A Leadership Conversation with Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa – Part 1

Like most readers of this article I have seen the President of South Africa, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma on my television screen. And, like some of you I came closer to him when I attended a function where he was the special guest. In my case I sat two tables away from him during an evening event shortly before he became President and because of my interest in leadership watched him closely – how he laughed at himself while Trevor Noah made jokes about him; how people gravitated towards his table; how attendees approached him freely despite the extraordinary controversies that surrounded him at the time. As a typical ‘distance critic’, influenced by media and analysts I had certain views about our President. Who didn’t? And, not long after he became President I felt prompted to write an open letter to him, challenging him to initiate a national debate on values in order to create more unity, not knowing at the time that I would eventually personally meet him.

Last week I and Business Report Editor Ellis Mnyandu enjoyed the rare opportunity of sitting across from Zuma in the comfort of his Pretoria residence, Mahlamba Ndlopfu, looking him in the eye while holding an intense leadership conversation.

Attempting to write about him as a leader, places a heavy responsibility on one’s shoulders, because there are diverse and very strong views regarding Zuma the person, the politician, the struggle hero, and even the leader. I regularly address groups on the topic of leadership and leaders in society, and more often than not they have the following to say about our President: “He comes across as approachable, inclusive, consultative, amicable, a good listener, but too indecisive”.

From personal experience I can now confirm that he is approachable, for a president, the proof being that we got to interview him in his home, for an hour. The Business Report Leadership Platform also emailed follow up questions to him personally, which were answered very swiftly. And in his presence, both Mnyandu and I quickly felt comfortable with the president, laughed and he certainly came across as warm, considering our conversation was at 6pm after a very long and hectic day that included the press conference announcing the new Chief Justice. The president was still in his business suit, with no sign of fatigue.

One of his staff coincidentally described the difference between him and his predecessor: In six months she entered the presidential home once when former President Mbeki was the head of state. With Zuma she finds herself there weekly as he regularly allows for meetings there. This is not necessarily about a right or wrong approach, but it demonstrates how engaging Zuma wants to be.

When one sits with Zuma face to face rather than view him through the television screen or the eyes of ruthless cartoonists, comedians or analysts, he is much more charismatic and impressive.

I found that during the interview, while of course remaining aware that he is the President, I felt comfortable enough to converse with and even interrupt him. He is human and one senses he has not lost contact with this reality.

The big question is whether Zuma is decisive or not. It is a big question on people’s minds and I want to unpack this because of its importance and relevance not only to Zuma but all leaders. Regarding this criticism he comments: “Well, people have a right to make a criticism of whatever type. It is their democratic right”. But, he also added that such critics “can’t produce to me one thing that I did not take a decision on. It is actually one of these perceptions people talk about that becomes a reality. They can’t tell me I did not decide on this or that matter. They live in the world of excitement; once there is an issue I must act immediately and if I don’t I am indecisive”.

Naturally we referred to incidents that seem to create the perception of indecisiveness, such as the report from the Public Protector regarding police leases, but more about this later.

To be fair we have to view the principle of so called decisiveness in context. I can come up with three angles. There is decisive (speedy decisions), indecisive and ‘decisive in processes’. And of course, add into the mix the personality of a leader and this too will influence the perception of which category he falls into.

Being decisive by always making quick decisions can be like a shotgun approach – the leader gets some decisions right and some wrong. This is the kind of leader that ‘thinks on his feet’ and comes across as making quick decisions. Those around the leader may view him as decisive when decisions are accurate and of course in such instances there is quick movement, which temporarily satisfies followers. However, when decisions are inaccurate the leader causes damage, back tracks with excuses and quickly loses credibility. People then hastily refer to him as irresponsible and even an autocrat. In politics such decisive leadership can certainly lead to dictatorship, especially against the backdrop of Africa with its reputation for dictators.

Of such an approach Zuma says: “I don’t believe you must take a decision on your feet, because if you do this you are often not absolutely correct, because there is something you did not check”.

An indecisive leader somehow freezes and puts off decisions because of fear, inexperience, inability to comprehend the complex situation or whatever reason. His motive for withholding a decision is not consciously part of a process. In fact, a person that is indecisive will or should never end up in a responsible leadership position.

A ‘decisive in process’ leader trusts the process that leads to a more comprehensive solution and always attempts to see the bigger picture. He consults widely to get buy in. Such a leader is more concerned about doing what is right than being perceived as decisive. He trusts the principle of: ‘it is one thing to be right, yet another thing to be the right time’. This is a leader that really covers all angles before making a decision. In fact, sometimes the process prompts the leader to refrain from acting at that moment, which decisive decision, though sometimes confusing to others, often proves to be correct. The disadvantage of this approach is that decisions do take longer, but in theory they are correct more often than not.

