In the late 1980’s I worked in Olifants Camp in the Kruger National Park as a junior tourist officer for two six-month stints before and after doing my national military service. I was manning the reception desk on a scorching afternoon when one of the apartheid-government cabinet ministers and his considerable entourage arrived to book into the camp’s luxury guest house.
When it came to paying, the stately and somewhat intimidating (he was close to 7ft tall) minister offered me his credit card. In those days there were no telephones in the park and mobile phones weren’t around yet, so our only connection with other camps and head office in Pretoria was via long-distance radio. Because of the security risk of accepting credit cards in such a secluded location, the policy was that all credit cards had to be cleared by head office. As I started the process of raising them on the radio, the imposing minister completely lost his composure.
“Do you know who I am?” he growled at me. “Do you think a minister will pay with a fraudulent credit card?” I could probably have explained to him that ministers have been found guilty of doing worse things than paying with fraudulent cards, but instead I tried to clarify the fact that it was Parks Board policy and that if something was actually wrong with the card and I had failed to have it verified, I would be liable for the damage. If I think about it now it is understandable that this feeble attempt to justify myself had exactly the opposite effect of what I intended – it drove him into a complete frenzy. Shouting and banging on the reception desk with his large fist he insisted to see the Camp Manager “immediately”.
At the time, the Camp Manager at Olifants was a man called John Marais. ‘Uncle John’ as most of us called him was known as a no-nonsense but fair man who treated everyone fairly but expected his people to perform to extremely high standards. He appeared and asked the raging minister if he could help. With arms waving and spit flying (or did I add that image later?) the now not-so-stately parliamentarian explained in his thunderous voice (no doubt a magnificent tool for intimidating opposition party members during debates in parliament) how I had humiliated him by checking HIS credit card, and demanded to know why this foolishness was necessary. John Marais listened calmly while looking the minister straight in the eye and then replied in a soft voice: “Because that’s how I taught him to do it”. This response took the wind right out of the rampant politician’s sails, as he was clearly expecting a fumbling apology. Crimson-faced and perspiring even more than he had when first coming in from the scorching African summer sun he and his entourage left for the guesthouse.
Now here’s the thing. If John Marais had apologized to the minister and explained that I was young and over-eager and clearly failed to use sound judgment, everyone would have been satisfied. The minister would probably have felt that his dignity was restored and I would have been all too happy to get out of the entanglement I had created. See, by this time I realized that I could have been a little more diplomatic in handling the eminent guest’s arrival. I would therefore have understood if John Marais used me as a (deserving) scapegoat to diffuse the situation. However, the fact that John Marais showed such extreme top-down loyalty in the face of a powerful threat that day became one of the most significant leadership lessons of my life.
Before this incident I had always respected John Marais, but from that day onwards I would literally have done just about anything for him. I worked harder to do things just the way he wanted them to be done, and didn’t mind ‘going the extra mile’ when I needed to. He never made me feel that I owed him any gratitude for standing up for me; in fact he never even mentioned the incident again. Yet knowing that he would stand up for me when it really mattered meant that he had my complete loyalty, trust and dedication.
Even more significant – the impact that he made in my life on that day reached far beyond the time that I worked with him in the Kruger Park. Showing top-down loyalty and leading by example became part of who I aspired to be as a leader (which for the record doesn’t mean I’ve got it all worked out to perfection yet). I later defined this approach as the leadership principle of “giving credit to your people when a project is a success, but taking full responsibility when it is a failure”. Over the years I had often shared this story during seminars and conferences and I suspect in that way John Marais’ example had also touched and inspired others. I trust that it will also mean something to you…
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