Professor Nick Binedell is the Founder, Dean and Sasol Chair of Strategic Management of the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), established in January 2000, by the University of Pretoria. The school has rapidly established itself as a leading business school in South Africa and was recently ranked as one of the top 40 global executive education providers by the London Financial Times.
My Definition Of Success | Success has got to do with fulfilment. Someone once gave me very good advice. They said, ‘You will do well in the work that gives you joy’. Ask yourself, ‘What are you doing when you are joyful about your work?’ and then do more of that. Success in some way is being able to find what that is and if you’re lucky enough to create the space for yourself to do that. Everyone has to find their own path and go on their own journey to define what being successful means for them.
Feeling Uncertain Is Positive | I don’t think I’ve ever been scared by things. I think there’s always uncertainty. Even now when I lecture there’s a level of uncertainty. ‘Did I do it well? How did I do? What did I get wrong? What did I get right?’ That should never go away, because once that goes, the passion’s gone. I still feel uncertain and I think most successful people would acknowledge that.
Fear vs Risk | Risk is different from fear. Fear’s a naked thing. Risk is where you know the odds but don’t know the outcome.
Take Your Opportunities | Starting GIBS from a sheet of paper was from a set of mixed experience and luck.Someone once said to me, ‘The opportunity of a lifetime’s got to be taken in the lifetime of the opportunity’, and in a way I was in the right place in the right time. But we’re often in the right place at the right time, we’re just not aware we are. I was in the right place at the right time and then managed to get the right things to hand.
About My Childhood | I had a tough childhood. I’d lived in six countries by the time I was ten, so I spoke Arabic and German and Swahili and so on which gave me a nice DNA, that was also curious. I’m fairly adaptable, I like exploring and I’m resilient because I’ve moved on so many times.
I wasn’t a good scholar, I barely passed Matric. I was one of those typical late developers. So many people I meet and who are successful are late developers. I entered adulthood knowing what a good day was, because I knew what a bad day was. That helped a lot.
A Lot Of Life Is What We Call HBW | Hard Bloody Work. If you can make a bit of progress and you’re prepared to work harder than other people for quite a while, then you will be successful.
People tend to think success comes from a flash of insight, but flashes of insight without knowledge are normally naïve. It’s not the insight, it’s the 80% of work that goes in over a long period of time before the flash of insight appears that makes the difference.
The tragedy of life is that people are forced to make choices that don’t fit them. If you’re not getting joy from what you do, do something else no matter what the cost. Don’t jump off the cliff, but start assembling a pathway to do what you really think you’re meant to do.
The Map And The Mirror Test | The ‘mirror’ test is the ethical test. When you look yourself in the eyeball and say, ‘Am I doing what I should be doing? How would my mother feel about what I’m doing?’ The ‘map’ test is the authentic test, ‘Is it right for me?’ If you do that and you find what gives you joy and it adds value to people, the world kind of comes to you a bit.
Education Vs Other Knowledge | Education offers never more than 50%. The other knowledge – the self-knowledge and the knowledge of practical things, how to get things done, how to manage relationships, is knowledge that cannot be taught, but you gain through experience.
A Lesson On Reflection | Someone gave me a great piece of advice. They said, ‘At the end of the day, spend five minutes just thinking about how the day went. What did you do well and what did you not do well? And the things you don’t do well, don’t force yourself to fix them. Just think about them and you’ll find yourself fixing them.’ It was a very, very good lesson.
Work On Your Strengths | Peter Drucker once said, ‘Find the thing you’re really good at, and invest all your energies in being better at it. Don’t take the things you’re average at and try and improve them. Because that’ll just make you above average. (Unless you have a critical weakness).’
Mark Twain on Hindsight | ‘When I was fourteen I knew my father was an idiot. Now that I’m twenty-one I see how much he’s learned in the last seven years.’ So as you age a bit, maybe there’s some perspective.
On Being A South African | Having lived here through these four decades as an adult has been the most extraordinary privilege. It is like the mirror. What happens in the country is reflected in your life, the highs and the lows. In that way it’s an extraordinary place to be, because it’s like a frontier, it’s an open system, and you can make your way in it. South Africa still invites you to take a shot. To do something. To pioneer.
