The Elevator Test: Textbook leadership of Julius Malema


Forget about all the nasty names he has been called and his image as a rabble-rousing demagogue. Julius Malema’s talent is textbook leadership.

Experts agree that the first job of a skilful leader is to create a vision. The second is to draw followers to that vision and to take people along. Commitment and unflagging interest should then be ensured by clever branding and inspiring oratory. Julius Malema scores well on all counts.

Amid all the attempts at leadership and trying to find clear direction from those who are flailing around in our political maelstrom, few get it right. We don’t know what they really believe and they are forever stating, backtracking and re-stating whatever they think the electorate wants to hear.

Using the famous ‘elevator test’, can you say for certain, in the few seconds it takes an elevator to go up or down, what Mamphela Ramphele stands for? Can you even try to pin down Jacob Zuma to get beyond defending the next blunder to hear what his vision for the country is? And Helen Zille, a feisty lady who is putting up a manful opposition, but other than that, can we say in one sentence exactly what she stands for?

Julius Malema, on the other hand, is unequivocal. Nationalise everything, return all land to the indigenous people, and transfer white wealth to the black, previously exploited population. No nonsense and no apologies for offending anyone. It’s easy to understand and his large, young, mainly uneducated, impoverished constituency believes totally in the economic freedom he says he will fight for.

For a party that is only a few months old, support for his vision is remarkable. Any event where he speaks shows the crowds of his supporters and the sense of celebrity that all the bodyguards and hangers-on create. What do we see when Mamphela Ramphele is on the platform? It is a somewhat desultory lot who listen to her strident lecturing with visible unease. Jacob Zuma also gets the crowd, but he has the benefit of the ANC machine doing all the spin and back office work. If he had to start a new political party today, what would his appeal be?

The thousands of people who gather outside courtrooms for him or to listen to Malema at Marikana or on the farms don’t care that he faces charges of corruption and that he enriches himself with all kinds of sleazy business ties; or that the ANCYL was bankrupted on his watch. They only see his raw passion and they believe it.

There is no attempt to intellectualise or to embark on fancy philosophical footwork; only the earthy, unvarnished message, plain and simple, and there is a certain integrity in that. In him we don’t see the kind of duplicity for which politicians are so notorious.

Julius Malema shares one further attribute with some famous revolutionary leaders. It is his oratory. He is not good when he has to give a snappy sound bite or an insightful assessment. He hits his stride when he can hold forth for an hour or more; just like Fidel Castro who could make a speech for five hours non-stop, and (Muammar) Gaddafi, who had people fainting from dehydration in his revolutionary harangues.

Since the time when Malema used every opportunity to support Jacob Zuma, his style has changed. He used to be incoherent and seemed somewhat dull-witted. Now he has developed a new much more plausible style and he actually manages to engage in a way which could be inspiring. Remember Eugene Terre’Blanche’s blue-eyed spittle-rages? He could light a fire with wet wood. Malema may be heading in the same direction.

The branding part is the most intuitive and is very clever. From nowhere the red beret has become his trademark and creates an instant brand identity. The beret has a long history of association with respected military causes. The Green Berets were made famous by the British Commandos during the Second World War and are still worn by the Royal Marines. The beret is a mark of an honourable fighting spirit.

Malema, like several other famous revolutionaries, affects a military style underlining his war-like fight for his cause. Fidel Castro did it, Muammar Gaddafi did it, so did Che Guevara and, of course, Eugene Terre’Blanche. Malema gives himself the title “Commander-in-Chief” and his supporters love him for it.

He understands intuitively the value of drama and being provocative. He also understands how to inflame an issue and allow his supporters to rise to his defence. Convicted of hate speech in 2010, he simply carried on in 2011 and sang ‘Dubula iBhunu’, (Shoot the Boer) causing a national uproar but always keeping himself centre-stage. Nobody is lukewarm about Malema.

His background and early life are similar to others who have started revolutions. He comes from humble beginnings, a limited education and a fractured early life. He was brought up by his single-parent domestic worker mother. 

Think of a man like Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi leader who also wore military uniforms but never served in the armed forces, who was brought up in modest circumstances like Malema by a single mother. Joseph Stalin, Muammar Gaddafi and others have similar backgrounds. Is this what gets the fire in the belly? Is compensating for a deprived childhood what gives the drive and the revolutionary spirit?

Whatever it is, Mr Malema has it, and by all accounts his talent will develop and sustain him, no doubt, into further leadership. – Daily Maverick

 • Johann Redelinghuys is a partner at Heidrick & Struggles the international leadership consulting business, which bought the firm Redelinghuys & Partners of which he was the founder. He has been deeply involved in career management and executive search all his life. He is the chairman of the South African company and now heads up its board practice working with chairmen and CEOs focussed on CEO succession, strategic leadership review and board evaluation.


December 2013
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