Election Leadership Lessons

The LA Times had this headline about our recent elections: “South Africans vote for ANC, a party they are fed up with.” Steve Hofmeyr expressed his disgust and I guess disappointment on Facebook when, after mentioning all the “failures” of our ANC led government, he ends with: “Kry vir jou Suid Afrika. Jy verdien jou k*k” (take that South Africa. You deserve your s**t).

In a way one can understand such comments of disillusionment or even disgust when election results don’t seem to reflect media and community sentiment in the run up to elections. Communities express their utter disgust with the ruling party by way of violent delivery protests, yet they vote the ANC back in with an overwhelming majority. So, either the media is totally out of sync with reality, or there is something many of us are missing.

From a leadership point of view, what can we learn from the election results? Why do the majority of South Africans continue to vote for the ANC? And why do some continue voting for the DA? Why was Cope the flavour during the previous elections, yet almost disappeared this time round? Why is the EFF the flavour this time, and will they stick around for longer than five years? Why did Agang not even come close to cutting it?

People follow for one or more of the following reasons:

  1. An emotional connection to the leader/s, which more likely than not includes respect.
  2. An emotional connection to the message or the cause.
  3. An emotional connection to the organisation in question.
  4. Because logic dictates they must, almost as if they have no choice. This reason could include some kind of intellectual connection.

 A leader that can somehow create all three emotional connections and have logic on his side is in a good space and will more often than not be unbeatable.

The ANC won with an overwhelming majority in the first few elections because they literally ticked every one of the four boxes. There was an emotional connection to the leader, Nelson Mandela and several other struggle icons. There was a very strong, deep emotional connection with the message and cause. And there was an unbreakable emotional connection to the organisation that had been at the struggle for so long. And to add to all this, there was a logical, intellectual argument as to why South Africans had to vote for the ANC. It was perceived to be the only alternative, especially for the black voter. An overwhelming majority was inevitable; the ANC was unbeatable!

Looking at the DA, why did South Africans vote for it in the past and now recently? The dominant reason is that of logic – reason number four. Their reality is one of superficial loyalty, no real emotional connection, but rather one of voting for them because of the “numbers” game, a logical argument that our country needs good opposition to function as a mature democracy. So their following is mostly based on logic and little emotion, except for those that have a race concern, that believe this is still a war between black and white, which by its very nature is an emotional issue. But of course the DA cannot proclaim the cause of offering insecure white compatriots an emotional and physical home. Temporarily it seems to work for them though. The entire premise of the DA is a very sound intellectual argument, that we need strong opposition. To a large degree this came from the very intellectual Tony Leon. However, the way he attracted most of the white, even Afrikaner votes was when he tapped into their emotions with his famous “Fight back” campaign, and that is why at the time there was such an incredible surge in their support base.

Then, as the ANC starts “unticking” the boxes above, the logic case for supporting the DA increases; the intellectual argument of why one should vote for the DA strengthens. There is no doubt that as struggle heroes within the ANC started benefitting, or even enriching themselves in our new democracy, they also started breaking that emotional connection between them and followers, a trust divide developed. I am convinced that President Zuma as a leader has also damaged this specific emotional connection.

But, the emotional connection with the ANC organisation has saved the day and remains intact, because loyalty towards it is extremely strong, built up over many decades, so it does not easily erode. This is especially true when what it delivered over that period is seen as invaluable and inextricably linked to core human motivators, like freedom to choose, equality, restoring dignity, and much more.

The timeless emotional connection to the ANC, almost as if it is a family member, is why even when a huge scandal like Nkandla rocks our country, citizens still vote for the ANC. And even though the DA comes with a strong logical argument that attracts many, the logical argument of what the ANC has delivered economically and practically is still a strong enough one, which, together with the remaining emotional connections renders them unbeatable.

In short, the ANC’s emotional connection between leaders and followers has taken a serious knock. The emotional connection with the message or cause has also eroded somewhat, but there is still enough of a reserve to fall back on. And as mentioned previously, the emotional connection with the organisation remains, because one remains loyal towards a family member even when they disappoint, not so? I remain a Groenewald no matter what I do.

Why did the EFF have a good start to their future? There is an emotional connection with their message or cause, because the ANC has created a void in that area. Their challenge will be how to build the emotional connection with their organisation, which takes time. And as Cope discovered, the comfortable benches of parliament is not exactly an easy place from which to develop this connection. There seems to be an emotional connection between followers and Julius Malema, probably because he advocates their cause so fearlessly. Another prominent leader commented to me that Malema wasn’t courageous but desperate. While this may have been true in the beginning stages, I am not sure that this is still the case. Possible desperation has grown into courage, which has probably transformed into confidence after election results. But are they the only alternative? Perhaps so for those who are desperate for economic change, who are impatient with ANC performance. So the future bodes well for the EFF, unless they, like others, become their own worst enemy while navigating their way through the ego infested mine fields of formal politics.

Any question as to why Agang failed dismally? And why did Cope not last? It becomes clear, doesn’t it?

As long as the ANC delivers at an average pace and builds their brand, they are probably going to be unbeatable for a long time to come. However, they are moving in the wrong direction with emotional connections slowly disappearing, and their logical case becoming weaker as the years roll on, as indicated by the recent drop of a few percentage points in their support base. They are their own worst enemy.

The DA will never catch them, unless something dramatic happens on their side that builds emotional connections on all three levels – leaders, cause and organisation.

These principles are as relevant in any organisation. Many leaders are promoted into management positions, and are then followed because their reports have no choice. This reason may be sufficient because followers need their monthly salary after all. However, full potential of leaders, followers and organisations are only achieved when leaders can create that emotional connection on one, two or even three levels.

 The ANC must become humble of their own accord and take note of the above. The DA will have to go back to the drawing board, because they don’t seem to see the above picture, as indicated by their near blunder of bringing Dr Ramphele on board. The EFF will have to keep their momentum going by working harder at those emotional connections and positioning their logical argument more clearly. As for the rest, just demonstrate emotional intelligence and courage by moving on and out of politics.

Adriaan Groenewald is a leadership expert and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP or @LeadershipPform. Furthermore you can contact him on email: adriaan@leadershipplatform.com.




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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