President Zuma and Malema – Leadership, Trust and Respect

At the heart of truly influential leadership lies trust and respect. Nowadays leaders are also called upon to be mentors and refined coaches of their people. Yet, mentoring and coaching cannot be successful or even attempted without the existence of high trust and respect.

Why would one approach another for coaching or mentoring if one did not trust and respect the leader, or conversely, why would a leader offer mentoring or coaching if the possible recipient was not trusted and respected on some level?

The principle of trust and respect is truly at the heart of political, business, family, or any leader-follower relationship. More than ever, we need an understanding of this truth within our political and even business environment.

By way of a case study, I read an article by Janet Smith in the Saturday Star, regarding the future of Julius Malema. It reminded me that many writers and commentators confidently intimate that President Zuma actively orchestrated the demise of Julius Malema from the ANC, and Malema himself makes such accusations. Of course very few of us are close enough to the factual truth, a situation that lends itself to attracting speculative energy that should be distributed in other needy places. A waste of valuable energy happens anywhere, including in organisations where leaders allow for elusive messages and weak communication, and there exists low levels of trust and respect between leader and employer.  

Objectively, the question should be: Did President Zuma actively orchestrate Malema’s departure in the background; or did he want Malema to disappear from the scene, but patiently waited for him to ‘hang’ himself through existing ANC constitutional processes; or did he want Malema out of the way, yet do nothing about it; or did he accept Malema for who he was and what he said, and then everything that unfolded simply happened naturally? Did he try to actively mentor and assist Malema? Which one of these or other options is the truth?  

August last year the BR Leadership Platform visited President Zuma and had a leadership conversation with him. Within this comfortable conversation he revealed the following thoughts about Malema, which may illustrate the principle of trust and respect from different angles – between them and between us and our leader Pres Zuma.

BRLP: People might disparage us if we didn’t engage you on the perception out there that one of your biggest leadership challenges may very well be Julius Malema.  How do you deal with it behind the scenes – because I am confident that you do things behind the scenes? It could be that you allow the process to run its course. But these are issues that people talk about. I was addressing a group of students in Soweto and was surprised by what they were saying – maybe you don’t want to hear this.

Pres Zuma: No, I want to hear that.

BRLP: I was surprised to hear how positive they felt about this young man. Obviously I have a view of him. He has strengths, like for example, he is fearless. But that’s my view. So these students were feeling rather positive about him, because of his assertiveness, the impression he creates of being decisive, because of his loudness. How is this being handled by you as a leader, because it is a big thing in the media?

Pres Zuma: But that’s precisely the point. If you have a fellow like Malema, first you have got to understand him. And if you understand Malema you know how to handle Malema. If you don’t understand him you will never be able to handle him. Again, we look at the two sides I was talking about – the one side you refer to who loves Malema, to whom he appeals, but he does not appeal to the other side. There are two extremes and it depends on which side we are talking to. Some feel ‘that’s our man’, precisely because people like Malema have a particular kind of weakness and can’t last long, they can’t. If you are like him you have to find new issues all the time. You get used to people clapping hands for you. And that’s when you make lots of mistakes because you say a lot of wrong things, because if you addressed people and they did not get excited you feel you have not done it. So you must always be on the border of saying things that are radical and problematic. And people love this. Newspapers love it because it creates business for them, because the media wants sensation. Now, supposing you got to those young students you were talking to and I act against Malema, you can imagine the reaction that will follow. Now those that live on the other side of the spectrum don’t appreciate that. They just want to know why this young man is left unattended to. How do you balance that? Very difficult. But, Malema, because he is Malema, naturally he is going to move to a point where even those who love him question him. It is a question of, at what point in public can you take a stand where the pro-Malema (those students) will not rise against you.

BRLP: That what you say and do make sense in their minds as well?

Pres Zuma: Exactly. Absolutely, very crucial. What you say and do is a question of timing, a question of what issue, etc. So there are many things you have to put together to make everybody appreciate the kind of action you take. But somebody is going to say Zuma is indecisive. Why is he leaving this young man.? But they don’t understand the dynamics. That’s a problem.

BRLP: Of course some detractors may ask, what is the prospect of removing Mr Malema from public space once and for all?

