The Tutu Leadership Fellowship requires each participant to write an essay on leadership in Africa. Each year, some of the best are selected for publishing by the African Leadership Institute. This is the third of the essays to be published from the 2016 Fellows. It is by Andre Ross and it is a deeply personal account of his views on leadership. It presents ideas on what Africa has to offer the world, along with some thoughts on what it could do to sow the seeds of improvement.
Going beyond the angst of the generation of first acquirers
"O Children of Men!
Know ye not why We created you
all from the same dust?
That no one should exalt himself
over the other."
It’s 1:25am and I watch with bated breath, as the men’s 400m final at the 2016 Olympic Games is about to get under way. I, along with countless South Africans I’m sure, wait with anticipation as we watch what we hope could deliver the nation’s first gold medal at these Games. He drew lane 8, though; the thought flashes through my mind, his greatest threats are inside of him and will have the advantage. Surely that can’t be good. The gun goes and they are off. Wayde van Niekerk streaks ahead, with his two greatest competitors in tow. At the 300m mark, coming into the final straight, he is still ahead. This is when they usually tire, I think, they are going to catch him. I kick off the covers and jump up, banging the bed as I shout go boy, go! as if he could hear me.
He doesn’t tire, instead he speeds up and pulls away. This is incredible; my eyes flash to the stopwatch on the screen, as he dips for the line - a new world record. No way, he just shattered the unbeatable record of Michael Johnson! I’m up and out of bed now, excited beyond measure and with the adrenaline pumping, I take to twitter and wouldn’t go back to sleep for another hour.
Walking into our office in Accra, Ghana, a few hours later that morning, I find a group of colleagues, huddled around an office TV, chattering excitedly. It is not Usain Bolt, who won the 100m final that they are fussing about, it is the 400m record broken by an African that has them excited. Amid the high fives I receive, I reflect—during a post-race interview the self-effacing Wayde stated that he just hoped that he inspired many more South Africans to strive for greatness. He was wrong, he had inspired all Africans; his triumph had shown millions that anything is possible. I’d experienced a similar unity with the people of Ghana during the 2010 Soccer World Cup, when their national team was the only African side to progress to the knock-out stages of the competition, and we all marshalled behind them. What is it about the success of others at sport endeavours that not only unites, but inspires us all to be better? It reminded me of a quote from a scene in the movie Kingdom of Heaven “what man is a man, who does not make the world better”.
Is this not effectively the essence of leadership? Is it not simply about people and the impact, or influence, for better or worse, that we have on them? Moreover, does this not imply that we are all leaders, or rather, that we all have the potential to be leaders?
Interestingly, while South Africa was celebrating the success of one of its sons and his embodiment of persistence and belief, we simultaneously mourned and remembered a sad chapter in the history of our young democracy. Four years ago, during the same month, 37 miners were massacred, at Marikana, during a protest for what they believed to be a living wage. Two of the proponents of the drama were the now slain leader of the miners, Mgcineni “Mambush” Noki—the “man in the green blanket”—who represented the seemingly disenfranchised workers; and the Deputy President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, who is one of the wealthiest and most successful beneficiaries of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) in South Africa, and represented the shareholders of their employer. A stark contrast between a leader representing the people and one representing a major corporation and a Government in crises.
No more than three decades earlier, Cyril, would have been, or was, the “man in the green blanket”. It would be reasonable to expect that, as a founder and respected leader of one of the most effective labour movements during the liberation struggle against the apartheid regime and minority capital, Cyril would have empathy and understand the plight, objectives and methods of the striking miners. How then, could it be that his action or inaction may have contributed to the avoidable, tragic outcome of the confrontation. I recall an interview comment from one of the survivors who said that while he was lying, injured, on the ground, all he could think of was the fact that he was about to die—for what? —for money. While one leader represented the condition of people, could it be that the other forgot that he was dealing with people; forgot the humanity of the poor or weak he once may have given his life for?
Two of the mentors whom I engaged during the course of the Tutu Fellowship - both previously active in different capacities during the liberation struggle in South Africa who later became very successful in business - provided me with an alternative insight, however. One is now engaged in driving inclusive economic theory and runs a private-equity fund and think tank; while the other invests most of his time in shaping the minds of young Africans, while spearheading a socio-economic agribusiness. Both utilise a large percentage of their personal resources and time to pursue what they believe to be critical to influencing the continued development of the country, continent and its people. It is noteworthy that both agree that while they are now fairly well-heeled, they didn’t embark on their journey into public leadership to get power, wealth or fame. They were thrown into politics quite by chance, due to a combination of acting on a conviction, and luck or circumstance. Why is it then that they were not seemingly corrupted, as opposed to the earlier mentioned “fallen hero”?
