Some believe Kgalema Motlanthe is a bit of an enigma. Despite being in the public spotlight as deputy president, a lot of South Africans know very little about him. He typifies someone that South Africans have got used to over the years, yet know very little about what constitutes his leadership philosophy
In a rare interview at what is officially supposed to be his residence in Pretoria, Motlanthe took time from his busy schedule to share with the Business Report
Leadership Platform some nuggets of wisdom. He is someone who strikes one as being pretty much at ease with himself.
He also comes across as someone who respects all human beings, a trait that most probably underscores his upbringing. He says he was raised “surrounded by lots and lots of respect.” Motlanthe, 62, believes that what drives him is an “understanding that you have to be of service, you have to add value to whatever course you pursue.”
What follows is a conversation with Motlanthe on leadership and leadership issues: How have you best been prepared to lead in this position today, include a little about your childhood and upbringing and how that impacted your philosophy and approach to where you are today?
I grew up in a very Christian family - both parents were great believers, practicing Christians - and so at a very young age I served in the Anglican Church as an altar boy. In fact I am also named after my maternal and paternal grandparents - my aunts, my uncles always referred to me as their father from a young age - they accorded me that kind of respect as their father. In a sense I grew up surrounded by lots and lots of respect and so I equally respect other people the same way, even those much younger than me from my own practical experience. I have always been in organisations where you have to know how to be led for you to have a sense on how to lead. I am a product of that kind of background. What really drives you - how would you summarise your value system?
My understanding is that you have to be of service, you have to add value to whatever course you pursue. 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 - it's the duty of the team to undermine the weak points and reinforce the strong points. That's what makes, at the end, a winning team. If you had to summarise your leadership approach and philosophy, what would that be?
To me leadership means 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 - than to be a know-it-all type of person. I always follow the view that we are always learning - you can't be an expert in all matters; in some matters you learn from others and it is through the inputs of everyone that you end up with a clearer or an approximation of what may be the correct position. I am guessing that based on what you have said around discovering the strengths of your team members, that part of your philosophy would be to get to know them well, to connect with them. Some leaders may say to me they believe in the strengths of their team but they don't connect with every team member, so one wonders how they get to know their strengths. So would you say you really focus on getting to know every team member?
Of course, yes. If you are to really truly get the best out of everyone you have to get to know them. And therefore be in a position as well to blunt their weakness - you need to know how to bring their strong points to the fore. From experience I have come to know that most people cannot handle power. Once they have power in their grasp they don't know how to turn away from it or how to handle it. But your track record seems to show that you have strength to handle it. Where does this strength come from?
Any platform that you may occupy or that is available to you because of the position you occupy is not permanent - it's precisely because there were people that came before you, your predecessors and there will logically be those who come after you. The time given to you, you must use it responsibly, as responsibly as you possibly can. So 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. What about personal ambition?
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. If you are still driven by personal ambition I think it just creates difficulties, because then you get attached and become sentimental about these things and your tomorrow depends on staying in office. 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 - so if it's time to go I will take 2 hours and I'm out of here. It's always helpful to remember and understand that you are asked to serve - it's not your platform - you occupy it for a set timeline. We live in a very diverse society Mr Deputy President, where diversity is something that a leader must master. In fact your very alliance in SA is a very unique one and very diverse in terms of aspirations on different sides of the continuum. How does a leader successfully navigate such diversity? For example, when does a leader move from consulting and collaborating to commanding and doing? Diversity necessitates having to collaborate with everyone, but somewhere a decision must be made. So how does one balance, in your view, the diversity issue?
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. That's a very interesting view. Sometimes we see opposites as threats - you're saying that doesn't make sense?
It makes no sense at all because monopoly leads to stagnation - there's no motion - no forward movement at all. So if you want to be a leader in SA, you've got to have that view to be successful?
I believe that, yes. The SA nation evolved over time - it's an amalgam of people who came from different parts of the world. When we were hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2010, virtually all the teams who came to play here could find SA nationals who are descendants of those nations, those teams, so each one of them had a support base. To me that's a reflection of who we are - we're South Africans but we are the end product of continuous movement, and that is why it doesn't make sense when people talk about xenophobia - people have always been coming here, over centuries. I'm always fascinated by the fact that there are many SA Afrikaners, for example, with French and German surnames who think those are Afrikaner surnames and have no idea - a surname like Le Roux is a French surname and they have no idea. Our very history should convey this reality to us - if we know where we come from it makes it easier for us to know who we are today. Your views and comments on what Dr Reuel Khoza said recently about political leadership challenges? Many people reacted very emotionally.
