Finance expert and serial entrepreneur Dr Daleen Smal investigates how our brains can help us roll with the changes


Three international credit-rating agencies recently either downgraded or warned that South Africa faces downgrades. Contributing factors to this negative assessment of South Africa were deteriorating economic growth, rising pressure on the government budget deficit and the growing vulnerability of the current account.

On 15 June 2016 political economist Moeletsi Mbeki said South Africa has what he called ‘a hidden civil war’. He referred to the prevailing tensions in South Africa and how part of it is becoming visible for instance within the ANC in KZN. He believes an explosion of this hidden civil war in South Africa is inevitable and is a great concern for the future of the country.

The question arises: what is the role of leadership and to what extent can a leader contribute to the success of a company or country?

During the process of writing my book ‘The Art of Money: How to Win the Wealth Game’, I made a study of the reasons why some people are able to move forward and succeed in changing their future while others seem to be stuck where they are. In the end it was not, for instance, intelligence or background that was the differentiating factor, but the ability to change their mind-set and what they believe. I discovered that those people who are able to “re-programme” their mind-set and change what they believe move forward and change their future financial outcome. Those who cannot, stay stuck.

I believe that in order to change your future you have to change your beliefs and mind-set. In order to change your beliefs and mindset you first have to shape your thoughts. Therefore, the first step in the process of changing your future is consequently shaping your thoughts. Suze Orman said: ”The only way you will ever permanently take control of your financial life is to dig deep and fix the root problem”.

In nature, we understand that the fruit is the result of the tree. We do not expect to pick apples from a lemon tree. This simple concept of the tree is applicable to absolutely everything in our lives—whether it is wealth, health, weight or relationships.

Metaphorically, you may think of the roots of the tree as your inner world. Your inner world consists of your thoughts and your feelings. The fruit on the outside, which is visible to everybody, represents the results of your life. In order to transform your thoughts and feelings into results you need to take certain actions.

I believe that the secret to changing your results lies in changing your thinking. Without a change in your core values, nothing in your life will change. Think about the process of erosion. Moving water carries away bits of soil and cuts deeper and deeper into the earth. Over time, water will find it increasingly difficult to follow another path and it will simply run deeper down the same path. The brain is like the earth and our repeated thought patterns, like the water, cut into our brains. Thinking a particular thought makes it easier for one to think that thought again and again. As you think the same thought over and over, you establish certain pathways or patterns in your brain. Once a pattern is established it is very difficult to change the course of your thoughts and resulting behaviours.

This principle is linked to one of the first lessons that students of neuroscience learn, namely that ”neurons that fire together wire together” (a theory based on the work of Donald Hebb).

Each time you repeat a particular thought or action, you strengthen the connection between a set of brain cells or neurons and those thoughts and actions become embedded in the network of brain cells. You do not only embed your own thoughts in this way, you reinforce those thoughts by keeping company with people who have similar thoughts or beliefs. This is how mob mentality or ‘groupthink’ is created. Day in and day, out our minds are building our brains. Therefore our experiences in life matter as they leave lasting physical impressions in our brains.

Even though taking a different path becomes increasingly difficult, the brain and human mind have the capacity for learning and rewiring. Any society consists of individuals. Those individuals form communities, whether as workers in a company, residents in a town, members of a particular political party, or whatever community we can think of. In a diverse society such as South Africa, with vastly different individual experiences, we will inevitably find vastly different mind-sets and beliefs.

Since “neurons that fire together wire together” is the way in which the human brain functions to form beliefs and opinions, the question arises: what is the role of leadership (irrespective of whether it is within the sphere of business, politics, religion, and so forth) in changing established beliefs in order to change the future?

I believe any group will fall prey to the ‘groupthink’ habit if they lack the ability to create dialogue with groups of differing views. Leaders need to create the opportunities for genuine conversations and dialogue with people who have opposing views. Leaders must have the emotional intelligence and maturity to suspend their own beliefs and their need to justify or validate those beliefs. They must have the social competency to engage with people who do have differences—of ideas and perspectives—in order to find the optimal path to a better future, whether that future is the future of a company or of a country. Strong leaders create an environment where people don’t need to get defensive but rather engage in constructive debate around differences to find common ground and move forward. Strong leaders are charismatic and take people forward to a better future.

As far as our country is concerned, South Africa is bleeding in more ways than one. I believe the upcoming municipal elections is an opportunity to elect strong leaders who have the necessary capabilities to constructively engage opposing views and improve amongst other the economic outcome for all citizens. We need strong charismatic leaders of the calibre of Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela who can unite opposing mind-sets with a vision for a prosperous South Africa.

What do these two men have in common? Abraham Lincoln navigated the United States through the American Civil War and one of his famous lines are “(a) house divided against itself cannot stand.”

It is as true now as it was then. Nelson Mandela has reached iconic status by way of his inclusive leadership style. He united our country in a post-apartheid era when the situation could so easily have turned into a fiasco. I met him once, when the great, humble Madiba walked across a full hall to greet General Constant Viljoen and on his way back to his seat stopped at my table to ask me how I was doing. How did that make me feel? I felt that I, an ordinary citizen, mattered to this leader.

Who will emerge as the leader to unite our country and take us into the future as a “united house”? We must “re-programme” our mind-sets or stay stuck in a downward spiral of civil unrest and destruction, or as Moeletsi Mbeki fears, open civil war.

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