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. …