I recall he said similar things in 2007. And it never elicited the same kind of excitement. What bothers me about the response to him is that even in terms of just ANC approaches, it was out of sync. The ANC in 1994 came out with a small booklet - "How to join the ANC". In the introduction it said something to the effect that now the ANC has an opportunity to articulate its policies and publicise them so that the South African general public is afforded the opportunity to take informed decisions on whether to support, join or oppose the ANC. So as an ANC member I must accept there will be those who oppose the ANC and they are perfectly within their rights to do so. There will be those who support the ANC who would have no obligations that are imposed on members - they reserve the right to differ with the ANC on certain issues. People are never agreed on all matters. When Dr Khoza as Chairperson of Nedbank in the Annual Report draws attention to the fact that there is a leadership problem surely that shouldn't be taken as an offense? No. As I said at the beginning you need to hear the views and dreams of all kinds of people - that's how you know if you're on the right track or not. The Malema situation has been a big leadership challenge. How does a leader deal with someone like him? Is it not usually a matter of confronting it one-on-one? What is the general leadership principle in dealing with a maverick like this?
Firstly, the philosophy of the ANC is that it only abandons the most incorrigible – those are the people it washes its hands of. It has an abiding confidence that people can be corrected and mentored - everyone has strong points and weak points. The organisation has the ability to undermine the weak points. Malema’s glaring weak points are disrespect and an almost masochistic desire to want to shock, because then people are attentive – that’s something that could be corrected really easily. He also has an exaggerated sense of self importance which is a weakness - over-confidence is a weakness at any given time. So he really just needed to be helped along. You give a young person space – to bring radical ideas, questions and opinions - but once he veers off, as I said, to undermine these weak points, where he shows disrespect, we must be able to pull him back in line, consistently. Consistency is what was missing in his case. But somewhere tough action must happen when someone does not come back into line – that’s leadership.
It plays a big role, yes - tough consistent action. It doesn’t have to be in accordance with his own approach to things – it doesn’t have to be shock therapy – it can be corrective – but every step of the way; he needs feedback every step of the way. If he blabbers off this way, there must be feedback on an ongoing basis. But if he’s encouraged – he plays to the gallery and you are encouraged and applauded for it – and the media give you all the coverage and so on – it’s difficult to resist. What are the top three barriers to a united successful South Africa?
1) Lack of education and skills – the weaknesses within the education system. Only an educated nation would be cultured enough to succeed.
2) Inequality of social bulk infrastructure. We live in two countries - the one part is so advanced and sophisticated as was seen by the FIFA world cup, but there is a part of this country where teachers and learners don’t even have access to a toilet – that inequality in infrastructure is a huge barrier and it’s the source of this migration into urban areas with the sprawling informal settlements. People would not be migrating – they would be living where they are living and making use of the arable land at their disposal and so on.
3) Then the third one would be the size of the South African market. Therefore if we appreciate that we are relatively small, in comparative terms our GDP is equal to the annual revenue of Shell Petroleum Company. That’s how small we are. We should really be leading in the creation of a bigger market by investing in economic infrastructure. A country such as Lesotho – we should not even debate what we should do to include it in the economic infrastructure. Botswana, right up to Namibia, Mozambique – we should be thinking of how we can include them in the economic infrastructure and make this one market. Movement of goods and people should be made simpler. How important is the National Development Plan (NDP) for our country?
That’s a very important plan – because it addresses the shortcomings of short-termism – it gives us a broad vision which we can then translate into measurable attainable sets of tasks and goals for each administration - as building blocks because it will identify a major weakness or malady or indicate by when a goal ought to have been achieved. Our challenge does not seem to be coming up with great documents like the NDP or good policies - it’s about implementation. How do we create that implementation culture – for me it’s about leadership and movement - to make it happen?
South Africa is richly endowed with talent – the best way of ensuring that we implement is to tap into the most gifted talent available to the country, creating the space for them to make the contribution, so we can then implement. You have to know what you are implementing. We were able to meet the deadlines set by FIFA for the FIFA world cup – buildings were mega-projects but there were clear timelines and so we could co-ordinate through the local organising committee the three spheres of government – national, provincial and local - even though competencies were different. That’s an important lesson we must follow in all that we do – once we are clear that this is the project that we must deliver on, there must be that kind of co-ordination between national, provincial and local. How should leaders conduct themselves in South Africa – almost from a values perspective?
The guideline should always be to remember once you occupy a public office be it in an organisation or corporate company or government there is no separation between the private you and the public you. I can’t say I will be well-behaved in a cabinet meeting and as soon as I am outside of that meeting I am a free agent and can do what I wish. At all times for as long as I occupy this public office in the ANC as well as in government I represent those entities – I must always be conscious of that responsibility and burden if you like – in my pronouncements and my conduct I must enhance the image and prestige of those entities that I represent.