A Leadership Conversation with Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa – Part 3

President Zuma is on a roll! Watching him engage the business community on SABC2 Tuesday morning one could sense he is in a good space. This is healthy for our country because when he makes the right calls we all benefit; should he succeed we all succeed; should he fail, we all fail. Anyone that wants him to fail is driven by selfish motives.

Following our recent articles on the President we received some constructive, subjective, objective and emotional comments for and against the two pieces, together with authentic discussions around our positioning of him as a leader. All this activity prompted a follow up article and analysis of the President, while he finds himself at an important juncture.

We positioned him as a ‘decisive-in-process’ leader rather than indecisive or decisive only, and explained that such a 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. This is a leader that really covers all angles before making a decision. The disadvantage of this approach is that decisions do take longer, but in theory they are correct more often than not”.

Following much process we recently witnessed decisive action from the President when he suspended the Police Commissioner, fired some Ministers and appointed a Commission of Enquiry into the arms deal.

These and other actions seem to confirm that President  Zuma is a decisive-in-process leader, though many feel his processes take too long.

We further highlighted that for a leader to succeed at the decisive-in-process approach, certain building blocks must be in place. Firstly, the leader should preferably enter into his position with overwhelming respect and credibility, as explained in our article: “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.”

Secondly, with the respect in place it is more likely that there will exist a specific unwritten pact between the leader and follower in that “the leader commits to counsel widely and wisely before making important decisions, but, after the decision is made, followers commit to accept and support the decision.”

Thirdly, there needs to be a healthy respect for the office (position) of the leader and finally there must be a trust in the process that placed the leader in his seat, which in the case of President Zuma is referred to as the democratic process.

As far as the first building block is concerned, the respect comes from at least two angles – a match between the leaders words and deeds, or between what the leader and followers value and whether the leaders behavior supports this; and previous track record or performance.

Some leaders are chosen (elected) for a position predominantly because of a clear track record that speaks for itself, which means there is respect for certain achievements. Others are chosen less for their track record and more for another agenda, sometimes a hidden one, though the reason put forward is previous performance. Then there are leaders that are perceived to be placed in a position for the sole purpose of driving a specific agenda, known or not and regardless of track record. The perfect blend of course is to appoint a leader that earned respect because of an authentic track record, who is then chosen to drive an open and transparent agenda.

A leader that enters a position because of a healthy track record starts with more credibility and can lead more assertively with patience and tolerance from followers towards his views and decisions, because of a built in trust (trust-reserve). And of course a leader that is perceived to have been appointed mostly to serve some agenda, regardless of track record could start on the back foot, with an insufficient trust-reserve inside the broader follower base.  In other words, followers don’t by default trust the leader’s decisions but always second guess him, believing these may be taken to serve some agenda rather than simply doing what’s right.

A leader with respect and credibility can do as former President Mandela did when he walked into an ANC NEC meeting where members already voted for the disbanding of the Springbok emblem, and somehow influenced them to reverse the decision. This does mean he made a withdrawal from his trust-reserve, but because the decision proved to be correct, followers invested back into the trust-reserve and it ended up with a more healthy balance.

How does our President stack up against some of the mentioned building blocks?

Let’s be frank for a moment, he was always going to face an uphill battle as President, because of his past that includes unresolved accusations and moral indiscretions, and the fact that many believe (rightly or wrongly) he was placed in this position mostly to serve the agenda of certain stakeholders, which at one stage included a plan to get rid of former President Thabo Mbeki.

Because of this background there seems to be an inherent distrust of his motives by many South Africans. The media, probably because of its past rivalry with him and the general public refuse to give him any space or time to make decisions. If he had no baggage and entered his position with wide spread respect and then led the way he currently does, collectively South Africans may have perceived him as a much stronger and favorable leader.

Can President Zuma restore the current trust-deficit that exists? He is exceptionally resilient with a proven track record of overcoming any obstacle thrown at him, which means if anyone can turn around a situation that gained momentum in the wrong direction, then he can. Over and above this he can recover by doing one or more of the following: making correct and values driven leadership decisions such as the recent ones; ensuring his behavior here on forward matches the values of his followers and what he promotes in word; confronting the past perceived ‘out of line’ behavior head on; putting in place a more exciting, inclusive and forward looking vision that ensures a legacy that all South Africans can buy into.

His recent decisive actions bought him a lot of credits towards respect and credibility. More decisions like these, coupled with his canny ability to spontaneously pay unexpected visits on the ground (schools, police stations, etc.), and his accessibility will certainly build his trust-reserve. However, he cannot afford another corruption charge or be the accused in a rape case or be engaging in behavior that many South Africans may believe to fall in the category of infidelity. He must stay clean because such acts send a message of a lack of integrity even to those that may agree with his moral or traditional values. If those closest to him can’t trust him, how can ordinary South Africans?

Of course he has now opened the enquiry into the arms deal, which is a form of confronting head on those charges of fraud and corruption leveled against him some time back.

As regards the vision, several readers were unexcited by the vision President Zuma suggested for our country: “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. 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.”

One can easily feel guilt-ridden for not being inspired by this vision as surely we all should want such a society. However, as one leader stated, the vision is ‘steeped in history but does not look forward enough; it is responding to basic needs and not the higher aspirational order’.

I want to add that it could also be seen as unachievable. After all, it has not been achieved in the past one hundred years and may not be achieved fully in the next hundred years. A vision must be achievable and as mentioned previously, “the more complex and challenging the dynamics of the entity one wants to move (SA), the more compelling and inspiring the vision should be, so that followers want to be ‘there’ rather than ‘here’”.

Mr President, inspire us with an exciting vision and keep up the momentum, not for the purpose of being re-elected next year or for any agenda other than the fact that it is right for our country and our young children, whom we celebrate this very Saturday.

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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)

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

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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.


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