ob Zuma explains his leadership style during an exclusive interview with Business Report at his official residence in Pretoria. Photo: Simphiwe Mbokazi

Like most readers of this article I have seen the president of South Africa, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, on my television screen. And like some of you, I came closer to him when I attended a function where he was the special guest.

In my case I sat two tables away from him during an evening event shortly before he became president and because of my interest in leadership, I watched him closely – how he laughed at himself while Trevor Noah made jokes about him; how people gravitated towards his table; how attendees approached him freely despite the extraordinary controversies that surrounded him at the time.

As a typical “distance critic”, influenced by media and analysts, I had certain views about our president. Who doesn’t? And not long after he became president I felt prompted to write an open letter to him, challenging him to initiate a national debate on values to create more unity, not knowing at the time that I would eventually meet him in person.

Last week myself and Business Report editor Ellis Mnyandu enjoyed the rare opportunity of sitting across from Zuma in the comfort of his Pretoria residence, Mahlamba Ndlopfu, looking him in the eye while holding an intense leadership conversation.

Attempting to write about him as a leader places a heavy responsibility on one’s shoulders, because there are diverse and very strong views regarding Zuma the person, the politician, the struggle hero and even the leader. I regularly address groups on the topic of leadership and leaders in society, and more often than not they have the following to say about our president: “He comes across as approachable, inclusive, consultative, amicable and a good listener, but too indecisive.”

From personal experience I can now confirm that he is approachable, for a president, the proof being that we got to interview him in his home, for an hour. The Business Report Leadership Platform also e-mailed follow-up questions to him personally, which were answered very swiftly. And in his presence, both Mnyandu and I quickly felt comfortable with the president, laughed and he certainly came across as warm, considering our conversation was at 6pm after a very long and hectic day that included the press conference announcing the new chief justice. Even at that late hour, the president was still in his business suit, with no sign of fatigue.

One of his staff coincidentally described the difference between him and his predecessor. In six months she entered the presidential home once when former President Thabo Mbeki was the head of state. With Zuma she finds herself there weekly as he regularly allows for meetings there. This is not necessarily about a right or wrong approach, but it demonstrates how engaging Zuma wants to be.

When one sits with Zuma face to face, rather than viewing him through the television screen or the eyes of ruthless cartoonists, comedians or analysts, he is much more charismatic and impressive.

I found that during the interview, while of course remaining aware that he is the president, I felt comfortable enough to converse with and even interrupt him. He is human and one senses he has not lost contact with this reality.

The big debate is whether Zuma is decisive or not. It is a big question on people’s minds and I want to unpack this because of its importance and relevance not only to Zuma but all leaders. Regarding this criticism, he comments: “Well, people have a right to make a criticism of whatever type. It is their democratic right.”

But he added that such critics “can’t produce to me one thing that I did not take a decision on. It is actually one of these perceptions people talk about that becomes a reality. They can’t tell me I did not decide on this or that matter. They live in the world of excitement; once there is an issue I must act immediately and if I don’t I am indecisive.”

Naturally we referred to incidents that seem to create the perception of indecisiveness, such as the report from the public protector regarding police leases, but more about this later.

To be fair, we have to view the principle of so-called decisiveness in context. I can come up with three angles. There are decisive (speedy), indecisive and “decisive in process” processes. Add into the mix the personality of a leader and this too will influence the perception of which category he falls into.

Being decisive by always making quick decisions can be like a shotgun approach – the leader gets some decisions right and some wrong. This is the kind of leader who “thinks on his feet” and comes across as making quick decisions. Those around the leader may view him as decisive when decisions are accurate and in such instances there is quick movement, which temporarily satisfies followers.

However, when decisions are inaccurate the leader causes damage, backtracks with excuses and quickly loses credibility. People then hastily refer to him as irresponsible and even an autocrat. In politics such decisive leadership can lead to dictatorship, especially against the backdrop of Africa with its reputation for dictators.

Of such an approach Zuma says: “I don’t believe you must take a decision on your feet, because if you do this you are often not absolutely correct, because there is something you did not check.”

An indecisive leader somehow freezes and puts off decisions because of fear, inexperience, inability to comprehend the complex situation or whatever reason. His motive for withholding a decision is not consciously part of a process. In fact, a person who is indecisive will not or should never end up in a responsible leadership position.

A decisive-in-process 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.

He trusts the principle: “It is one thing to be right, yet another thing to be right at the right time.” This is a leader who really covers all angles before making a decision. In fact, sometimes the process prompts the leader to refrain from acting at that moment, which decisive decision-making, though sometimes confusing to others, often proves to be correct. The disadvantage of this approach is that decisions do take longer, but in theory they are correct more often than not.