Pres Zuma: No, I don’t think that should be the objective. I think the objective is how do you help Malema – because Malema has a lot of elements that are good in him? At one point I said there is a lot of potential in this young man. What you have to do is deal with things that are not right with Malema. I don’t think you should have an objective to remove him. We must help him to do the right things. Because if you help him to do the right things you have a very good potential young man who could put across things very well. But you cannot allow him to do the wrong things. In other words, the job of the ANC is to help Malema, to mold him into a dynamic, good leader. That’s what we need to do. It is only if you can’t do it that the question becomes what do we do with him. Now the ANC never give up on people. It has patience. I think what we should do is help Malema.

BRLP: So you have to make a call as to whether he is migrating towards the direction of assistance, or not, and then act accordingly? It’s your call to make.

Pres Zuma: It is our call to make. But, naturally, if in the ANC you migrate towards the wrong side, I can tell you, having been in the ANC for a number of years, you can’t last long, because the ANC is something else.

BRLP: It is a creature on its own.

Pres Zuma: It is a creature of its own. You have to understand the ANC to lead in the ANC comfortably. If you don’t understand it you can take it for granted. One of our former leaders used to say the ANC is like an elephant, it walks very slowly, but let it not catch up with you, in the wrong way, because then the elephant would have been on you.

Interesting comments. He explains the basic principle of trying to balance his, or the ANC’s decision-making with the existence of two opposing factions – supporters and detractors of Malema. And this could be viewed as one of the dilemmas of a leadership style that is collaborative, within a democratic system where, understandably leaders try hard to please all parties, but in the process come across as indecisive.

Then Pres Zuma explains the motive should not be about how to get rid of Malema but how to help him achieve his potential. This is a mature mentoring and coaching mindset. The question many may have is what exactly was done to mentor this future leader, and again, few of us are close enough to the situation to know the answer. What we do know is that this would probably not have happened in the absence of mutual trust and respect.

And finally, according to our President, the choice lay with Malema as to whether he chose the one way or the other. Latest events seem to suggest he chose to migrate away from assistance.

On a societal level, namely the relationship of South African citizen towards their President, so much of ones perceptions regarding these comments also depend on the existence, or not, of trust and respect.  Does Pres Zuma have the trust, respect and therefore credibility that leaders require in order to influence effectively, especially within a democratic system with its limitations, surrounded by a complex environment? And mostly trust and respect goes both ways. In other words, does Pres Zuma trust and respect us as citizens?

Worldwide there seems to be a trust deficit between political leaders and followers. We see signs of this all over. So this is not just a Pres Zuma challenge. Gill Marcus said it this way: “Nobody trusts any more, and yet this is crucial to solve the current global economic dilemma. If global leaders through the various institutions and meetings commit to doing something, it seems that the markets don’t trust it is going to happen. We are experiencing a situation where citizens, particularly in the advanced economies, don’t have confidence and trust in their leadership at any level, particularly political. Until trust and confidence is rebuilt, it will be very difficult to stabilize the global economy.”

Let’s face the truth, explained so well by Mark Cutifani, CEO of AngloGold Ashanti: “You are not a leader if you have not established trust. So we have lots of people in leadership positions, but they are not leaders. Leaders build trust. And if you asked how one builds an effective organisation where people work together, it is when there is trust, which is the thing that binds”.

In a conversation with the MD of McDonalds, Greg Solomon, he explained “leadership is mainly about influence, influencing other people; it is about trust and respect. The latter is about delivering on results, leading from the front, knowledge, skills; it is about show and tell. Your people need to understand they have somebody with the know-how, credibility and the results that they can follow. Trust is about delivering on your promise, integrity, sticking to your word”.

He introduced a simple formula, which is about giving a person a score out of ten for respect and a score out of ten for trust. You then multiply the two scores with each other. The rule of thumb is that if the leader scores below sixty four (8×8) they don’t really have credible or sufficient influence to lead effectively. This is a high standard, because eight out of ten in each category is the bottom end of the standard.

While this method is obviously not scientific in any shape or form, the results do give the leader some indication of how his followers view him. We have come to realise that when a leader does not have a high average between these two elements (his people do not trust and respect him enough), he generally creates movement or generates action through methods other than influence built on trust and respect. For example, he may rely too much on his position or title; or on fear; or intimidation; or manipulation; and so on. As a leader you should ask yourself whether your direct reports, your boss, your stakeholders or followers will score you at least eight times eight.

Society need to start putting pressure on leaders to influence through high levels of trust and respect, especially within the public sector.

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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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