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Africa does not need ‘strong leaders’


This essay was submitted by Chude Jideonwo as part of the required work associates must complete during the Tutu Leadership Programme.  AFLI typically posts a selection of the top essays in each year, and this is one of them.

Defining success in leadership within the African continent – or even outside of the continent – is no easy task, considering what it may entail to approach consensus. It would be different – and easier – if we tried defining effective leadership.

For instance, the question: who is the poster figure for successful leadership? And by what measures are these successes defined? Economic growth; increase in purchasing power; obeisance to the rule of law;  freedom – in all its true expression; improved human security; happiness and improvement in the quality of life of the average citizen?

I have described previously my fascination with the paradox exhibited by a few African leaders – across government, business and civil society – who despite showing promise as posters for visionary, transformative leadership within the continent, still fall short of practical excellence.

Paul Kagame, by economic metrics, deserves to be considered a successful leader, having led the East African nation to economic prosperity, promoting gender parity in government and healthcare. However, economic progress is not equal to quality of life. Kagame “unfortunately has refused to let go of power. Instead, he has supervised some of the most oppressive political spaces in Africa, silencing dissent with impunity, promoting a climate of fear, hunting down political opponents, intimidating rivals, tying down the press, and ensuring an electoral process that guaranteed a ridiculous 98% victory in last year’s election.“  In doing this, he has travelled down the same well-worn path of a number of African dictators, the totem of which is Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Like Kagame, Mugabe began as the toast of the newly-free nations, showing vision and sophistication, building bridges and institutions, expanding healthcare and education.

“Unfortunately, barely two years after his 1980 presidential victory, the onslaught on the opposition began, at least 10,000 killed between 1982 and 1985 as he somehow got it into his head that only he could sustain the progress, and that only he could lead is own country - and forever.”

So, let’s look to Africa’s west

After she was announced recipient of The Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the focus of robust analysis across the continent, especially on the subjects of political and successful leadership. Sirleaf, without doubt, deserves the honour reserved for ‘African executive leaders who, under challenging circumstances, have developed their countries and strengthened democracy and human rights for the shared benefit of their people, paving the way for sustainable and equitable prosperity’ ; a condition previously met only by Joaquim Alberto Chissano of Mozambique and South Africa's Nelson Mandela in 2007, Festus Gontebanye Mogae of Botswana in 2008, Pedro De Verona Rodrigues Pires of Cape Verde in 2011 and Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia in 2014.

The reaction should have been excitement uniformly across the continent. But the economy under Johnson-Sirleaf hasn’t been one to boast about, including corruption, nepotism and homophobia.

This sets up a false dichotomy, as if we are to choose between freedom, and progress. As if on the continent, it is impossible to get the balance of both as citizens and as nations. But success must certainly mean something else: one that doesn’t trade economic development for citizens’ freedom. One that doesn’t equate employee burn-out with achieving business KPIs and goals. And this should not be hard.

On strength and servant leadership

Said Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “Real leaders are not blinded by the trappings of power, but recognise their roles as leaders.”  First introduced as a concept over 2,000 years ago by the biblical Jesus, the term ‘servant leadership’ was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1970 when he published his classic essay, The Servant as Leader.

The core of the message is simple, but it has been difficult in practice on the continent. Leadership is heartfelt service, not servitude.  One of the major (often left unsaid) cultural oppositions to the concept of servant leadership – and servant leaders – is the desire across societies to value in some sense, what is vaguely referred to as ‘strong leaders’.

“Africa needs stronger leadership, says Obasanjo”, a headline from a Nigerian national daily screamed in July 2018. In the piece, the former Nigerian president who was speaking at a forum on African Development Finance Institutions, moderated by William Wallis of the Financial Times, was credited to saying that “strong leadership is critical to the economic development of the continent”.

While Obasanjo’s call may be interpreted as a call for stronger leadership institutions within the continent or leaders who understand the imperative and possess the capacity to do so, several others have used the term to mean ‘strong leader’, ‘strong individual’ and other meanings, conveying a messianic status on individuals. Need evidence? ‘We need strong leaders to make a difference in Nigeria’ is another newspaper headline, this time credited to a sitting governor of one of the states in the southwestern part of Nigeria. In the governor’s words, ‘Leadership is not about Father Christmas; it is not about missionary work, it is about having a vision of how you want a place to be, how I very much favour strong leadership. I believe a country like Nigeria needs a strong leader in order to change the country for better because by our nature, we are used to this element of impunity where you do what you like…’

A stance like this – that people’s freedom is a price to be paid for leadership and development – worries me.

