Learn From Africa: Leadership

The myth that ‘African’ leadership is despotic is disabused by Ayittey. He asserts that this was a colonial invention, stating:

‘Clearly, such “terrible” African rulers must have been generally those who gave the colonialists the most “trouble”; that is, offered the stiffest resistance to European domination and conquest. Of course, to their people, such chiefs were not “terrible” or “despotic” at all but rather heroes who fought to resist the colonial subjugation’. (1991: xxv)

The perception of African leadership being represented by the bogymen images of figures such as Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (DRC) or Mugabe of Zimbabwe could equally be matched by such despotic (or ‘heroic’, depending on your perspective) colonial figures as Rhodes or Churchill.

The Belgium Congo was not a haven of democracy under Leopald’s rule. Yet when finally, as the Democratic Republic of Congo, it did come under the leadership of a more visionary democrat, the CIA spent no time in dispatching Lumumba (carting his body around Leopaldville in the boot of a car) and replacing him with the well funded despot Mobuto, who was less of a threat to the interests of the United States. It’s no wonder that the image created of leadership in Africa, in the West, is that of a crazed despot, but this is one created in the image of colonialism.

Yet much of this misperception, Ayittey states, may have been not merely honest biases among anthropologists of the time, but difficulties in translation and interpretations of African languages. He quotes Williams in saying:

‘Africans….proudly speak of the freedom and absolute power of the chief or king. Some will even tell you that the king “owned all the land” in the country. They are not trying to deceive. Words of another language often fail to translate the people’s concept or meaning. When they say the king is supreme or has absolute power they mean that he has absolute power to carry out the will of the people. It is so well understood that supreme power rested in the people that it was never thought necessary to state such a fact. Likewise, they would say, and say proudly, the king “owns all the land in the country” since everybody but a fool knew that he didn’t, that nobody owned the land (in the Western sense), and that the king’s role was that of custodian and overseer, his principle duty being to see that the land was fairly distributed among all families’. (1987:169)

Ayittey goes further in saying that although Western scholars could be excused these biases and misinterpretations, denigrating the African chief as ‘despotic’, yet modern African leaders redeem this image and use ‘“African tradition”’ to ‘justify the imposition of all sorts of despotic regimes on their people’ (1991: xxvi). This may well apply, in part, to the justification of post-colonial styles of leadership in modern organizations in Africa.

So, what is African leadership, and what can we learn from it. Again we can turn to Ayittey when he says:

‘Coercive powers were generally not employed by the chief to achieve unity. Unity of purpose was achieved through the process of consensus building. In addition, persuasion and appeals, rather than force, were used by the chief and councillors to win over recalcitrant members on an issue’ (1991: 100)

This appears to be echoed by managers at Afriland First Bank in Cameroon when they say:

‘In traditional culture it isn’t the chief who makes the decision. Every stone is turned, by bringing people together. With individual decision-making there is a chance that you will make a mistake. So decisions are taken at the group level. We are like an African family that is trying to ensure our stability for the longer period.’

Consensus, rather than coercion, is important. But this appears to be different to the participatory leadership professed by Western companies. Blunt and Jones have encapsulated this when they state:

‘Current theories of leadership, and leadership rhetoric, in the West place high value….on teamwork, empowerment, performance management … and learning… The problem is that the amount of hype surrounding such putative features implies it is a hard sell, even in its place of origin…. Transformational leadership in the West… is more a construct of the rhetoric of management consultants than it is the reality of management practice. It seems likely that – as with Coca-Cola – the less the worth of the product to the consumer the more one needs to envelop it in a promotional mystique… and this helps to disguise its discordance with most of the cultures in which its tenets are applied’. (1997:11)

Participation, introduced from the West, is seen as tyranny by Cooke and Kothari (2002). Some of their arguments go back to the appropriateness issue: is it appropriate to implement Western ideas of participation which might displace other forms of leadership that have advantages over participation? It also includes issues of power: does this override existing legitimate decision processes, for example Western doners stipulating governance conditions? And, issues of group dynamics: does this reinforce the interests of the already powerful. Cooke and Kothari apply their arguments to International Development, but these could equally apply to Minority World MNEs operating in Majority World countries, where local firms or staff might have a weak voice in negotiating leadership styles and practices. This also might involve a lack of understanding where Western leadership is seen as best, and overrides, for example, African ideas of leadership: African leadership is seen by the West as undemocratic and dictatorial. As Mutabazi puts it:

‘Africa has always been ruled by chiefs. However, African history since colonization has been stained by the disturbances of the traditional principles that govern sociability and intercommunal relations. Certain communities do not know which way to turn, so their leaders develop behavioural patterns in harmony with their own personal values – instead of being either primus inter pares first among equals or coconuts black on the outside, white on the inside.’ (2002: 204)

Yet, it is not difficult to explain African leadership:

African leadership is cross-cultural leadership.

The reason why good leaders in Africa are cross-cultural leaders is not a simple matter of their leading in cross-cultural contexts, although this is mostly it. It is because of the multiple cultural factors they have to negotiate in time and space, and within a multiple power dynamic. I started to isolate these factors and dynamics in 2004.

Many commentators have referred to the figure of Nelson Mandela as an example of the Africa leader. I see no reason why I should not use the late Madiba as an example of negotiating these factors and dynamics.

South Africa was one of the last countries in Africa to remove itself from political colonialism. Imagine a situation where not only do you have a country that is highly multicultural, with now twelve official languages, but where the majority population were removed from their land and homes, denied proper education, where men had to move hundreds of miles away from their families to find work in the mines while women had to make do (but also often emerge as local leaders), where they were denied access to the beautiful South Africa beaches, where they had to use different public toilets and wash facilities, and different train carriages. Imagine this whole system propped up by the international banking system (at least Barclays owned up to this), and the global business and political power structure not doing very much about this at all. Imagine having to take to arms (as a terrorist/freedom fighter) to get anything done, imprisoned for 27 years, released into a world where things had moved on but little had changed. Imagine having to convince the world elite that you were not an economic or political threat to the established geopolitical system, that business would be as normal and at the same time convince your political movement the ANC that the revolutionary Marxist views held dear by so many for generations would not be too compromised. Imagine having to convince Zulus, Sotho (Southern and Northern), Tswana, Pedi, Venda, Ndebele, Tsonga, Pondo, Swati, Coloured, Asian, White of at least two kinds, and the mainly obliterated and ignored Khoi, San and Griqua (have I forgotten anyone ?), as well as your own Xhosa, that you would represent their interests.

If you can do all that, then you are a true African leader. If you can learn from that, and watch and learn from what the thousands of organisational managers and community leaders do every day throughout Africa, then you might learn something useful, and you might understand what leadership (not the pseudo-leadership theories of consultants in the Minority World) really is about.


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