I place Zuma in the ‘decisive in process’ category. He feels “having been in public life for quite a while, people would by now realize I don’t take a decision without really applying my mind. That does not in any way say you are indecisive. It is the wrong application of the expression, that you are indecisive if you don’t take a decision now. Take a hasty decision and you are going to be apologizing all the time”. He explains his approach to making decisions further: “I believe you need to think. If you have got to take a decision, even if matters are clear after you have done something wrong, I have to apply my mind, because you are a human being. I am not taking a decision about a bag that I must pick up and go”. He used the example of the Public Protectors report: “In this instance I wrote and explained the allegation, and then asked for a response. And he (Police Commissioner) must respond. I must consider this because at the end, if I take a decision it is one that is going to live with you for your life. I am dealing with a human being here. Ever since I received the report from the protector I have been interacting with the people concerned, interacting with the Public Protector. At one point I even announced that I alerted the Speaker what I was doing. So it is not as if I am sitting indecisively. I am taking due process, so that when I come to finality I will be able to explain my decision at every level, even if somebody questions the decision”.

More often than not a leader adopts the ‘decisive in process’ approach not only because of how he was molded but because of the backdrop against which he leads. In Zuma’s case he may very well face a challenging backdrop, system and even dilemma. South Africans and our country as a whole require decisive leadership, when one considers our many challenges. We want to see societal ills and challenges resolved speedily, which one can understand. On the other hand, Zuma has to lead as a ‘decisive in processes’ leader. He must consult widely and consider the big picture because our society is extremely diverse, including aspirations of Alliance partners that can be on opposite ends of the continuum. Also, the ANC way is for him to align decisions with policies from its National Executive Committee. And by the way, because the ANC is such a dominant party, its very diversity, the collective wisdom of the NEC, its counter balances within and the way in which it operates may very well be South Africa’s safeguard against becoming a dictatorship. If this is so we need to be grateful that Zuma has developed the ability to adopt the ‘decisive in process’ approach; that he wants to unite because he senses the totality of South Africa’s political and social landscape. However, we are still faced with the dilemma that as he respects this back-drop and leads as a ‘decisive in process’ leader he will on average take longer to make decisions and often be perceived as indecisive.

In practical terms, a report about the Police Commissioner comes out and he starts following a decisive process of engaging relevant stakeholders. However, considering the context sketched above, following due process in the background may not adequately neutralise the high expectations and diverse perceptions of citizens.

The real question is whether or not it is possible for Zuma to ever be perceived as decisive, considering the dynamics described above. Collectively the question is also, what do we want as South Africans? A ‘decisive in process’ leader that respects the overall South African dynamics, at times making slower decisions, which results in coming across as indecisive, but within the bigger picture there is some improvement of societal challenges; or a decisive leader that disrespects the back-drop against which he leads and probably becomes more of a dictator, but if we are very lucky change happens at a faster pace, or at least perceived as such? We can’t have it all. Or can we? Is there a way for Zuma to remain a needed ‘decisive in process’ leader, yet somehow also come across as decisive to his followers?

When all is said and done, Zuma is the ‘CEO’ of this extremely complex business called South Africa Pty (Ltd). As one CEO of a large corporate explained to me “South Africa is a microcosm of the world. It is the real experiment” and Zuma agreed fully with this view by commenting: “To run South Africa is a big challenge. It is not a simple matter. South Africa is a complex country because of its history, because of its people. When we talk about unity in diversity we summarise what SA is. You find the smartest people in the world are from SA. But, you also have a huge population that was deprived of an education because of the apartheid system, which makes the country complex with highly sophisticated people, but also people who are really down to earth, poorest of the poor and they all have views. How do you handle these?”

According to Zuma the greatest challenge of someone that leads SA is to harmonise and unite all this diversity into one direction. He believes we therefore need a leader “who understands South Africa very well”.

Zuma may very well fit the description of the leader that really understands South Africa, and as things currently stands he will continue leading an environment where dilemmas and dichotomies are par for the course, where it may very well be impossible to please all citizens and where his ‘decisive in process’ leadership, perhaps unfairly so, at times portrays indecisiveness. Against this back-drop, is it possible to unite our diversity into one direction?

Making sense of difficult questions like this and then bringing about movement that initially seemed unlikely is the reality of leadership, and Zuma has to achieve this on the largest scale imaginable. As he says: “That’s precisely the reason why it is not everybody who is a leader”.

 See part two of President Jacob Zuma in the next BR Leadership Platform as we explore in more depth his leadership philosophy, how this matches our challenges, what our role is, the vision for the country, how he wants to be remembered and a message to all South Africans, from the heart.


