He who shouts loudest…improving mining outcomes through transforming leadership

By Arjen de Bruin, Managing Director at OIM Consulting

The archetype exists for a reason: the mining supervisor, yelling at those he is supposed to lead; entertaining no discussion, questions or other perspectives. It’s his way or the proverbial highway.

The leadership style best associated with the mining sector is seen as assertive at best, autocratic at worst – and is undoubtably remnant of South Africa’s tumultuous past. 

While our history is certainly a contributing factor in the mining industry being seen as a notoriously difficult environment in which to instil positive work outcomes such as organisational commitment, the good news is that this can be addressed through addressing front-line leadership. 

research paper from the South African Journal of Human Resource Management (SAJHRM) set out to understand the relationship between transformational leadership and organisational commitment by studying a coal mine in Phola, Mpumalanga. The paper found that “Success in an organisation in terms of the attainment of goals and realisation of objectives depends on managers and their leadership style(s). Transformational leaders are able to inspire followers to change their expectations, perceptions and motivations and to work towards common goals (Judge & Piccolo, 2004).

“Hence, by adopting an appropriate leadership style, managers will have a positive effect on job satisfaction, productivity and organisational commitment of supervisors and employees (Rad & Yarmohammadian, 2006).

Revealing, the paper concluded that organisations needed to execute training that would result in the desired leadership style and thus ensure attainment of the organisational goals, stating that “supervisors should be empathetic listeners, be communicative and sensitive to the needs of subordinates, understanding and approachable. The proposed transformational leadership behaviours will encourage employees to be more committed to their organisation and strive to become exemplary leaders themselves within the organisation in the near future.”

In our line of work, we conduct coaching programmes with a focus on the mining sector. Before we commence coaching, we survey staff and find a high degree of assertiveness in those within mid-level management positions; supervisors and front-line leaders.

Assertiveness isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but leaders need to understand when assertiveness is – and isn’t – effective. A research paper  on assertiveness and leadership perceptions found that “The leader that is high in assertiveness and has high quality exchanges with employees will be effective, but the leader that is moderately assertive and has high quality exchanges will be the most effective socially and instrumentally.”

OIM’s research also supports the finding that assertiveness doesn’t necessarily equal effectiveness; our pre-training client surveys have shown that even where assertiveness is in no short supply, around 78% of miners are still working in an unstructured manner.

While a lack of planning remains the lowest competency, our surveys also indicate that the second-lowest is in leadership and development, and the third-lowest in analysis and problem-solving.

How does this play out in real life? A supervisor will typically show up to work, without a plan as to how the day will unfold. He hasn’t planned for absenteeism or for things that might go wrong. The stipulated daily target is seen as a guideline rather than a goal. When things don’t happen according to plan, there’s lots of finger-pointing. There are reoccurring issues, with no problem-analysis that might lead to the necessary foresight that would ensure prevention. He’s in constant fire-fighting mode.

Our coaching seeks to shift this paradigm by instilling the understanding of three principles in our leaders: insight, influence and impact. An overly assertive leadership style tends to not engage the people you want to lead. We show our trainees the importance of empathy; of allowing others to input; of understanding the complexities of the people you lead. A leader who engages employees has far greater insight, which increases their influence, allowing them to lead with impact.

Upon competition of our programmes, we conduct another competence assessment, and the biggest jump is typically in the arena of planning and organising, which improves by up to 30%. We also note across-the-board improvement in all competencies, including leadership and problem-solving, which typically continue to develop and improve over time, as our leaders gain confidence.

If we want to improve organisational outcomes in mines and consistency achieve targets, we need to align our leaders with the organisational purpose. The flip side of the adage ‘rot starts from the top’ is that positive and transformational leadership filters down into every aspect of the organisation too, improving all operational outcomes.

As Bob Hawke once said, “The things which are most important don’t always scream the loudest.”