it right we are not entitled to tell our wives what they should or should not be doing. 

Forgive the analogy, but it’s rather like a thief insisting that his victims must forgive him.  The thief’s ‘duty’ is remorse and reparation.  If he gets that right forgiveness may follow but it will always be a gift freely given, never demanded.  If one is counselling victims of theft (or worse) one may want to lead them towards forgiveness in order to help them move beyond the trauma.  But if one is working with perpetrators, forgiveness doesn’t come into it.  One helps them face the consequences of their actions whether they are forgiven or not.

Perhaps we spend too much time worrying about how to be head of the house, and too little time asking, “How can I love my wife?”  In an article entitled, “What is a man?” (Witness, 18 September 2009) Suntosh Pillay wrote about “encouraging new forms of masculinity that are more adaptive, more flexible, more balanced and more engaged with the people around them, which in turn allows men to better understand themselves and their identities.”  That I would suggest is an appropriate focus for a ministry to men.  Let’s keep clear of what our wives should or shouldn’t be doing, at least until we get this right.

(This article was published in The Witness on 14 December 2011–I have made a couple of amendments above)


Filed under Articles, Family