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12 minutes reading time (2475 words)

Leadership in Africa: from being, to doing, to handing over


This essay was originally written and submitted as part of my course requirements for the 2017 Tutu Leadership programme.  It looks at three elements of leadership that are timeless and universal, but also especially relevant to Africa today if we are to see the successful transformation of our continent. The first element – servant leadership - explores what a leader must ‘be’ and the attitude and approach they should have. The second – shared vision – looks at what a leader should ‘do’ and highlights a common fundamental that is core to all great leaders, but somehow lacking in too many of our countries and companies. The final element – succession planning – looks beyond the leader, and helps us think about what comes next.

  As Sean Lance suggested in Mont Fleur, people are simply leaders because of a certain situation and current context. This is true, but this can also limit our view of leadership to a single leader, in a single moment. The very best leaders look beyond themselves and their own situation and view the world in a different timeframe.

1.    To Lead, you must Serve

Too many leaders on our continent are self-serving and absorbed with amassing personal wealth and power. Some go as far as to proudly proclaim ‘it is our turn to eat’1.  This is in stark contrast to Archbishop Tutu’s belief in “accountable servant leadership” and championing of a way of leading that exists for the benefit of others.

The term ‘servant leadership’ is not an oxymoron. The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, before anything else. Then conscious choice brings a person to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from someone who is leader first, perhaps because of the need for power or to acquire material possessions. The difference becomes evident in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people's highest priority needs are being served. The best test is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?

The concept of servant leadership is not new. Archbishop Tutu would likely point to another leader from 2000 years ago who authored the Christian faith and modelled the true servant style of leadership. As one of his followers later shared, Jesus bent down and washed their feet, teaching them the true measure of leading by first serving others2.  This practical example of leadership was likely to have been as counter-cultural in Roman occupied Israel 2000 years ago, as it is perhaps in our countries today. Yet, this concept of servant-leadership seems to have enduring power.

Before taking on the responsibility of leading soldiers in the British Army, all officers spend a year at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. It is no coincidence that the Academy’s motto is ‘Serve to Lead’. This seeming contradiction is precisely at the heart of what makes Sandhurst a very special place. It teaches, above all else, that an officer must lead by the force of his unselfish example. As all cadets finally complete their training and walk up the steps of the Academy as commissioned officers, there is a prayer written high on the wall above the door: “…the Lord of all life came not to be served but to serve; help us to be the masters of ourselves that we may be the servants of others, and teach us to serve to lead.” This is the ethos of Sandhurst – leadership is about service. Leadership is about putting yourself last.

This thinking continues to resonate today and is as applicable to leadership in public service or on the battlefield, as it is in the corporate world. Two current New York Times bestsellers echo this philosophy. The first, ‘Leaders Eat Last’ by Simon Sinek, uses the idea of service orientated leadership as the cornerstone of his book. He explains: “To be a great leader you must be willing to serve your followers. What separates ordinary leaders from great leaders is service. A true leader is someone who works for his followers and consistently strives for their success.” 3

The second recent bestseller is written by Wharton’s top rated professor, Adam Grant, and is titled ‘Give and Take4.  Grant describes research in his book that suggests that servant leaders are not only more highly regarded than others by their employees and not only feel better about themselves at the end of the day but are more productive as well. His thesis is that servant leaders are the beneficiaries of important contacts, information, and insights that make them more effective and productive in what they do even though they spend a great deal of their time sharing what they learn and helping others.

Encouraging more servant leadership in Africa is not straightforward. It comes about partly through community pressure where leaders who exist to serve themselves, rather than care for those in their responsibility, should not last long. It is also vital we highlight role models of servant leadership. This is especially important in societies that have known only one type of leadership – or indeed one leader – for a generation. With our increasingly connected and online world, sharing and highlighting other great servant leaders from within our continent becomes easier.

One final caution to leaders today: We have a tendency to over-strategize leadership. We see the strategic benefits of servant leadership and allow that to become our reason to serve. That’s an extremely dangerous mistake because ultimately that turns serving into manipulation. This may be sustainable for a period as pointed out by Charles De Gaulle: “In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant.”5  However, in times of real crisis, when true leadership is really needed, this form of leadership has no solid foundation and quickly unravels.

2.    Create a Shared Vision

Leaders come from all walks of life and differ widely in their personality traits and life stories. Some are charismatic, some very modest. Some come from poor backgrounds, others grow up amid great wealth. Some come by their leadership abilities naturally, and many others work hard at developing them. But regardless of their background, three critically important skills seem common: All are driven by an inspiring vision of success. They excel at communication. And they exercise superior judgment in executing that vision.

 Leadership success always starts with vision. Henry Ford dreamed of a car families could afford. Steve Jobs dreamed of an easy-to-use computer that would unleash creativity. Nelson Mandela dreamed of an integrated, prosperous South Africa. These were heady ideas, and they attracted more than a few sneers. But they weren’t the daydreams of lazy people with too much time on their hands. They were deep-seated passions, magnetic enough to capture the minds of just a few devoted followers at first but ultimately the imaginations of millions of women and men. A compelling vision has that power. It inspires, clarifies and focuses the work of individuals – and preferably entire organizations – for a lengthy span of time.

If we are to see the transformation of Africa, we need leaders who are forward looking with clear visions, rather than leaders who are preoccupied with the past at the expense of the future. Dr. Nkosana Moyo, in his opening press conference as he launched his presidential bid in Zimbabwe, was asked what he would do about Gukurahundi if elected. Gukurahundi was a very dark period in the early 1980’s after Zimbabwe’s independence, where thousands of people in the south of the country were massacred in an act of genocide. Dr. Moyo replied, “Without in any shape or form diminishing or devaluing the pain of the people of Matabeleland, my appeal is that I would want you to ask me to build a better Zimbabwe.” He added, “Because every day I spend focused on the past, is a day you deprive yourselves and me of demonstrating that a different Zimbabwe is possible.”6   This ability to learn the lessons of the past, but focus our energy on building a better future fits with Sean Lance’s comments on the emotional switch needed for good leadership – analyse the past and emotionalise the future, rather than the reverse.

