The X Factor Of Business Leadership

Effective leadership, whatever form it takes, is the prime ingredient in all organised endeavours – political, social and in the world of business. Good leaders take their followers to a better place; bad leaders destroy enterprises and ruin people. No wonder, then, that leadership in Africa, as the continent continues its economic and political transition, […]


Effective leadership, whatever form it takes, is the prime ingredient in all organised endeavours – political, social and in the world of business. Good leaders take their followers to a better place; bad leaders destroy enterprises and ruin people. No wonder, then, that leadership in Africa, as the continent continues its economic and political transition, has now come under the microscope. Does leadership come naturally, is it the product of the cultural and economic environment or can it be taught? Do Africa’s traditional forms of leadership, such as Ubuntu, have a role in the modern world?

While leadership training academies are popping up all over the continent, actual research on leadership patterns in Africa lags very far behind both the West and parts of Asia. Nevertheless, academic interest in this phenomenon is growing.

Sherelle Jacobs has been digging out the current research on the often surprising African leadership patterns. Additional contribution is by Anver Versi, who has written extensively on leadership.

Africa has produced some great leaders. Perhaps the most lauded among them include former South African President and anti-Apartheid activist Nelson Mandela, and the first President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, who was also one of the most important supporters of Pan-Africanism in his era. Other great and hugely influential political leaders include Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Botswana’s Festus Mogae, Mozambique’s Joachim Chiassano, Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara and several others.

Africa has also made an imprint on leadership philosophy, primarily through the development of Ubuntu thought- the southern African humanist philosophy that believes our species is connected through a universal bond. Gandhi was so inspired by Ubuntu during his years in Africa between 1893 and 1914, that he derived much of his Satyagraha (passive resistance) concept from this mode of thought.

The African world of business has also produced a galaxy of outstanding leaders – especially over the past two decades. One can argue that Africa has not only produced more exceptional business leaders than political ones, one can say that given the broad underdevelopment of the business infrastructure on the continent, Africa’s top echelon of business leaders have had to overcome vastly greater challenges than their counterparts in the West or in Asia.

Names that trip off the tongue include, of,course, Nigeria’s Aliku Dangote, South Africa’s Marius Kloppers (BHP Billiton), Brian Joffe (Bidvest Group), Cyril Ramaphosa (Shanduka Group), Patrice Motsepe (African Rainbow Minerals), Nigeria’s Tony Elumelu (former CEO, UBA Group, CEO Heirs Holding), Maria Ramos (Absa), Johann Rupert (chairman Richemont, Reinet Investments SCA and Remgro), Kenya’s Manu Chandaria (chairman Comcraft Group), Naushad Merali (chaiman Sameer Group), James Mwangi (Equity Bank), Zimbabwe’s Strive Masiwiya (chairman Econet Wireless), Naguib Sawaris (founder Orascom Telecoms Holdings) and Nigeria’s Arnold Ekpe (former CEO Ecobank Transnational).

While Africa has yet to produce such global giants as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, this is because the continent does not yet have the scale or the wealth of innovative research on which on build that the US does.
What makes an outstanding leader? Is it the environment or personal qualities? In the African context, what factors encourage leadership to thrive and which inhibit the emergence of new leaders? How much influence do cultural and historical aspects exert on leadership quality? How do people perceive leadership?

Unhelpfully, leadership in Africa, on the whole, is under-researched. Academic investigation into leadership has been much more rigorous in terms of trends in the West while papers exploring the situation in Africa are rare, and those with a sufficiently business focus are rarer still. Nevertheless, recent research into this subject has revealed some interesting findings. For example, a survey carried out by academics at the University of Exeter and the Bristol Business School showed very divided views about leadership amongst ordinary Africans. It found that a third of Africans saw the ‘African’ approach to leadership as a source of pride, but a third felt it had negative connotations. A quarter were neutral in their response.

Another organisation that has attempted to venture into this ‘mysterious territory’ is the Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL), an executive education provider. Regina Eckert and Simon Rweyongoza recently wrote the paper, Leadership Development in Africa. A Focus on Strengths. It found that leaders in Egypt, West Africa and Southern Africa were good at “putting other people at ease”, “being fast and agile learners”, and “leading in diverse environments”. They are also found to be resourceful, focused and good at problem-solving which demanded creativity.

