Zuma and Motlanthe – A Leadership Comparison

In analyzing Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe’s leadership approach, many have referred to him as a uniting alternative to President Jacob Zuma.  It would be amiss of this national leadership platform to not attempt some form of leadership review between these two men, especially after they both accepted an invitation to talk to the Business Report Leadership Platform.

The two are ideally positioned for a race to what is possibly the most powerful leadership position in the country, that of President of the ANC, and by default President and chief executive of South Africa.

The views raised are done against a backdrop of the deep rooted culture and philosophy within the ANC-led Alliance that leaders who nominate themselves for the top job automatically fall by the wayside. Ideally nominations should come from ground level, without any campaigning from potential candidates. Of course in practice one notices some deviation from this philosophy, ranging from obvious to clandestine.

Both are steeped in ANC culture: President Jacob Zuma and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe are both steeped in ANC culture, confirmed by their approach to the succession battle where neither of them campaign openly for it, on face value at least. One also senses their attitude towards authentic ANC philosophy in their responses to questions, where in several instances answers have the same flavour. It requires an effort to read between the lines when they comment, and watch behaviour on another level, to be convinced of seemingly insignificant differences as leaders.

An evident example is their responses towards the Julius Malema challenge. While these had the same flavour, based on Motlanthe’s response (see Q&A) he placed more emphasis on the principle of actual consistency – more consistent feedback and corrective guidance or coaching should have been the order of the day.

Trust and respect: Low levels of trust and respect for Zuma may have been his greatest barrier during his presidency. In another article we stated: “Let’s be frank for a moment, he (Zuma) 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 who 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 trusted him more and perceived him as a much stronger and favourable leader.”

In the case of Motlanthe, at this stage there exists only unsubstantiated rumors regarding controversies in his past – from Chancellor House dealings to business dealings by his partner Gugu Mtshali, which he defused very effectively – hence one may find a higher level of trust and respect for him. Should he make the same decisions Zuma made, at the same pace, in theory there would be more patience, understanding and acceptance directed towards him.

For both leaders their behaviour is probably regulated by at least two compasses – a deep loyalty to the core of what the ANC is really about and their values formed from childhood, mostly with a Christian foundation. Question is who has managed to navigate their actions and motives closest to both these compasses? Whose behaviour has been most congruent? It is such a perception, and at times fact, that regulates the level of trust between leader and follower.

Managing power: How leaders perceive and deal with power is a key element of their make-up and success, especially in politics. Without exerting power of some kind, positive movement cannot happen. On the other hand, exerting power unfairly results in resentment and negative reactions.

Motlanthe seems to have illustrated an exceptional strength to resist the temptation of allowing power to become his master. Most cannot shun its addictive influence. In the context of the political environment where ego’s, seeking and holding on to power seem inevitable, to have been a caretaker 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. Motlanthe 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 is of course what most leaders in his position say, as did Zuma.  Motlanthe expands further: “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.  One of the practical ways for him to avoid becoming too attached to the position, its power and other perceived physical benefits is as follows: “My own approach is – like this residence here, it’s not my home – I know exactly where my work station is, my office, my bedroom and where I eat – the rest of the house doesn’t interest me at all.”

In another leadership article Louis Groenewald once stated: “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 worse 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.”

Zuma’s collaborative leadership style, which we have analyzed in great detail, seems to embrace the ‘power with’ mindset: “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.” There could however be a question mark around his application of the ‘power over’ principle; especially as far as the perception many have about his inability to exert ‘power over’ certain behaviours, especially moral indiscretions.

Motlanthe also seems to strive to exert power in the correct way. He attempts to have ‘power over’ the physical benefits of his position and the natural inclination to become too attached to the feeling or even illusion of power. And, he illustrates a ‘power with’ attitude in his views when he explains leadership is about “achieving results through others – always – it can’t be any other way”. 

Decision making and ‘decisive in process’: Both Zuma and Motlanthe are ‘decisive in process’ leaders, usually a spin-off of a clear ‘power with’ attitude. As mentioned previously, this means the 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.”

The difference comes in the foundation upon which the ‘decisive in process’ philosophy is built, and the most solid foundation is that of trust and respect. A given is of course that the leader must earn the respect and realize at all times that every action, every movement he makes, every word he utters, or word he does not utter, impacts on the perception of whether he truly lives and breathes the vision.

Projecting humility: Zuma and Motlanthe project a certain level of humility and ability to make others feel comfortable in their presence. What stood out however was the way in which Motlanthe did it. Following a few pictures by the photographer, he commented that no one ever takes pictures of the photographer and then persuaded him to part with his camera, so that he (Motlanthe) could take pictures of him (the photographer). It was a pleasant touch that seemed to be spontaneous. Also, at the end of the conversation Motlanthe sealed the comfortable conversation, the perception of his humility and his respect for all people with a personal accompaniment to the front door.

Battle of motives: An important factor in this race could be a battle of motives – between loyalties towards the cultural philosophy of how a leader should be chosen, verses the level of determination (ambition) for the position, with a resilience and ‘streetwise’ ability to work around the age old practice, without necessarily being disloyal to personal and organizational values. We wrote before that Zuma “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.” It could very well be that it wasn’t only his resilience that ultimately got him in the top position but that it was also the resolve by top leaders within the organization to appoint him at any cost. We further added that to recover from a legacy that has marred the trust/respect relationship he would have to do the following: “Make correct and values driven leadership decisions; ensure his behavior here on forward matches the values of his followers and what he promotes in word; confront the past perceived ‘out of line’ behavior head on; put in place a more exciting, inclusive and forward looking vision that ensures a legacy that all South Africans can buy into. 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.” In some cases he has succeeded, while in other instances a perception exists that he hasn’t.

Aura of integrity and positive sentiment: From previous writings the reader will gather that I feel more positive about Zuma as a leader than most. He often gets a raw deal, even when he portrays effective leadership. However, one also cannot ignore the fact that the aura of integrity shines much brighter around Motlanthe than it does around Zuma. Also, recent approval ratings by TNS Research and an online survey amongst younger South Africans indicate more positive sentiment towards Motlanthe.

In a world where the trust deficit between political leaders and their followers seems to grow alarmingly fast, SA needs a leader that will have the collective trust and respect of citizens – someone that generates positive movement and whose deeds are congruent with his words. Though a reasonable expectation, strangely it is starting to feel more and more difficult to achieve in today’s morally declining world.

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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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