This forward looking approach needs to be underpinned by a clear vision for what the future could look like. As top-tier companies have clear strategies, so too should our countries. If you were to ask Ugandans today, what is Museveni’s vision for Uganda? Or Zambians, what is Lungu’s? Or Tanzanians? Without a clearly communicated vision nations are rudderless.

As James Kouzes and Barry Posner discuss in their HBR article ‘To Lead, Create a Shared Vision’, “Being forward-looking—envisioning exciting possibilities and enlisting others in a shared view of the future—is the attribute that most distinguishes leaders from non-leaders. We know this because we asked followers.”7  The only visions that take hold are shared visions—and you will create them only when you listen very, very closely to others, appreciate their hopes, and attend to their needs. The best leaders are able to bring their people into the future because they engage in the oldest form of research: They observe the human condition.

But even an incredibly compelling vision won’t do much good if it remains only in the leader’s head. Indeed, when it comes to living out a vision, communication and persistence matter just as much as inspiration. Visions are only realised by setting realistic, demanding goals and then going after them relentlessly, with the help of other talented men and women who are equally committed and engaged.

So how do we ensure more of our nations have a clear, well communicated and actionable vision? Encouraging scenario planning such as Nigeria 2020 is one tool. As the Tutu network grows, and as Fellows step up to positions of national influence, we will hopefully see this tool in more widespread use. Another brief example, is the utility of Presidential Delivery Units such as the one modelled by President Kagame’s government in Rwanda. These focused teams help ensure that a vision is broken down into actionable goals with a roadmap in place, and that leaders responsible for each element are held to account.

3.    Nurture leadership and hand over

All leaders serve only for a season. Some seasons are long, some short; some are abundant, some lean; some are recorded and recalled, most are not. But all seasons end. When tackling big issues like transformation of our continent, a single leader’s moment in power will only ever be part of the story. We must not get trapped by a narrow view of leadership that only focuses on the individual leader and what they have achieved. We must look beyond to the enduring difference they make and especially how they handover the baton to the next runner.

Joe Mutizwa, a former CEO of Delta Beverages in Zimbabwe who led the company to #1 in the country through an infamous decade of hyperinflation, recalled that his very first day in office as CEO was spent planning for his very last day.8  In his mind, succession planning was of great strategic importance. He was looking beyond himself. Dolika Banda, daughter to one of Zambia’s former Presidents and a distinguished leader in global financial services, shared leadership principles with The Africa List that have guided her: “Always think about legacy. And if you think legacy, you have to think about making yourself dispensable. Making yourself dispensable means thinking beyond yourself and putting in place a succession plan. So the greatest story you can tell is: I came, I built and I left a great team to carry on what I had started.”  9

At a political level we unfortunately are seeing few examples of succession planning and thinking beyond strongmen. Many leaders, from Mugabe, to Museveni, to Kabila and Kagame cling to power. The argument that their countries may fall apart if they leave may sadly be true in certain cases. But that doesn’t excuse what is ultimately a failure of leadership in not creating the environment and conditions for others to step up and lead the next wave of growth.

However, this problem isn’t unique to our continent or indeed to political leadership. As Korn Ferry, one of the world’s foremost executive search and people development firms makes clear: Few events carry greater risk to shareholder value than a change of leadership.10  So why do so many boards have an ineffective succession planning process or–even worse–no process at all for finding and preparing the next generation of leaders? While choosing a CEO is unambiguously the board’s responsibility, the incumbent CEO has a critical leadership role to play in preparing and developing candidates—just as any manager worth his or her salt will worry about grooming a successor.

Many companies also treat CEO succession as a one-off event triggered by the abrupt departure of the old CEO rather than a structured process. The succession is therefore often reactive, divorced from the wider system of leadership development and talent management. This approach has significant risks. Ideally, succession planning should be a multiyear structured process tied to leadership development.

With these lessons in mind, we should be putting more pressure on our judicial, electoral and constitutional systems to ensure leadership is renewed periodically. Succession planning should perhaps rather be tackled as succession development. Plans do not develop anyone — only development experiences develop people. We see many organisations put more effort and attention into the planning process than they do into the development process which is wrong. We must learn these lessons.

We would also do well to remember that a person’s greatest contribution to society may not be something they do, but someone they raise up. Our leaders who refuse to relinquish power should not be let off so lightly. 

Ultimately successful leadership makes a positive lasting difference on the individuals, teams, companies or even country’s it has served. Our leaders of today will be judged by how they serve the people in their care, how they inspired and delivered a shared vision, and how they handed over to faster runners behind them. It is our collective responsibility to ensure we see this happen.

  1. It’s Our Turn to Eat – by Michala Wrong. Based on comments made by politicians and civil servants close to the Kenyan President in 2003.
  2. John 13: 12 – 17.
  3. Leaders Eat Last – Simon Sinek. ISBN-13: 978-1591845324
  4. Give and Take – Adam Grant. ISBN-13: 978-0143124986
  6. Dr. Nkosana Moyo speaking at the launch of his presidential bid.
  8. Joe Mutizwa speaking to The Africa List in Zimbabwe.
  9. Dolika Banda talking to The Africa List in Zambia.
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Tuesday, 16 August 2022

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