Academics like Romie Littrell, Associate Professor of International Business at the AUT Business School in Auckland, also flag up various leadership strengths in Africa. “In organisations, due to the obligations, demands, and expectations of family, clan, and tribe, and also having to satisfy constituents external to these groups, successful African leaders are skilled in balancing conflicting demands from diverse constituents,” he told African Business.

Littrell also stressed the resourcefulness of African leaders. “Due to the lower levels of economic and infrastructure development in Africa, successful leaders are creative, innovative, and adept at maximising results with scarce resources,” he said.

Leadership styles
But Littrell also points out a number of leadership weaknesses in the region. “First loyalty of most leaders in Africa is to the family, clan and tribe, not the organisation. These followers receive preferred treatment at the expense or exclusion of others,” he said.

While there is considerable truth to this assertion, it is far too sweeping a generalisation of African leadership. The personal sacrifices made by political leaders during the struggle for independence most certainly do not fall into this category and the most successful business leaders on the continent have always thought in the widest possible context that their environments permit.

It would be fair, in fact, to argue that the top echelon of African business leaders not only think in national rather than clan terms but they have been at the forefront of regional and continental approaches to business. Virtually all the business leaders we have interviewed in this publication want greater and faster economic integration in Africa rather than ring-fencing their domains, and the majority are critical of the politically induced slow pace of intra-African integration.
Eckert and Rweyongoza identified more specific leadership weaknesses in the African countries they studied. For example, they say those in leadership positions in South Africa and Egypt were not always at ease thinking out of the box of their particular competencies.

On the other hand, from our experience at African Business, if there is one characteristic that can be applied to business leaders in West and East Africa, it is precisely in thinking out of the box. A number of business leaders, such as Mo Ibrahim, the founder of Celtel, was labelled the ‘lunatic entrepreneur’ when he launched his mobile revolution in East Africa in the teeth of all received wisdom of the time.

James Mwangi of Equity Bank also swam against the tide and he has attributed the spectacular success of this banking group to always thinking out of the box. Aliko Dangote is famous for stating that he has never seen any of the problems usually associated with Africa – he has only seen opportunities. These are classic ‘out of the box’ approaches that are essential to innovation.

Of more interest in the research by Eckert and Rweyongoza were the intriguing regional disparities in attitudes to leadership. Being straightforward and decisive were seen as big strengths in a leader within Southern African countries, but in West Africa and Egypt it was less of a plus. Leaders in West Africa were also found to be more willing to “do whatever it takes”.

Romie Littrell conceded to African Business that it is difficult to make generalisations about the whole continent. “Broadly speaking, Africa is not one place; leadership strengths and weaknesses, for example, in South Africa are different from Kenya and they’re each different from Tanzania,” he said. “Leader behaviour and preferences are different between Black and White South Africans.”

Experts have also been trying to ascertain the importance of Ubuntu to contemporary African leadership, including in a business context. A Global Leadership and Organisational Behaviour Effectiveness Project (GLOBE) found that amongst black South Africans, those leadership qualities that would seem “antithetical” to Ubuntu ranked highest, and those which were associated with Ubuntu ranked lowest.
The academic and social entrepreneur Wayne Visser says that while there is great potential for South Africa to create a new Ubuntu-inspired approach to capitalism – the dimensions of which would include socially responsible investment, legal reform, and values-focused philosophy – he does “not think this applies equally to leadership”.

Academics Romie Littrell and Stella Nkomo of the University of Pretoria also found, through their study of leadership behaviour in South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and Zambia, that leaders were expected to behave in a paternalistic fashion and that they ran their organisations with a culture of inertia – a decided reluctance to change their ways. Women in Africa also face added barriers when carrying out leadership roles. Some inspirational female leadership figures exist in Africa, though the most high-profile ones are from political rather than business circles – examples include Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia, and her counterpart in Malawi, Joyce Banda.

But, often, women entrepreneurs and potential leaders are less able, compared to their male counterparts, to benefit from support which is available to them – such as training and funding in order to flourish and obtain leadership positions. In line with global trends, they also face discrimination in male-dominated business environments. Experts in the field of leadership point to a number of solutions. CCL advocates leadership training models that integrate three ingredients: assessment, challenge and support.

According to the body, ‘assessment’ should be about potential leaders – identifying their strengths and weaknesses and the disparity between the their ideal and actual performance in their role. ‘Challenge’ should be about experimentation and working on skills. And ‘support’ should be available to boost the budding leader’s confidence.
CCL also calls for leaders to strike the right balance when considering strengths and weaknesses: too much focus on refining strengths can lead to the neglect of weaknesses. But swinging to the other extreme can lead to excessive self-criticism.