BRLP: It must be very lonely in this leadership position, having to absorb continual criticism or people always treating you with such huge respect. Are you lonely?

Zuma: Not at all. Not with me. I am not at all very lonely. I am with people all the time. I feel absolutely wonderful! And at times I actually appreciate when people are critical, because it means they are not just sitting, ready to swallow anything; they are thinking; they are critical. I may not agree with them, but they are doing something to think about what needs to be done, and people will never be the same. They will certainly see things differently. Where ever I am I am at home. If and when I am sitting with my critics I am at home.

BRLP: What two or three additional attributes would the CEO of a country need as opposed to being the CEO of a business?

Zuma: Well, I don’t know about business, because I have not run business. I think if you are running a country you need to accept that it is composed of citizens who think differently and are not the same. You have got to accept that some people are going to disagree with you, very strongly and very extremely. At times they may be right. You must therefore be ready to accept that situation and deal with it, from a humble point of view. You must always humble yourself, no matter how harsh people can be, because that honor to be a president is not going to be experienced by many people. It is the highest honor that you can get on this earth. I think one should appreciate that and therefore be ready to humble yourself to the people who make you the president, so that they can be in a position to listen to you, even if they disagree with you. I think in my view people should know they can tell you what they think, whether you like it or not. They know that they are accepted. They know you are a person that makes mistakes and if you make mistakes you apologise. You should not say because I am the president I don’t care what happens. I think people want to see a real person, rather than an artificial person.

BRLP: What do you consider to have best prepared you to fulfill such a task?

Zuma: Firstly I think it is basically my background, how I grew up. I come from a large family. I lost my father when I was very young. I don’t even know him properly. I just know the shadow of him. I therefore grew up in an environment where elderly people handled me collectively. All this and more made me appreciate Ubuntu, a culture of respect, which I was taught very strongly. Up to today you would never see me loosing respect, even when there is political debate, I don’t. And I believe even when you disagree with a person you still have to give that person respect, whether old or young people. I think this, to me, was a critical element that molded me into what I am.

The second element has been my experience as a worker and trade unionist, but also the politics from the ANC, which made me grow, even to a point of understanding the nature of our own oppression, not just in a superficial fashion. I understood it very deeply, to a point of understanding that even the oppressor was himself not clear what he was doing. You therefore reach a point where you decide to liberate not only the oppressed but also the oppressor. Such politics of the ANC I think was seen in the main during the negotiations. That’s why people are saying we are a miracle in SA. I think it was the capacity of the ANC, firstly to teach its cadres real leadership qualities and proper understanding of the dynamics of the conflict in SA. And having understood that very deeply, to also understand very deeply the solution, that you cannot be negative if you want to arrive at a solution in SA. In other words, not the politics that teaches you anger, but the totality of it, where colour does not become the issue. The issue becomes the system and you know that you have got to tackle the system. The ANC teaches you the kind of politics where, when all is said and done you know what the right thing to do is. And therefore you reach a point where you know it is your fundamental task to harmonise the different kind of thinking, cultures and everything. But if you are politically not very grounded, you are likely to remain with one element. And if you are a strong character you will become so strong in that kind of element that you become destructive.

BRLP: Since you became president, what have you learnt about leadership? Surely one can look at the position of President from the outside, and even as Deputy President, but the day that mantle falls on your shoulders, what is that like?

Zuma: Let me start by saying, one of the things the ANC has done for me is to teach me politics and leadership. So, leadership does not come as a surprise, because you have learnt what leadership means, what is good leadership, who are leaders that have failed and why they failed, who are good leaders and why they succeeded. Growing up in the ANC you have not only learned about the ANC but also about other leaders from other organisations. And in my case you are talking about someone that has grown through the ranks of the ANC, and I have sat with these former leaders. You are a person who comes from a very deep school. So once this responsibility of President comes you are not asking what you must do. You know exactly how ANC leaders handled matters. But, once you become the leader, you are the last person and people look at you. As much as you know how the leaders dealt with those matters, once you are there it is of course a new situation. It is then a question of how you handle the situations

BRLP: How do you stay grounded?

Zuma: It is seeing ordinary people appreciating what government does for them. When they receive electricity, water or a house for the first time, the excitement encourages me to work harder to ensure that even more people get access to such basic services. I am also encouraged by the positive spirit of many South Africans I meet who appreciate the progress we are making.

This article appeared in the:


Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on adriaan@leadershipplatform.com for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




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)

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022
Email: info@leadershipplatform.com

Follow Us

Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


By subscribing you will be updated with the latest insights and news from us. We never spam.