A Conversation with Kgalema Motlanthe, Deputy President of SA

Some believe Kgalema Motlanthe is a bit of an enigma. Despite being in the public spotlight as deputy president, a lot of South Africans know very little about him. He typifies someone that South Africans have got used to over the years, yet know very little about what constitutes his leadership philosophy

In a rare interview at what is officially supposed to be his residence in Pretoria Motlanthe took time from his busy schedule to share with the Business Report Leadership Platform some nuggets of wisdom. He is someone who strikes one as being pretty much at ease with himself.
He also comes across as someone who respects all human beings, a trait that most probably underscores his upbringing. He says he was raised  “surrounded by lots and lots of respect.” Motlanthe,62, believes that what drives him is an “understanding that you have to be of service, you have to add value to whatever course you pursue.”

What follows is the first excerpt of our two-part conversation with Motlanthe on leadership and leadership issues:

BRLP: How have you best been prepared to lead in this position today, include a little about your childhood and upbringing and how that impacted your philosophy and approach to where you are today?

Motlanthe: I grew up in a very Christian family – both parents were great believers, practicing Christians – and so at a very young age I served in the Anglican Church as an altar boy.  In fact I am also named after my maternal and paternal grandparents – my aunts, my uncles always referred to me as their father from a young age – they accorded me that kind of respect as their father.  In a sense I grew up surrounded by lots and lots of respect and so I equally respect other people the same way, even those much younger than me from my own practical experience.  I have always been in organizations where you have to know how to be led for you to have a sense on how to lead.  I am a product of that kind of background.

BRLP: What really drives you – how would you summarize your value system?

Motlanthe: My understanding is that you have to be of service, you have to add value to whatever course you pursue.  I played group sports – football – it’s a team game – and I found that you couldn’t achieve good results if you relied on one player who happens to be a genius, you had to rely on the team as a whole.  Therefore each one of us brings strong points as well as weak points to the team – it’s the duty of the team to undermine the weak points and reinforce the strong points.  That’s what makes, at the end, a winning team.

BRLP: If you had to summarize your leadership approach and philosophy, what would that be?

Motlanthe: To me leadership means achieving results through others – always – it can’t be any other way.  You have to be able to have confidence in the team that surrounds you – knowing their strengths so you can tap into their strong points and create a space for them to contribute meaningfully – than to be a know-it-all type of person.  I always follow the view that we are always learning – you can’t be an expert in all matters, in some matters you learn from others and it is through the inputs of everyone that you end up with a clearer or an approximation of what may be the correct position.

BRLP: I am guessing that based on what you have said around discovering the strengths of your team members, that part of your philosophy would be to get to know them well, to connect with them.  Some leaders may say to me they believe in the strengths of their team but they don’t connect with every team member, so one wonders how they get to know their strengths. So would you say you really focus on getting to know every team member?

Motlanthe: Of course, yes. If you are to really truly get the best out of everyone you have to get to know them.  And therefore be in a position as well to blunt their weakness – you need to know how to bring their strong points to the fore.

BRLP: From experience I have come to know that most people cannot handle power.  Once they have power in their grasp they don’t know how to turn away from it or how to handle it. But your track record seems to show that you have strength to handle it.  Where does this strength come from?

Motlanthe: Any platform that you may occupy or that is available to you because of the position you occupy is not permanent – it’s precisely because there were people that came before you, your predecessors and there will logically be those who come after you. The time given to you, you must use it responsibly, as responsibly as you possibly can.  So for me it’s not that these things are about status – being president is not about status, it’s about being in a position to serve.

BRLP: What about personal ambition?

Motlanthe: You get to become president because you have tried your hand in everything and have succeeded in life and you now come to plough back to the nation and society at large.  If you are still driven by personal ambition I think it just creates difficulties, because then you get attached and become sentimental about these things and your tomorrow depends on staying in office.  My own approach is – like this residence here, it’s not my home – I know exactly where my work station is, my office, my bedroom and where I eat – the rest of the house doesn’t interest me at all – so if it’s time to go I will take 2 hours and I’m out of here.  It’s always helpful to remember and understand that you are asked to serve – it’s not your platform – you occupy it for a set timeline.

BRLP: We live in a very diverse society Mr Deputy President, where diversity is something that a leader must master.  In fact your very alliance in SA is a very unique one and very diverse in terms of aspirations on different sides of the continuum.  How does a leader successfully navigate such diversity? For example, when does a leader move from consulting and collaborating to commanding and doing?  Diversity necessitates having to collaborate with everyone, but somewhere a decision must be made.  So how does one balance, in your view, the diversity issue?

Motlanthe: Progress, like everything else in life, is a working out of opposites.  You get to what is the closest approximation of the correct position. Once you have had diverse views and opinions and have considered them, that’s how you get to that approximation, and that will then represent the correct step in whatever direction you are advancing, because it is a synthesis of those diverse views.  Monopoly of whatever kind, even in the realm of ideas, leads to stagnation, so diversity itself is a necessary condition for progress.  Motion is a working out of opposites.

BRLP: That’s a very interesting view.  Sometimes we see opposites as threats – you’re saying that doesn’t make sense?

Motlanthe: It makes no sense at all because monopoly leads to stagnation – there’s no motion – no forward movement at all.

BRLP: So if you want to be a leader in SA, you’ve got to have that view to be successful?

Motlanthe: I believe that, yes. The SA nation evolved over time – it’s an amalgam of people who came from different parts of the world.  When we were hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2010, virtually all the teams who came to play here could find SA nationals who are descendants of those nations, those teams, so each one of them had a support base.  To me that’s a reflection of who we are – we’re South Africans but we are the end product of continuous movement, and that is why it doesn’t make sense when people talk about xenophobia – people have always been coming here, over centuries. I’m always fascinated by the fact that there are many SA Afrikaners, for example, with French and German surnames who think those are Afrikaner surnames and have no idea – a surname like Le Roux is a French surname and they have no idea.  Our very history should convey this reality to us – if we know where we come from it makes it easier for us to know who we are today.

BRLP: Your views and comments on what Dr Reuel Khoza said recently about political leadership challenges?  Many people reacted very emotionally.

Motlanthe: I recall he said similar things in 2007.  And it never elicited the same kind of excitement.  What bothers me about the response to him is that even in terms of just ANC approaches, it was out of sync. The ANC in 1994 came out with a small booklet – “How to join the ANC”. In the introduction it said something to the effect that now the ANC has an opportunity to articulate its policies and publicize them so that the South African general public is afforded the opportunity to take informed decisions on whether to support, join or oppose the ANC.  So as an ANC member I must accept there will be those who oppose the ANC and they are perfectly within their rights to do so.  There will be those who support the ANC who would have no obligations that are imposed on members – they reserve the right to differ with the ANC on certain issues. People are never agreed on all matters.  When Dr Khoza as Chairperson of Nedbank in the Annual Report draws attention to the fact that there is a leadership problem surely that shouldn’t be taken as an offense?  No.  As I said at the beginning you need to hear the views and dreams of all kinds of people – that’s how you know if you’re on the right track or not.

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Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

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