A Leadership Conversation with Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa – Part 2

Following on from last week’s article on our leadership conversation with President Zuma, after describing the complex dynamics and back-drop against which he leads, the following question was posed: “Is it possible to unite our diversity into one direction?”

From a leadership context logic follows that to achieve this there has to be a vision.  And, the more complex and challenging the dynamics of the entity one wants to move, the more compelling and inspiring the vision should be, so that followers want to be ‘there’ rather than ‘here’.

As far as South Africa is concerned, on one end towers the unmistakable diversity, complexity, challenges and current reality of our country, so clearly explained last week by President Zuma. On the other end should be the vision, the desired future state. These two opposite ends of the scale ‘compete’ with one another, yet they are also codependent as both must be understood clearly if success is to follow. What is also clear is that considering the South Africa that our leader wants us all to move, we had better have a very compelling and attractive vision that nobody can ignore or not find appealing.

Then, we need leadership, and in fact leaders that will not only indicate the vision but also lead our diverse society towards the vision with confidence, effective authority and authenticity.

The question is therefore, what is our vision and would the leadership philosophy, approach of our current leader add value towards the task at hand?

Firstly, our vision, which President Zuma described as follows: “Our vision was enunciated one hundred years ago when the ANC was formed. The vision of a united and democratic society came into being. As the years went by, this crystallized into the building of a non-racial, united, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous society. The Freedom Charter firstly, and later the Constitution of the Republic, are the foundation documents which spell out the national vision. We want a society where everybody has access to basic human rights, and to a better life with water, electricity, housing, proper roads, quality education, quality health care and a host of other simple things which will improve the lives of our people.”

He expressed determination that “for as long as scores of our people do not have these services, we will not rest.”

This is the vision, straight from our leader’s mouth. Some may feel that they are not consciously aware of this vision as communicating it incessantly is just as important as coming up with it. President Zuma admits communication must improve: “Yes I agree that we need to communicate more and more what we are working to achieve, and also our achievements as a nation.”

However, it is also true that the attitude of the recipient of the communication often determines how well the message is received. President Zuma feels “we have achieved a lot in 17 years, but unfortunately there is a culture of dwelling on the negatives and failing to see how well the country has done, from a pariah to a vibrant, stable democracy.”

In large Corporates weak communication is always one of the obstacles to getting buy-in, understanding, passion and movement towards the vision. Now just imagine how challenging it is in a country as diverse and complex as ours. As President Zuma states: “It is not just government alone that must communicate. The media, business, labour all sectors must learn to see the positives that exist and share these with the country and the world.”

Communication is therefore critical to let people know what the vision and progress is and in this department we have work to do, seeing as the relationship between government and media seems temperamental, to say the least.

Regarding the vision, the question has to also be whether it is compelling, enticing enough to move us from the current reality? Is this a vision that will go a long way towards motivating all or most South Africans to become more united, to set aside contentious differences and desire to leverage positive differences? I can’t answer for you. What I do know is that President Zuma has instructed the National Planning Commission (NPC) to formulate a vision and plan for South Africa, by way of a very inclusive consultation process. One trusts this will add considerable value to the vision mentioned by President Zuma. As a recent participant with several others in a day long discussion with Commissioners from the NPC I can confirm that the process is very exciting and seems very authentic.

Ultimately the art is for all or at least most South Africans to own this vision. More and more it seems that to fully own a vision it must connect at a mental and emotional level. To achieve emotional ownership it has to be appealing. For this to happen one must truly value those components that make up the vision because what one truly values connects with the heart and then it becomes appealing. And, to own it mentally there must be confidence in how one believes it will be achieved (the plan). In this way values, vision, behavior, strategy, the mind and heart are integrated into one great whole.

What kind of leader or leadership is needed to get us to this vision? Let’s start with President Zuma’s own philosophy: “My philosophy is I should lead in the collective, consult as I think it is important. At times people want to know why I consult so much. It is absolutely important to take everybody on board. Because if you have consulted you have a chance that you have a decision that will be defended by a collective, rather than a decision that will be defended by you only. And if you are a leader you must create that positive, collective leadership. It must not be lost. You must not be the one who thinks other people should create it. And you create it by the way you interact. You must allow someone to put across a view, and you engage, and you hear them. Then you hear other elements that help you see the picture differently. In other words, in very friendly discussions, somebody must actually come to a view without you forcing them into a view. I think it is an important thing to do.”

Real, meaningful, emotional, mental and lasting buy-in and alignment only happens when there is inclusion, involvement, participation, good communication.

One cannot click one’s finger or order someone to be officially aligned, on board. It therefore seems that theoretically President Zuma’s leadership philosophy should be the right one for the job at hand.

However, while the collective leadership philosophy is definitely the way to go in today’s complex society, there exists a potential dilemma in such an approach. For a leader to be an effective collective leader he must possess effective authority, which in turn hinges on adherence to an unwritten pact between leader and follower. Firstly the leader commits to counsel widely and wisely before making important decisions, but, after the decision is made, followers commit to accept and sustain the decision. Mostly a leader cannot consult several stakeholders with varying opinions and then make a decision that satisfies all parties. So, for this collective philosophy to work, all participants (leader and follower) must respect and trust one another and ultimately sustain the end decision, even if it does not align with one’s own view. Participants must accept that the leader, who is perhaps the only one to see the entire picture, in all likelihood, makes the right decision, driven by the right motives.