Strong leadership, in most contexts, loosely describes getting to a goal, triumphing and dominating over opposition, and attaining your vision even if it costs others their humanity. The strong/weak theme has been subtly present when describing leadership – and leadership success or otherwise – in Africa for a long while. For example, beyond viral remarks about his cluelessness, former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan was often referred to as a weak leader. However, Mugabe, Kagame - who confessed that “a strong leader is not necessarily a bad leader” – and Charles Taylor, have all at some point been referred as strong African leaders. Actually, in Mugabe’s case, he was likened to Jesus Christ. Like Mugabe, the North Korean Kim II Sung had been portrayed as being ‘superior to Christ in love, superior to Buddha in benevolence, superior to Confucius in virtue and superior to Mohammed in justice’ .

So this strong/weak theme is not an African problem only.

“Attempts to portray the person who heads a rival party as a weak leader have become common in a number of countries. When he was leader of the opposition in Great Britain, Tony Blair liked to portray the British prime minister, John Major, who had inherited a divided parliamentary party, as ‘weak’. In Canada, for example, shortly after Stephanie Dion was elected Leader of the Liberal Party in 2006, the Conservatives launched a sustained campaign to define him as weak… It is evident that politicians believe that if they can pin the ‘weak’ label on their principal opponent (hoping) this will work to their advantage with voters” writes British political scientist, Archie Brown.

Strong leadership is never the opposite of weak, in this context. And ‘weak’ should never be defined in terms of empathy and vulnerability.

“Dictatorial powers owe a vast amount to the social and political contexts in which leaders achieve governmental offices, to followers who hope to gain from their patronage, to elites who accommodate them for the fear of something worse, and to the irrational belief that one person can embody the wisdom of the nation.” Archie concludes.  These are the archetypes of ‘strong leadership’ – unfortunately often the kind of leadership that increases fear, oppression and lack of compassion, social trust and genuine happiness.

The myth of strong leadership – one without compassion – is not only evident in politics. Society has been sold similar myths in business too. People in our global market economy – and society - have been told that it is countercultural to deal with compassion – and truly show empathy, authenticity and radical transparency – while building great businesses.

Haven’t we ever wondered the origin of words like guerrilla marketing?

This is a deception younger generation of Africans should recognise and avoid. We can be vulnerable and accountable, authentic and bold, build great friendship with workers and still be profitable. We can be fearless and still love unconditionally.

What Africa needs

Africa needs builders; leaders who understand the imperatives and the mechanics of how truly great societies have been built. Leaders, who deeply understand the necessity of balance and wholesomeness today – this age of abundance and exponential progress, and approach the same with human-centric values. Those who understand and overcome – through knowledge – what psychologists Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil called the Illusion of Explanatory Depth and in humility become attentive to non-random patterning and embrace studying how other emerging nations – from China to the Scandinavian nations – have constructed, brick after brick, their nations. The illusion of explanatory depth explains what happens when someone tells you she understands how something as simple as your zipper works, but stammers or gets confounded by silence when asked to explain it, step-by-step.

More important than this knowledge is a leadership that values compassion, places people first, prioritises their wellbeing and creates structures to promote the culture of love and joy. Love in this context is about service – genuine service.

Like I once noted, the “talk of love and kindness is too fluffy, we say, too fuzzy, too soft. So soft that American presidential candidate Hillary Clinton abandoned her preferred messaging of love and kindness because it sounded like something for the Peace Corps. Instead, she chose a revolving door of poll-tested slogans that eventually spoke to no one. Not without reason though -- When she spoke about a "politics of meaning" in the 90s, the entire American media laughed her out of the room – “Saint Hillary,” they mocked — and into the arms of hard-nosed, cold-eyed hawks. And yet, Mandela, with his fluff, won freedom for his people; King, with such fuzz, laid a path to the Civil Rights Act, and Gandhi, with all that jazz, won independence for his nation, among very many other landmark accomplishments.”

Abraham Maslow gave to humanity one of the best-known frameworks in understanding human behaviour and aspiration. In his hierarchy of needs, the top of the pyramid is self-actualisation – that state when people experience intense and transcendent ‘peak experiences’ . I like to call it that state when people flourish.

“In our quest for wholeness, self-actualisation is the ultimate aspiration, but it has less to do with what we can do for ourselves, and more to do with what we can do for others. According to Maslow, self-actualised people accept the reality around them and feel driven by a sense of personal responsibility to help others and participate in solving larger problems,” writes venture capitalist Anthony Tjan in a recent piece .

