A leader in Africa can make or break a country
Ending a culture of authoritarianism is key to transformation
“IN AFRICA, just one good leader can make or break a country,” says Fred Swaniker, the Buffet Award 2018 winner, an entrepreneur from Ghana and formerly named one of the most powerful young people in Africa by Forbes. This is because many African countries have weak institutions, such as the judiciary, constitution, civil society, etc, which makes the role of individuals more powerful for good or bad, he argues.
This idea was very much under discussion at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Young Global Leaders Africa education module on “Effective Leadership for a Future Africa”, which was co-hosted by the WEF and the University of Cape Town (UCT) Graduate School of Business recently.
Young leaders from various sectors and countries split their time between the Waterfront campus and its satellite site in Philippi Village examining issues of leadership and different models for more effective leadership in Africa. The programme involved stimulating and thought-provoking lectures, debates and field trips to Khayelitsha and the Silo district in the Waterfront.
For the visitors, the impact of South Africa’s inequality was overwhelming. They learnt that spending a night at an exclusive hotel in the Waterfront’s silo district could cost about R50 000. This same amount could be used by an entrepreneur in Khayelitsha to launch a start-up business that could create jobs, deliver a valuable service and uplift the lives of several community members.
How can we start to resolve such impossible contradictions? The young leaders were encouraged to think along the lines of sustainability, social impact, innovation, enhancing team success and ethical leadership. They were told not to be overwhelmed by the complexities of the problems, but to think along the lines of what they could do as individuals.
The difference that one person can make in an organisation was brilliantly illustrated by Tim London in one of the sessions.
He showed that, with harsh words to just one student, a negative and authoritarian lecturer can stifle debate in a classroom demonstrating that toxic interaction with a leader can change the dynamics in multiple parts of the workplace.
Taking a more encouraging, supportive and developmental approach, by contrast, creates a culture that invites more positive and productive contributions from co-workers, he said.
He further highlighted the importance that we are now working and living in a world of exponential change, requiring a fundamental rethinking of outdated notions of both leadership and organisational design.
As a way of gaining purchase in such a world, London advised those working in the public or private sectors to commit to value-based leadership.
This starts with having a clear understanding of their purpose (why does this organisation exist?), values (what is most important to us about the organisation?) and mission (how things are done within the organisation to achieve the purpose and stay true to our values).
For those in charge of putting together teams or hiring new staff, values should be at the top of the agenda, he argued. “Previous work experience and qualifications tell you a bit about what your prospective employee has done, but applicants need to be asked about their values and how these guide them in their lives. Knowing someone’s values tells you much more about who you’re hiring and how they’ll impact your organisation. In this way, organisations will become driven by individuals who are committed to driving it forward because their values and purpose are aligned.”
The resurgence of our humanity and need for authentic and values-based connection and leadership was illustrated in a robust panel discussion on the impact of technology in advancing African economies. It was highlighted that, while the potential of technology and digital transformation is considerable, especially when it comes to delivering services to marginalised communities, it is not a silver bullet. Rather, it is our collective goodwill in contributing towards a thriving African economy that binds us.
For those in the entrepreneurial and social innovation space, the advice was to focus on integrating inclusive innovation principles and practices into the design of interventions, forming partnerships and collaborations with key stakeholders to maximise resources and enable greater social impact, and exploring business model innovation to ensure the success and sustainability of interventions.
Social innovation expert and founder of the UCT Bertha Centre for Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Dr François Bonnici, quoted John W Gardner: “We are continually faced with a series of great opportunities that are brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.”
For the Young Global Leaders, the personal stories of some of the speakers hit home. Stories such as that of UCT vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, who as a child attended school under a tree and at one point had to walk 10km to get to class. She never gave up, working hard to eventually become the first black South African professor in mathematics education. She said no one told her maths was hard and so she never struggled with it. “I just came to terms with what I want, what I can and cannot do. I focused on what I can do and I like, and I did it well. And all my life, that’s what I did.”
She made it all sound simple, and perhaps it was. Much of what makes the good leaders of today is their ability to be real and authentic, to speak and actively listen to people, to be willing to try new things and admit when they are wrong.
Perhaps we need to unlearn our ideas of what a “Great Leader” is. We must strive to become the best in our own sphere of influence, doing – as Phakeng pointed out – what we can in our own fields – and do that as well as we can.
In this way, we can achieve great things for ourselves, our communities, and our country. Much as Swaniker, who is himself an alumnus of the Young Global Leadership programme, said: transforming Africa will require quality leadership and it starts with every one of us.
Parker is a social entrepreneur and Bertha scholar on the UCT GSB MPhil in Inclusive Innovation programme. She has worked in communities in South Africa for more than a decade as a social worker, executive support officer at the Ministry of Social Development, and as the founder and managing director of The Social Makeover. She is a Global Shaper for the World Economic Forum and was selected as one of the 2018 Mail & Guardian 200 most influential young South Africans.