South Africa begs you to be a citizen in the fullest sense of the word. The beauty of the last twenty years is that whoever you are, whatever your identity and however you got into the room, is not how you’re going to get out of the room.
South Africa will succeed depending on the leadership it chooses, and it gets the leadership it deserves. We’ve had extraordinary leaders, and we’ve had less than extraordinary leaders.
On The Future Of South Africa | I don’t know the answer. I don’t want to know the answer. If I did know the answer I’d go and sit on the beach and I’d watch the sea come in. All I know is, I know what I’m doing on Wednesday and knowing what to do on Wednesday is an unbelievable gift.
We Need More Brian Joffee’s | We need ten people with the drive, will, abilities and acumen that Brian Joffee represents. If we don’t have them creating 70,000 jobs each we’re not going to hold this economy together, because you can’t transform an economy that’s not growing. Otherwise you just redistribute, which is a danger for South Africa.
Create Access | In order to transform you have to create access. In order to create access you have to make education and finance available to people who haven’t had the opportunity. And that’ll be a multi-generational thing.
Understanding The Natural Process of Progress | In 1900 the Afrikaners lost their country. In 1910 the Brits gave half of it back. By 1930 they were poor white Afrikaners coming off the farms. By 1980 they were fairly wealthy, and by 2000 they were very wealthy. That’s a natural process but it takes a long time. Young people want it to happen overnight. It doesn’t happen that way unless you’re in Singapore and then you have a very unusual case study. But for most countries and most people it’s a multi-generational thing.
I Learnt To Learn | I’m very passionate about education, because education changed my life. I was a very below-average student but I kept plugging away and I eventually did my doctorate. I had to self-create that opportunity. I left the company I was working for in a very plush job and went and lived in a garage with a bicycle. I was willing to sacrifice that, for the joy of learning, not of being taught. There is a big difference between being taught and learning.
We Are Being Tested Every Day | You’re being examined every day. MBA students often say, we’re too mature, we don’t need exams. I say, ‘But we write exams every day, you just don’t see them being written.’
Benefits Of Travel | I travel as much as I can, especially in emerging markets, because I learn so much about South Africa by not being here. The Chinese have an expression, ‘The fish doesn’t know it swims in water’. You’ve got to get out of South Africa to see what we have and what we don’t have.
Curiosity And The Internet | I’m still pretty curious. There’s this remarkable thing called the internet, which allows you to take your nose and your brain almost anywhere you like. That is unbelievable. At night, I will go and research a topic and I’ll find myself three steps away in four totally different topics, but it’s all there. All the information in the world is accessible. Not the knowledge though, but the information is, whether you’re in Bangladesh or Bellville. It’s fantastic.
The World Right Now | The way the world is at the moment is just absolutely incredible. There’s no major war. There are huge environmental challenges. Countries are in transition. Old economies are having to re-energise themselves and young economies are finding it’s not so easy. It is an astonishing era intellectually and practically.
Opportunities | The opportunities that’ll open up in the next twenty years are almost beyond comprehension. If I had described the internet to you in 1980 you would have said, change his drugs or lock him up. I’ve built the confidence to say, something will come along. Every big change I’ve made, something has come along. So I have no reason to think it won’t happen again and if it doesn’t I’ll go fishing. Something will come up.
The Joy Of Learning | If I could put myself in a room and read for six months, without losing the time, I’d do it in a second. Always carry a question with you. You should have a question. What’s the problem you’re trying to solve? Or what does the wind say the opportunity is?
The Third Thing | Von Clauswich said, ‘No battle plan survives the first gunshot’. When two armies collide, a third thing happens that neither has planned for. You’ve got to look for the third thing always. Be agile. But it’s very hard to be agile when you get experience – that’s the problem of experience.
Rate of Learning | Your rate of learning must be higher than the rate of change. As you mature, your rate of unlearning must just be higher than the rate of change.
Interesting People I’d Like To Spend Time With | One would be Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese strategist and philosopher. Napoleon at his best would be extraordinary. A day with Ghandi, seeing him in action. A miner who’s mined underground for twenty years, who understands life.
On Saturdays: I go driving around Gauteng for the morning, looking for the places I don’t know. Because I think there’s a great danger that you sit in the ghetto of Sandton and think you know what’s going on in Gauteng. Meeting ordinary people, people who’ve seen extraordinary things around them, and have that wisdom of people with their feet on the ground.