I place Zuma in the decisive-in-process category. He feels “having been in public life for quite a while, people would by now realise I don’t take a decision without really applying my mind. That does not in any way say you are indecisive. It is the wrong application of the expression that you are indecisive if you don’t take a decision now. Take a hasty decision and you are going to be apologising all the time.”

He further explains his approach to making decisions: “I believe you need to think. If you have got to take a decision, even if matters are clear after you have done something wrong, I have to apply my mind, because you are a human being. I am not taking a decision about a bag that I must pick up and go.”

He used the example of the public protector’s report on police building leases: “In this instance I wrote and explained the allegation, and then asked for a response. And he (Police Commissioner Bheki Cele) must respond. I must consider this because at the end, if I take a decision it is one that is going to live with you for your life. I am dealing with a human being here. Ever since I received the report from the public protector I have been interacting with the people concerned, interacting with the public protector.

“At one point I even announced that I alerted the Speaker what I was doing. So it is not as if I am sitting indecisively. I am taking due process, so that when I come to finality I will be able to explain my decision at every level, even if somebody questions the decision.”

More often than not a leader adopts the decisive-in-process approach not only because of how he was molded but because of the backdrop against which he leads. In Zuma’s case he may very well face a challenging backdrop, system and even a dilemma.

South Africans and our country as a whole require decisive leadership when one considers our many challenges. We want to see societal ills and challenges resolved speedily, which one can understand.

On the other hand, Zuma has to lead as a decisive-in-process leader. He must consult widely and consider the big picture because our society is extremely diverse, including aspirations of alliance partners that can be on opposite ends of the continuum. Also, the ANC way is for him to align decisions with policies from the party’s national executive committee (NEC).

And by the way, because the ANC is such a dominant party, its very diversity, the collective wisdom of the NEC, its counterbalances within and the way in which it operates may very well be South Africa’s safeguard against becoming a dictatorship.

If this is so we need to be grateful that Zuma has developed the ability to adopt the decisive-in-process approach; that he wants to unite because he senses the totality of South Africa’s political and social landscape. However, we are still faced with the dilemma that as he respects this backdrop and leads as a decisive-in-process leader he will, on average, take longer to make decisions and often be perceived as indecisive.

In practical terms, a report of the public protector comes out and Zuma starts following a decisive process of engaging relevant stakeholders. However, considering the context sketched above, following due process with that kind of backdrop may not adequately neutralise the high expectations and diverse perceptions of citizens.

The real question is whether it is possible for Zuma to ever be perceived as decisive, considering the dynamics described above. Collectively the question is also: what do we want as South Africans? A decisive-in-process leader who respects the overall South African dynamics, at times making slower decisions, which result in coming across as indecisive, but within the bigger picture there is some improvement of societal challenges? Or a decisive leader who disrespects the backdrop against which he leads and probably becomes more of a dictator and becomes aloof to the citizenry? We can’t have it both ways. Or can we?

Zuma’s challenge is to walk a tightrope – remain a decisive-in-process leader, yet somehow also come across as decisive to his followers.

When all is said and done, Zuma is the chief executive of this extremely complex business called South Africa (Pty) Ltd. As one chief executive of a large corporate explained to me: “South Africa is a microcosm of the world. It is the real experiment”, and Zuma agreed fully with this view by commenting: “To run South Africa is a big challenge. It is not a simple matter.

“South Africa is a complex country because of its history, because of its people. When we talk about unity in diversity we summarise what South Africa is. You find the smartest people in the world are from South Africa. But you also have a huge population that was deprived of an education because of the apartheid system, which makes the country complex with highly sophisticated people, but also people who are really down to earth, poorest of the poor and they all have views. How do you handle these?”

According to Zuma, the greatest challenge of someone who leads South Africa is to harmonise and unite all this diversity, channelling it into one direction. He believes we therefore need a leader “who understands South Africa very well”.

Zuma may very well fit the description of the leader who really understands South Africa, and as things currently stands he will continue leading in an environment where dilemmas and dichotomies are par for the course, where it may very well be impossible to please all citizens and where his decisive-in-process leadership, perhaps unfairly so, at times portrays indecisiveness.

Against this backdrop, is it possible to unite our diversity into one direction?

Making sense of difficult questions like this and then bringing about movement that initially seemed unlikely is the reality of leadership, and Zuma has to achieve this on the largest scale imaginable. As he says: “That’s precisely the reason not everybody is a leader”. - Business Report

* See part two of President Jacob Zuma’s interview in the next BR Leadership Platform as we explore his leadership philosophy, how this matches our challenges, what our role is, the vision for the country, how he wants to be remembered and a message to all South Africans, from the heart.

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