Recently, one of my best friends, a well-known athlete in South Africa, tragically passed away while attempting to summit Kilimanjaro on behalf of charity. Due to his contribution to the country, he was afforded provincial rights and received a state funeral. In the week preceding the ceremony, we had numerous engagements with a very senior provincial official and member of the ruling political Party’s regional executive. While I am an admitted strong critic of the current integrity and value system of the Party, I was struck by the care, wisdom, and respectfulness with which he dealt with the family, as well as the decisions he made around the limited and behind-the-scenes support of the state.
I was surprised and impressed by his words and found myself at one stage musing to my life partner, “this guy will make me change my mind about how I view the Party—and if I’m this disarmed, no wonder those close to them, follow them, keep voting for them”. In spite of my initial prejudice, this man is a good person, a seemingly caring leader with great interpersonal wisdom away from the limelight. Is it possible that there are many good people stuck in a bad system? Do we forget that our leaders, in the political realm, or in business or civil sectors, are just people as well? Individuals with their own strengths, shortcomings, desires, fears and insecurities?
When considering the future of Africa and how it develops economically, politically and socially in a globalised and competitive world and the way in which leadership on the continent has to change and adapt to effect the successful transformation of the continent has become a more personal reflection for me. We all have a role to play in the continents' transformation. But more importantly, if I believe that I am an emerging leader, some introspection on what I may have to change or adapt about myself and what lessons I may glean from my own experience, thoughts and fears, requires my interest.
In a conversation with one of my aforementioned mentors, I addressed this topic. He told me that I was ready to have a greater influence, but was afraid to take the next step. It perplexed me, somewhat angered me. “How could he call me afraid?” I thought. Honestly, though, I think I knew what he was referring to, but was too weak to admit it to myself. I have been plagued by a fear that formed the heart of my procrastination and lack of commitment. Growing up, I had very little, and in at least two instances had so little that I lived in car garages. I hate thinking about it, but this severely affected my self-esteem. I have a palatable fear of having me or mine returning to a place of having nothing; this fear (rational or not) has greatly influenced my definition of success for myself.
Moreover, my advancing career has placed me in a position to be able to build a life for myself that was better than what I had access to, which on the one hand, further fed into my fear, but on the other also placed a responsibility on me to keep acquiring resources, so that I could help the rest of my family. I often refer to myself as a “first generation acquirer”. I would argue that the growing middle class on the continent we hear so much about in economic speak, are in fact a “generation of first acquirers”.
The fear that my mentor mentioned, may be alluding to the fact that I often feel like I live two lives. One, a commercial life, to pay the school fees; and the other, my passion, driven mainly by being of service to others, but may not, in my limited perception, offer the same “security” my fear craves. I started feeling very guilty about seeking to pursue personal wealth, till I came across this quote:
“Work is indispensable to progress and the generation of wealth—not just for oneself, but for all the peoples of the world. Personal wealth is acceptable if it is earned through honest work and its acquisition is not the cause of the impoverishment of others. “Wealth,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has said, “is most commendable, provided the entire population is wealthy. If, however, a few have inordinate riches while the rest are impoverished, and no fruit or benefit accrues from that wealth, then it is only a liability to its possessor.”
There is nothing wrong with aspiring to personal wealth. The question I grappled with was more one of "how much is enough for me?" While I was able to face my fear during the process, I was also able to embark on a journey of realigning my ambitions. A keen insight was the following: I am a leader in various circumstances and my leadership style and how I engage with the world has been greatly influenced by my own fears and unique experience. If my leadership style or decisions then is a function of my environment and views and is influenced by how I was raised, to what extent does the experiences and human frailty govern the more influential leaders on the continent?
A huge fan of science fiction movies and comic books as a child, I watched the movie Batman Vs Superman on my flight into Accra, two days ago. At an intermediate climax of the movie, two of the protagonists, both generally perceived to be good, were placed on a collision cause and driven to act out of character, due to a series of events that shaped their different views of a situation. It was an interesting moment, when Superman, the embodiment of selfless uprightness, said that “no-one stays good forever”. He was about to embark on a road at conflict to his general values, because it threatened what he held dear. In a grossly stated summary, both Superman and Batman’s behaviour was largely guided by their own insecurities, fears and perceptions of self-worth; a fact being manipulated by the chief antagonist.
