A GIBS Forum was underway when Morris Mthombeni posed a question to recently appointed Eskom CEO, Brian Molefe. It was 2015 – well before Molefe had been publicly discredited – and the question centred on governance.
Looking back on that moment, GIBS’ freshly appointed dean recalls asking Molefe how he persuaded investors to “take you seriously, to believe that you as CEO take governance seriously given that your political principals demonstrate a healthy disregard for good governance”. The then-national and ANC President Jacob Zuma’s R240 million Nkandla upgrades dominated the news. Molefe, who was firmly in the Zuma camp, responded that this was nothing.
Mthombeni paused and directed the 150 attendees to note this answer and make up their own minds. “I wasn’t disrespectful,” he told Acumen
, “but I couldn’t let him get away with it.”
Seven eventful years later, Mthombeni still believes in speaking truth to power and feels spaces to reflect truth back to power are vital for a functioning society and a relevant business school.
It is noteworthy that as Mthombeni begins his five-year term, he is not only a part of the leadership of institutions like the South African Business Schools Association’s Deans and Directors forum and the Academy of International Business Deans Roundtable but is also the United Nations (UN) Global Compact Local Network and the UN Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME) Global Chapter Council, which supports business schools in their quest to have a meaningful social impact. PRME not only focuses on embedding sustainable business thinking but also on creating relevant frameworks and processes for effective learning and responsible leadership development.
With a teaching and research footprint in strategy, leadership and corporate governance that spans greater Africa and the world, Mthombeni is well versed in the ethical decision-making tightrope and the daily challenge facing leaders. Consequently, he explains, “Every day I wake up and ask my maker that when faced with an ethical choice, it is an easy one for me.” He actively supports this intention by living personal values centred on integrity and nurturing relationships built on trust and humility. These values align with GIBS’ human-centric, quality and ethical underpinnings.
Given this intersection of values, it is not surprising that Mthombeni is firmly focused on developing professional staff and academics. “My priority is accelerating talent transformation within GIBS,” he explains, noting that GIBS cannot afford to become complacent in a changing world. “I want to create the notion of exploring at the edge of habit and familiarity. Of not being too comfortable. It’s about introducing elements of discomfort in what we are doing, so we innovate our way out of the discomfort.”
This is a clear opportunity for the business school to simulate and model the very adaptive and agile leadership approaches companies should be using to navigate current complexities. But when it comes to labelling his own style, Mthombeni identifies with a term he borrows from respected South African businessman, Dr. Reuel Khoza: an attuned leader. In his 2012 book, Attuned Leadership: African Humanism as Compass, Khoza describes the hallmarks of an attuned leader as “connectedness, compassion, empathy, integrity, humility, reasonableness and a determination to be effective”.
“I aspire to be an attuned leader,” explains Mthombeni, who notes that he already has “a sense of understanding of when I should lead and when I should follow, because followership is as important as leadership.”
A vision for our time
Mthombeni’s vision for GIBS speaks to this attuned approach. While this is the start of a new, distinct phase in the school’s history, he is keenly aware of building on the work of both Nick Binedell and Nicola Kleyn. “Nick was highly business-connected, then the pendulum swung to Nicola’s much deeper academic approach,” says Mthombeni, whose aim is not to swing the pendulum to the middle but rather forward. It’s not about favouring or developing either of their approaches but rather incorporating both.
“I’m doubling down on what it means to be very deeply connected with the business world, with practice, and I’m doubling down on quality, impactful research,” he says. “I’m also challenging the rules of Porter’s strategy, so to speak.” This reference to Michael Porter’s Generic Strategic model talks to Mthombeni’s view that a modern business school can be differentiated and have low-cost elements – it doesn’t have to be an either/or choice.
“In a new worldview of networks and increasingly digital tools, you can drive a low-cost strategy and you can drive a highly differentiated strategy,” he explains. “Therefore, you can drive a practitioner-connected strategy and drive a deeply research impactful strategy.”
At ease with the unusual
Growing up and living in what he calls an unconventional family, Mthombeni boasts a degree of comfort with the change currently reshaping the world. Yes, change does bother him at a human level of pain and anxiety, but “for my ability to operate, I’m not frightened by current conditions”.
Living in a world of multiple ages and contexts – both at school and at home as part of a large extended family – young Mthombeni soon learned the link between humour and curiosity and incorporated both traits. His curiosity makes it hard to switch off, but he does find escape in going for long walks in nature and playing the role of sous chef at home.
“I don’t think I’ll ever do golf. I did it once, and I don’t think that will happen again,” he laughs. “Although I could see myself picking up more social sports when I have more time.” His closing comment offers a glimpse of his deadpan sense of humour: “I’d be open to joining the GIBS soccer club. That is, if they think I could cut the mustard.”
Time to ‘turbocharge’ engagement
With a PhD in corporate governance and strategy from the University of Pretoria, Morris Mthombeni has a unique perspective as both a student and faculty member. He believes there are many positives to being a student at GIBS. “It’s a very supportive space; very challenging, very demanding. There are many support structures around, but you don’t come here to coast – and that’s not for everyone,” he says.
He believes some areas could be improved from a student perspective. “From my experience, I think we can do more in demanding more from our supervisors and giving more supervisory support. Also, we can do more to create a deeper sense of community, community engagement and citizenship behaviour in our students. Because of the demands placed on students, sometimes that can get lost.”
Mthombeni also sees potential in engaging the extensive GIBS alumni more successfully and, in the process, creating a critically important and lifelong connection to learning. “It’s also about creating a space for our alumni to contribute,” he explains. “It’s not just about them coming to learn; it is about giving their time, resources, and networks.”
On 1 April 2022, Professor Morris Mthombeni began a five-year term as the dean of GIBS. This followed a 20-month period during which he served as interim dean following the conclusion of Nicola Kleyn’s term in 2020. Having joined the business school in 2014, Mthombeni entered the role of GIBS’ executive director of Faculty in 2017.
In addition to holding a PhD from the University of Pretoria, an MBA from Manchester Business School and an LLB, B.Proc, B. Juris from the University of South Africa, Mthombeni came to the world of academia following two decades as an executive in the financial services industry. He continues to participate in financial services in a non-executive capacity. A former CEO at Momentum Investments and executive director at MMI Holdings Limited, Mthombeni also held leadership roles at Liberty Life and served on various boards in the FirstRand Group. The risk-reward approach inherent in the institutional investment space still colours how he gauges problems and solutions in South Africa and greater Africa.
Mthombeni recognises that it takes a special type of leadership in Africa to rise above the challenges and harness possibilities, but he remains optimistic without being naïve. “I think many business people in this country are actually pretty good at solving South African problems, and we are getting better at solving problems in the greater Africa region,” he says. “It’s time to stop complaining about our problems and rather lean into our problems. Lean in with great resourcefulness, a great deal of innovation and a great deal of determination.”