Littrell also says that “a basic way to improve the business organisational leadership process is for leaders to implement and support egalitarian human-resource-management practices and policies for all employees and potential employees.” Interestingly, these suggestions seem to have a global relevance too, rather than being tailored exclusively to Africa.

Can an African approach work?
But others show greater enthusiasm for crafting a more ‘African’ approach to leadership development by refining the notion of Ubuntu for a business context.

James Kamwachale Khomba and Frans N. S. Vermaak argue in their 2012 paper, Business ethics and corporate governance: An African socio-cultural framework, that the “premises of the Ubuntu philosophy that governs the African continent support principles and practices of modern business ethics and corporate governance” .
An investigation by D.S. Sigger, B.M. Polak and B.J.W. Pennink into Ubuntu as a management concept in Tanzania also showed encouraging trends – empirical and statistical results revealed that Tanzanians in management positions showed a strong capacity to lead in a manner reminiscent of Ubuntu.

“Tanzania was, in a unique way, already related to the philosophy of Ujamaa by President Nyerere in 1967,” says the paper. Although the authors admit the concept still needs work, their conclusion is upbeat. “In Western terms, Ubuntu as a management concept still lacks a clear set of rules and regulations. In order to become an established management concept, corresponding policies must be defined in recognisable terminology for African employees and managers. Subsequently this could lead to success stories of the practice of Ubuntu as a management concept. It would be most exciting to have a large and internationally known organisation being associated with Ubuntu.”

Outside academia, there are also signs that that some individuals and organisations are determined to improve leadership skills in Africa by developing leadership training.
Leadership schools are popping up across the continent. They include the African Leadership Academy (ALA), which was set up in South Africa in 2004. The professed aim of the academy is “developing and connecting the continent’s future leaders. Africa’s greatest need is ethical, entrepreneurial leadership.”

The institution offers a two-year university-level programme to “prepare each student for a lifetime of leadership in Africa”. It also runs a gap year programme and a three-week summer programme. Its professed leadership development formula is a combination of “potential, practice and opportunity”.

Another high-profile academy is the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, which opened in southern Johannesburg in 2007, with the aim of offering leadership training for girls from less advantaged backgrounds.
Groups like the African Leadership Network (ALN) are also cropping up. ALN, in its own words, “serves as a platform for identifying, connecting, and engaging Africa’s emerging generation of leaders”. The organisation does this by holding a series of events throughout the year, including a yearly event that gathers over 400 of its members, meetings with elders to promote dialogue with the older generation of traditional leaders and regional events.

Greater confidence in Ubuntu and the steady proliferation of African institutions focused on leadership are encouraging breakthroughs. But an ability to apply Western conversations about leadership trends to Africa will be crucial too. For example, perhaps in response to the financial crisis, which was arguably caused by an overconfident and cavalier approach to business, thinkers on leadership from academic hothouses in the West are increasingly advocating a more cautious approach to leadership – an ability to continuously critique and assess one’s performance, and a greater readiness to admit to ignorance or limited knowledge of a particular area.

The Boston Consulting Group is also now pushing a more collective approach to leadership whereby “the model of the heroic leader who single-handedly produces results through sheer force of will is obsolete. Leadership at the top is now a team sport” .

Although the financial crisis was not an African phenomenon, these recommendations are extremely relevant to the continent: aggressive, “survival of the fittest” attitudes to doing business are no less ingrained in the continent’s business culture than in Europe and America. They are also just as dangerous, as the continent’s wealth soars and business becomes increasingly fast paced.

But, equally, with increased Western soul searching and reflection on more democratic and humble approaches to leading in business, one cannot help but think of Ubuntu. That offers some interesting food for thought. If African thinkers and business-people can develop leadership approaches drawing from their culture and local realities, Ubuntu-based, or otherwise, might an African approach to leadership one day inspire others beyond the continent too?

Want to continue reading? Subscribe today.

You've read all your free articles for this month! Subscribe now to enjoy full access to our content.

Digital Monthly

£8.00 / month

Receive full unlimited access to our articles, opinions, podcasts and more.

Digital Yearly

£70.00 / year

Our best value offer - save £26 and gain access to all of our digital content for an entire year!