This does not seem to work so seamlessly in real life and certainly not in South Africa. Why are we not adhering to this unwritten pact? Perhaps it is just not within the DNA of opposition politics and even the democratic system to do so, be it in South Africa or the United States? Or, is there not sufficient trust or respect between our leader and us, the followers? But, more importantly, do we trust and respect President Zuma’s ‘office’ (position). Do we trust and respect the democratic process through which he became the President of South Africa, which is the same process through which future presidents will be elected? If we, as a society don’t fully adopt a culture of respecting the ‘office’ and the collective leadership ‘pact’ we will struggle to support any future collective leader.

In general followers (and often the leader as well) find it difficult to separate the person from the position that he or she holds. In a way the position is usually not the issue, while the person that is human makes mistakes and can be criticized. But, of course often the problem lies with the followers. For example, we confuse freedom of speech with freedom to treat the leader with disrespect, and in the process we denigrate the office of president. Admittedly it is a fine line that separates the two sides. I just wonder if we give this principle enough thought at all. You see, the more we downgrade the office of the president the more we downgrade the effective authority of this position.  Perhaps signs of disrespect can be seen in the way we address the President in media headlines and articles; or the type of cartoons we allow in the press; and so on. One can write a hard hitting article but still refer to President Zuma rather than Zuma only, for example.

Ultimately, the challenge with collective, consultative, open leadership is that the leader’s authority and power to lead could weaken, especially when his ‘office’ and the ‘pact’ are not respected. Disunity, rivalry, and division could become the order of the day. Such a situation then speaks to the following principle: In leadership the level of unity equals the level of performance – 50% unity = 50% performance; 100% unity = 100% performance. Therefore, when unity walks out the back door, so does performance. Of course a given in this situation is that the leader must earn the respect and realize at all times that every action, movement he makes, word he utters, or word he does not utter, impacts on the perception of whether he truly lives and breathes the vision. It is a heavy and very visible burden to carry.

Society’s evolution towards collective leadership is starting to raise some interesting leadership dichotomies and questions for debate.

President Zuma’s appeal to South Africans, from the heart is “that our history has proven that when united around a common goal we can succeed. The common goal is to build a great country with jobs, safer communities and many other social needs”. And this leads me to the question, if I agree with this goal, am I on board? If you agree, are you on board?

Admittedly, government can’t do this on its own. President Zuma explains: “Our theme as government is that “working together, we can do more”. Government cannot do everything on its own. We must work together to eradicate poverty, unemployment and other social ills facing our society. Nobody must be a bystander. It is a collective responsibility. We need the support of every South African. We need ideas and action from everybody to build a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa.”

To the question “Is it possible to unite our diversity into one direction?” the answer has to be yes. However, in President Zuma’s own words “we must accept that it will not be easy to achieve all the things we want to achieve and we cannot achieve them as fast as we want, but if we believe in ourselves and our abilities collectively, we will achieve our goals.”

Q & A

BRLP: Who were some of your mentors?

Pres Zuma: There are many, not one. Chief Luthuli was one of them. He made a very lasting impression on me. I joined the ANC when he was the President and learnt from him, even though I did not work with him directly. I think Oliver Tambo also became one of my best mentors. Also, Harry Gwala who was not just one of my mentors but my political teacher. Stephen Dlamini, probably not known that much. Moses Mabida, among many. These are mentors that came from my area and Province, close by that really influenced me. There were others that influenced me from a distance, like Govern Mbeki and others, including Mandela. But they all did it in a different way, because they were not from the same kind of character. So, in a sense the manner in which Luthuli handled matters, and OR Tambo, in particular, at a leadership level, I think one learnt quite a lot from them, in terms of how to handle the movement and leadership.

BRLP: Something I have picked up from top leaders is that they often do not have the full picture because those around them (advisors, direct reports) feed information selectively. As you have visited poor areas I have heard you mention that you were ‘surprised’ at the plight of some people and that those that report to you don’t tell you everything. How do you overcome this leadership barrier of not seeing the full picture, yet needing to make the best decisions?

Pres Zuma: The reality is that there is always a temptation to gloss over serious challenges, so that is an understandable human flaw, that officials will be tempted to hide the real truth. That is why I prefer to go to the ground from time to time and speak to the people directly, and see for myself. I often discover that what I find is different from what the reports I have been given say. Nothing beats being hands on as a leader. It makes even those you lead to work harder, knowing that you will go and verify what they are saying.

BRLP: What leadership legacy do you want to leave behind? What would you like to be remembered for?

Pres Zuma: I am not sure that one can choose a legacy, really, to say this is the legacy I want to leave behind. Clever people maybe do so. I have always said I would want to be remembered as one of the ANC cadres who was ready to carry ANC instructions to the letter. And I want to be seen as a person who when given an opportunity in whatever level he made his own contribution, without going halfway; a cadre who was part of a collective, who enhanced the collective leadership; a cadre who really cared about the interests of the people, who tried to work towards addressing the plight of the people, and who saw in the ANC a vehicle that could be utilized to do this, or enhance the ANC for that kind of reason. Really, not anything else.

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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)

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Email: info@leadershipplatform.com

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