Interestingly, all three of the key protagonists and the antagonist had different non-ideal upbringings. Superman was essentially raised on an alien planet by foster parents and grew-up feeling different; Batman saw his parents murdered as a young boy and was raised with an enormous fortune by his butler; while Lex Luthor inherited a fortune as well, but was raised by an abusive father. The impact their upbringing had on their individual psyches is central to how they behaved. Is it possible that the world we know is largely being run by a group of boys engaged in a massive, never-ending peeing contest, driven by their own insecurities and fears?
It is probably fitting to this debate that the most telling statement for me was made by the only woman in the movie, not portrayed as an angry vixen, mother or damsel in distress, when she said “boys, born with no natural inclination to share”. Is it telling that none of my examples till now have referenced women (a subconscious bias I intend to correct in the next paragraph). Wonder Woman, who in my opinion turns out to be wise, strong and selfless, is not afforded a back story and initially introduced as a seductress; she however takes a central role, along with Lois Lane in ensuring the inevitable victory of the good guys. Is this not part of the problem leadership - not just on the continent, but globally - needs to face and correct? If boys have no natural inclination to share, should we not be seeking a more “feminine” influence in senior leadership to ensure the sustainable advancement of our species?
Two weeks ago, I sat proudly at the Black Women’s Association of South Africa (BWASA) awards, where my life partner received a regional business woman of the year award. In a roomful of highly-accomplished women with vastly different yet similar stories, I noticed two things:
1) success is defined very differently for women than for men, and
2) there were very few men in that room celebrating these phenomenal ladies.
Reflections on my interactions and life with my better half remind me of how often she tempers the worst of my masculine qualities and quietens the voice of my fear and self-doubt.
I’m also reminded of work I did in a previous life with village banking programs. Women had a much higher success rate when holding each other to account and getting the communal empowerment programs off the ground. Further, women’s literacy programs had a much larger impact in the advancement of the communities they were in. They were mostly the primary educators of children and an educated mother, raised a more empowered child. Africa needs the female voice to be heard.
I am proposing that leaders on the continent may have forgotten that they are dealing with people; our leaders are people, as much as the followers are people. For the continent to achieve its true destiny, this, to me is the crux, as it underpins our connectedness. Further, I believe that to ensure the prosperity of our continent, a major change that has to occur is the emergence and inclusion of women. Feminine energy needs to balance the masculine - boys need to learn to share.
When considering what Africa can contribute to the world, the debate tends to centre around mineral resources and beneficiation, human capital, industrialisation, and arable land. But for me this misses the point. For example, the developed economies have already given the world industrialisation, democracy, capitalism, socialism or communism. We are now undergoing a technology revolution and while it may well make life easier, it may also serve to separate us even further.
Africans are inherently, societal, spiritual, resilient, caring and collaborative. What about a human revolution? Does the world not need to be reminded of what it means to be human? I would argue that Africa was not just colonised because of inferior technology, but our inclusivity was viewed as naivety and taken advantage of. For me, the prosperity of Africa is not an African imperative, but a global one, a human one.
Our leadership, commercial, civil or political, may have very well forgotten this. They may have become trapped in the mode of first-generation acquiring, and lost sight of what we are actually able to offer to the global voice. It is for this reason that I choose to focus on the humanity of people. How can you be an effective leader if you forget that one fundamental fact?
In conclusion, I should acknowledge that though it may be idealistic, this change may not be one that can be effected quickly. One would need to appeal to the sensibilities of people and I don’t know if this re-education could occur quickly. For implementation, therefore, I refer back to a key woman in my life, my mother, who often reminded me that charity begins at home.
If charity begins at home, does education not also begin there? I had asked my mentor, once I overcame my disgust at him for calling me afraid, what impact I could have, if my sphere of influence is so small. He took a sip of his wine, and replied “Start with your family and those around you. Just start there.” To which he added “never doubt the power of the multiplier effect and a good idea”. I was reminded of what I called the NGO I started, Jala Peo. Plant a seed, that’s all you can often do. One cannot dictate that it will blossom, but with nurturing and care, and receptive soil, it often does.
I therefore propose that to effect this change, we need to start at home, start with our families, children, friends and colleagues, and remind them of what it means to be African; what it means to be human; and, how our actions affect others. How what we take may deprive another. How it is our responsibility to uplift the other and how no matter how successful or influential we may become, it does not mean that we can exalt ourselves over another.