Wisdom Vs Nature | Wisdom is accumulated experience, but nature destroys wisdom when you’re not looking, because the world doesn’t need your permission to change. What happens is you build up a certain legacy and momentum but what you don’t know is that the world’s working against it when you’re not looking. Wisdom is an asset, but it’s a debilitating asset. You have to keep renewing the asset. The problem is we all get lazy. So you do the same thing over and over, and you get better at it, and so you think that’s a good idea. Or as Alice in Wonderland said, ‘If you’re not careful you’ll end up where you’re headed.’ So how do you divert yourself?
The Power Of Personal Reflection | One of the disciplines I’ve had for twenty years is to take one week every year on my own. Preferably outside of South Africa and normally in Greece. I go and sit for a week and just let things talk to me a bit. I just listen. ‘What’s happened? What did I do well? What do I regret? What did I do badly?’
It’s not a holiday. It’s a different form of pace and activity that stimulates the brain. It’s catching up with yourself. It’s like, ‘So what happened? Why did that happen?’ You get amazing insights that way. If you just slow down enough, and then stop.
It’s hard being alone, but it’s good discipline. And most of my big decisions, I’ve made in that time.
I must have recommended this to thousands of people. No-one’s ever said to me they’ve tried it. Because most people are afraid of being on their own.
‘Action Is The Enemy Of Thought’ | The military have learned that intense battles and conflict must be followed by time out of the battle lines for reflection. That’s how the Americans changed their strategy in Iraq. You just can’t keep at it all the time.
The way to really get innovation is to take people who are intensely engaged and then free them up periodically, because they don’t know what they’re really learning until they step back.
A poem I wrote:
Some do both;
Solving Things | Solving something in your head is for dreamers. It’s solving it with your fingers, for the doers. That’s why South Africa produces so many great business people, because the environment is so pressured and stimulating and conflictual, and it produces amongst the best a certain kind of mind-set. It’s not an arrogance, it’s a kind of a self-confidence.
The South African Environment | Environments like South Africa make you a generalist. So with a Brian Joffee or a Christo Wiese or a Patrice Motsepe or Cyril Ramaphosa, their life’s experiences are a huge pot of knowledge and insight and that’s very seldom how it’d happen in Britain. You’d have to be Richard Branson and there’re very few Branson’s.
South Africa produces more globally competitive companies than any other country of its sized economy. There’s something here to do with the frontier, the history, the exploitation, the exploration, the experimentation, that allows Kerzner to do what he did, or SAB to do what it did or…Gail Kelly to become the CEO of the largest bank in Australia.
My Motto Is | Learn from everyone and copy no-one. I’m lucky to meet so many people, but then I make an effort to do so. That’s where the inspiration comes from.
Myths | I think the Big Man myth is always dangerous, because in a hierarchical society is you look for an authority, and that’s extremely dangerous.
Do We Need Role Models | Oriana Fallaci interviewed all the leaders in the world and wrote a book about it. She was asked, Of all the people she’d met, who would she like to most to have been? She said, ‘The person I could have been’. That’s the answer. So why do we need role models? Do we need permission? No. But you can learn from other people.
Self-Doubt And Uncertainty | Are identical twins. If you don’t have self-doubt you become the most arrogant person on the planet.
There’s a saying, ‘Just because you’ve discovered you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not going to get you!’ Doubt is the oxygen of life. If we didn’t have doubt we’d never take a risk. Doubt is the fuel of life. It’s the adrenaline of life.
Uncertainty of life is the great paradox, because we look for certainty in a world of uncertainty.
Meaning of Life | Is there life after death? How do we know? Religions tell us, or don’t tell us. We don’t know. You may have faith, but you don’t know. Religion is faith without knowing. It’s belief.
When I was about fifteen, my mother asked me that, so I made this quip, ‘The meaning of life is to live, and the meaning of love is to give.’
The Trail We Leave | I remember standing in the lounge one day (we lived in a pretty cold rural area) and a snail was going on the outside of the window pane, leaving this trail of mucus. And I looked and said, That’s how life works. You make a trail slowly. We’re the sum of our actions.
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