More on Kgalema Motlanthe – Handling Power

Of former President of South Africa Kgalema Motlanthe, Mathews Phoza says: “He is a very deep thinker. He examines everything properly before he opens his mouth. He is a very kind man; a clever leader.” Another described him as ‘widely admired’, which is too often, regrettably, uncommon for politicians.

Most polished politicians can make one feel comfortable, but it is different with Motlanthe. I spent time with him at his residence in Pretoria while he was Deputy President and recently in our Leadership Platform CliffCentral studio. As other commentators have remarked, and I concur, he projects humility, which may be a reflection on his philosophy that “we are always learning – you can’t be an expert in all matters.”

His humility is also anchored in his respect for all human beings, regardless of age, echoing his upbringing where he was respected by his elders, “therefore socialized to reciprocate” as he put it.

How leaders perceive and deal with power is a major obstacle in the world today, and certainly so in South Africa. A leader’s perception of power is a key element of their make-up and success, especially in politics. Without exerting power of some kind a leader cannot cause positive movement to happen. On the other hand, by exerting power unfairly or unwisely a leader may cause resentment and negative reaction.

Motlanthe seems to have illustrated an exceptional strength to resist the temptation of allowing power to become his master. Most men, and in some instances women, do not have the strength or discipline to shun its addictive influence. In the context of the political environment where ego’s and seeking power seems inevitable, to have been a care taker President of a country for almost a year and then to step down to the Deputy President position cannot be made to look easy by many individuals.

He explains it as follows:

“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.” This may be what most leaders in his position would say, but he expands: “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.”

In Motlanthe’s view, by the time a person gets to the stage of being president of a country he should be beyond being driven by personal ambition. Of course we know this is not commonly the case. If still driven by personal ambitions he believes “it just creates difficulties, because then you get attached and become sentimental about these things and your tomorrow depends on staying in office.” He views the purpose of his period in the hot seat as needing to create a seamless transition from the Mbeki era to the next President – peace and stability for the good of our nation.

This mindset, and the authentic ANC value system of “leading without title” that has been entrenched in him, allowed him to engage difficult situations because of his expectation that other colleagues should feel the same. He was designated to invite then Deputy President Zuma, and later President Mbeki to resign. It wasn’t easy, but he was the right man for the job – in my view a confident peacemaker unafraid of confrontation, because his leadership philosophy is grounded in sound, timeless or universal principles, essences.

From years of working with and interviewing leaders we have come to learn that wise leaders understand the difference between legitimate use of ‘power with’ and ‘power over’. ‘Power with’ is applicable in our relationships ‘with’ other people. It means that we exert all our experience and authority to support, understand, respect, motivate and move people around us by exerting power ‘with’ them. As a general rule wise leaders do NOT exert power ‘over’ people, because it brings out the worst in others. ‘Power over’ should be exerted in a leaders relationship with ideas, concepts, physical things and negative habits that prevent him from achieving his potential. Wise leaders are driven by positive vision and values and are unafraid to exert power ‘over’ negative ideas and concepts as opposed to trying to exert power over people.”

From a leadership perspective Motlanthe illustrates a ‘power with’ attitude in his views. Like many seasoned leaders he believes it is about “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 – rather than to be a know-it-all type of person.” This mindset was not just instilled through his upbringing and leadership exposure over many years but through playing sports, and more specifically soccer. He explains: “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.”

Of course leading in our very diverse society can be challenging and lends itself to differences, or what seems like opposite views where ‘never the twain shall meet’. While many leaders easily advocate diversity as a positive, for most, in practice, it acts as a barrier to exerting ‘power with’. For Motlanthe diversity is the optimum environment for progress:

“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.”

Hence the need for an environment “where anyone can feel confident enough to express their honest views on any matter,” states Motlanthe.

To be a successful leader in today’s global, complex and constantly moving environment, and especially South Africa with its sensitive past, one has to adopt Motlanthe’s view that ‘motion is a working out of opposites’. It is a foundation block upon which leaders should build their leadership and people skills. Without it the leader’s power to create the necessary movement or motion will be short lived at best, and the trust and respect he needs in order to possess much needed influence will diminish speedily.

Kgalema Motlanthe is a deep thinker, a clever leader with hope for our future, if according to him we remember our leadership heritage of achieving the “impossible” through unity.

For more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation, contact us on




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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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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