I believe that organisational best practice implicitly relates to top management’s acceptance or rejection of decentralised authority. If executives hold on to authority at the top of the hierarchy, rather than delegating it down the line through a balanced structure, that organisation will fail to flourish. Mergon’s success is closely related to two factors – first, honouring God in His walk with us, and secondly, emphasising a decentralised leadership style, albeit that preparation for the latter was also through His grace.
My exposure to the ruinous outcomes of autocracy goes back to my early corporate career in the 1960–70s. So obvious were these examples, that it caused a lifelong interest in finding the optimum way to effectively decentralise authority, for the sake of overall success. As described in more detail in Doing Business With Purpose, two of these employers were longstanding and successful Cape Town family enterprises, but both went under soon after appointing autocratic CEO’s. The third was a Pretoria-based SOE, overwhelmed and sadly destroyed by the same self-centered greed seen today.
The common causes? First, a personal lust for power, a disregard for serving the organisation’s best interest ahead of yourself, and a ‘closed’ culture dominated by the CEO and his power clique. These unfortunate outcomes underscore a CEO’s responsibility to establish an open organisational culture. Secondly, a lack of strategic thinking and insistence on centralising virtually all decision-making. This effectively precluded any meaningful contribution from lower levels and intensified an inward focus when, in all three instances, changes in their respective industries clearly required outwardly focussed leadership.
Consequently, all three organisations were mortally damaged by this misguided form of leadership – causing organisational tensions such as frustrated self-actualisation (no delegated responsibility, self-development or sense of achievement), a sense of disconnect (no team functioning), skewed relationships (the CEO totally disregarding normal line authority) and a general sense of ‘this is not how it should work’ among employees. The CEO’s may well have been appointed because of their strong personalities and charismatic presence. But any benefit this might have had, was dwarfed by their other leadership inadequacies. So, be aware of the potential pitfalls of a ‘big personality’.
The above disadvantages of centralised authority may appear extreme, but examples still surface too regularly in the corporate world, and are widespread in the political arena.
There is no place in God’s Kingdom for egocentricity. We need to understand and embrace this reality to become an effective Kingdom worker. Yet there is another level than simply being willing to share power with others – as God’s children we can walk in the real power that originates from Him who owns it all.
My initial interest in organisational decentralisation of authority was reinforced by a growing understanding of how to relegate my own human power in favour of rather walking with Him and exercising His authority. In serving Him, we come to share all He has, and share the joy of giving. We start acting as His stewards, without the encumbrances of building self-serving human empires and their accompanying anxieties.
But His grace and favour towards us will never be of a transactional nature. It will never depend on what ‘value’ we think we offer to Him. Especially not when our own benefit is our foremost consideration. “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for God has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” (Heb 13:5). His focus is on doing what will best serve the Kingdom.
Becoming a Kingdom servant
Becoming a worthy steward is the closest we can get to being God’s ‘partner’. Yet the reluctance to forego power, or the penchant to control, is a deep-rooted instinct we need to overcome. Our fallen human nature is a formidable obstruction to submitting to God’s control over our lives – to restrain ourselves and simply represent His power as a steward refutes ‘normal’ organisational conventions.
Also, the multiple benefits of us working for and with Him may initially not be that evident. It is human nature to underestimate the steps towards, and the rewards of, becoming a selfless Kingdom servant. In essence we need to let go of the ingrained human beliefs that, “It is my responsibility to provide for my family,” “It is my hard-earned right and privilege to first gain before giving,” “I will pay my tithes provided I’m successful,” and so forth.
Human nature limits our ability to acknowledge His real power. To hand over and act as nothing more than His servant is a perspective hardly visible from within, and especially not early on in any new managerial position. Neither is it easy during the start-up trials and extended tribulations of any entrepreneurial venture. It took me the better part of 25 years to start releasing control to God – even after He eventually became Mergon’s controlling Shareholder.
The Mergon philosophy of partnering
Partly as a result of my personal negative experiences in serving under autocractic leaders, Mergon developed a key business strategy of partnering. At the core of Mergons’s philosophy of decentralised authority is sharing decision-making power with colleagues, and sharing ownership with business partners. Transferring 70% of Mergon shareholding to an independent Kingdom trust was simply in recognition of Him who gave us all in the first place.
It has always filled me with awe to recall how God works – with the unforeseen brilliance to be expected from the eternal Creator, yet always in complete harmony with the needs of His Kingdom and those who wish to serve Him. It is not for us to question how or why God may find any use for us. His ways are not our ways, and He will shape us to fit the task He has in mind for us to build His Kingdom. The best option is for us to leave our limited human understanding aside, and to simply be grateful that we can be part of His great work!
Our direct access to the Father has been accomplished and is assured through Jesus Christ. Provided we pursue both relationship and obedience, He will release an abundance beyond our highest expectations, whether or not God has any use for what we see as ‘our talents’. God did not bless Mergon because of any merit on my side, nor because of me asking His guidance and blessing after starting the business with no capital or expertise, and certainly not because of my rather desperate ‘shareholding’ offer.
What started as a human interest in the decentralisation of authority, was only the start of a much deeper revelation of letting go of human authority – to walk in His authority. What Mergon has grown into over its 40-year history can only be His inconceivable favour, and His empowering grace unto obedience. As much as my family, colleagues, and the members of Mergon’s boards have been pursuing business excellence while seeking God’s continuous involvement and guidance, He has been faithful and generous. He has His purposes in creating a business vehicle such as Mergon, and we are honoured to be stewards in eternal Kingdom service.
Francois van Niekerk is the founder of Mergon, co-founder of the Atterbury Group and was Chairman of Atterbury Investment Holdings from 1994 to 2012. He founded or co-founded a number of companies, served on several boards, was a member of the Unisa Council and received several academic-, business and philanthropy awards, including an honorary doctorate from Unisa. He was named Western Cape business leader for 2018.