“Wholeness, love and self-actualisation are subjects more commonly found in the fields of philosophy and psychology than in business. Most [people] keep business and personal lives separate, in the same way we distinguish between the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ qualities of leadership. But in fact, they are intertwined. So why should Maslow hierarchy of needs, which begins with our basic need for survival and safety, and ascends to the human need for love, esteem and self-actualisation – bypass the worlds of business, [politics] and leadership?” he asks.

I agree with Anthony. What Africa needs is a pursuit of more human-centric, whole and effective leadership – in business, politics, civil society and public service. We need to not only embrace the use of words like ‘love’, ‘joy’, but also practice what we often preach, but never find to be ‘practical’.

We need an approach that – like Lincoln Abraham in getting votes needed to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery through the United States Congress – employs ‘a combination of high principle and low politics’ . The emphasis is on high principle that prioritises being human.

A case for joy and humanism

Africa – and Africans – is in need of leadership that upholds, based on our common humanity, the ideal of human flourishing; that it’s good for people to lead long, healthy, happy, rich, and stimulating lives.

A joy-focused leadership philosophy, what one of my colleagues at Joy, Inc. termed ‘Characracy’, reminds us that one of the most important tasks of leadership is to ensure the happiness and flourishing of people. And this holds true in business, politics, civil society and our personal lives. By the way, the newly-minted word is coined from the Greek word ‘Chara’ meaning joy and ‘-cracy’, the term denoting a particular form of influence.

“The conditions for achieving happiness within a nation are becoming increasingly well understood, thanks to advances in survey data, psychology, and comparative social analysis. The World Happiness Report has demonstrated that a country’s ranking on happiness depends on six key conditions: economic prosperity, including decent work for all who want it; the physical and mental health of the citizens; freedom of individuals to make key life decisions; strong and vibrant social support networks (social capital); shared public values of generosity; and social trust, including confidence in the honesty of business and government.”

Those conditions, outlined in the 2018 edition of the Global Happiness Policy Report, seem to equate economic growth, freedom to make decisions and social trust on the same pedestrian.

Just as the infamous Janteloven or Law of Jante which holds that “the success of the team is more important than individual achievement” has a Scandinavian root – appropriately so for a section of the world that tops the happiness rankings yearly - Africa also has, imbrued in our culture, what we call Ubuntu – that concept of our humanity intertwined, commonly described by the phrase ‘I am because you are’. Ubuntu is part of the Zulu phrase "Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu", which literally means that a person is a person through other people .

In his 1999 book, No Future Without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu helped popularise the idea, explaining that to know Ubuntu is “to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours’”.

“A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are,” he wrote.

I think Archbishop Tutu gets it.

Progress consists of deploying resources – the fullness of our humanity – to allow others flourish in the same way we want to flourish. If the goal of maximising human flourishing – life, health, freedom, happiness, knowledge, richness of experiences and love – is referred to as humanism, then our concept of African humanism – characterised both by the Ubuntu and Omolúwàbí values – may help create an ethical structure for successful leadership and flourishing within the continent. By the way, Omolúwàbí values are ethos embraced by the Yoruba in West Africa, loosely interpreted to emphasise nobility of character.

The path to the future of leadership in Africa will be influenced by a deep understanding of our interconnectedness, and commitment to truth and the basic values of compassion, radical transparency, and integrity – values that are at the core of most great institutions and leaders. Standing on that foundation, we can build the competencies that in any – and every – sector, including technology, is poised at delivering development on a grander scale to the continent.

Both on personal and institutional levels, character and compassion are fundamentals of leadership – transcending competence. When compassion and joy are at the core of all human decisions, not only do businesses thrive, nations also flourish. Dubai, for instance, has attained the state of global patronage because of its “recognition that every single effort should be driven by and focused on the generation of a quantifiable positive impact to the happiness and wellbeing of those who interact with the city” .

However we decide to define success, in the end, only a people-centered leadership that recognise and help explore the fullness of our humanity – our emotions and values – will transform the continent to one ours and future generation will be proud of.

Capitalism and the international liberal consensus about self-interest, rational market players and the necessity of choosing productivity over human flourishing have clearly begun to fail everywhere from the United States to the United Kingdom.

A new generation of leaders has the opportunity to change this narrative, urgently.


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Monday, 24 February 2020

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