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Ebrahim Matthews’ Lessons in Authentic Leadership

Ebrahim Matthews, MD of Diners Club South Africa, talks candidly about his commitment to family time, his unconditional daily focus time, and being an authentic leader.

Tracy Lee Nicol




What energises and motivates you?

My family’s energy and spirits really energise me so I don’t let work and family life mix. It’s a myth that fulfilling family time and an executive career are mutually exclusive. It requires routine and discipline.

I wake up at 5:30am and spend an hour going through emails, so when my three young boys are awake we can spend time together before school. I also don’t touch work emails over the weekend until Sunday evening.

Does exercise help your performance?

I’m ashamed to admit I don’t do much exercise during the week. I play golf once on the weekend. But I am a huge advocate of daily meditation and prayer. Spirituality is very important as it keeps me grounded, revitalised and focused.

What’s your secret to being productive?

I have an amazing assistant who highlights important emails and phone calls for me. She also does a crucial job of keeping everything out during my daily hour of focus to think about the business.

I’m very involved with stakeholder management, corporate and personal capital, so this hour is important. When the hour’s up, she lets me know the most important messages to respond to first.

Describe your ‘economy of words’ philosophy

It’s very easy to get bogged down in communication, so for internal purposes the value we entrench in the team is ‘economy of words’. When emails are written, they need to be concise.

If we’re in meetings, make sure the people invited are needed in the meeting. And since they’re invited, allow their voices to be heard. Just ensure that there’s no repetition of points already made.

How do you keep your staff happy and productive?

Twice a week I block time for walking the floor. As an executive it’s important to be visible and accessible in the organisation, to learn at the coal face what’s going right or wrong, and find out about people’s lives outside of work.

For example, my assistant is a working mom. Me being in tune with her family responsibilities helps her do her job well as she works hard and is loyal.

How do you practice authenticity as a leader?

Don’t try to be something or someone you’re not. People respect authenticity. In corporate, one can be compromised by the notion that certain development areas need seeing to in order to develop your career. But it’s important to know who you are and what your values are.

It’s not uncommon for people and organisations to confuse a performance culture with being tough and weeding out the ‘bad’ or ‘weak’. As a young leader one can misinterpret strength and leadership as being a bully. I know who I am, and being authentic means caring rather than being tough.

What’s the best advice you ever got?

Take your work seriously, but not yourself. Humour has an amazing power to energise people and diffuse tensions. There are times when it’s important to be serious, but reserve that for the truly tragic.