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Imagine Africa, Imagine Leadership

One ethical question  that informs my purpose and work is best formulated as: What kind of Africa do we want to help build with all the natural resources available to us? This is not an easy challenge to respond to as Africa has an ability to confound the unsuspecting or gullible observer.Reading all the opinions and strategies to ‘help’ Africa, I am conscious of how many times they are dominated with Western logic only. If, for a moment, we could set aside the ‘help’, then how do we as Africans tackle the obvious and necessary work to be done in turning our natural resources into wealth for all? While we function in the context of a modern global economy, we are simultaneously widely and deeply informed (appreciatively) by our subsistence history that feeds into our present. There is no answer, at least no single one. There is, however, a systemic challenge  and we need to address it as such to avoid polarised thinking in the face of poverty, inequalities, inadequate institutions, conflicts, etc. 

In spite of this preamble, I would want to address one of the variables of this system called ‘Africa’, namely leadership, and share a few reflections with you. I am very aware of Maslow’s cautionary note that once you think of yourself as a hammer everything else starts looking like a nail. I also do not want to insult your intelligence and play around with definitions and theories on the subject. I guess you have entertained enough of that kind of mental gymnastics. The opinions I share are not an effort to present or promote leadership as the panacea. It is rather an acknowledgment of an extraordinarily important variable  in imagining  an end game of a continent offering a better life for all.  I would rather cut directly to a particular element of leadership, namely power – especially in view of the recent happenings in parliament during the state of the nation address, which in a sense reflected the state the nation is in.

An interlude, if I may (triggered perhaps by scenes of armed police now entering the sanctuary of parliament!): Chinua Achebe said: Worshipping a dictator is such a pain in the ass. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was merely a matter of dancing upside down on your head. With practice, anyone could learn to do that. The real problem is having no way of knowing from one day to another, from one minute to the next, just what is up and what is down.   

Yes, leadership is, among other things, about that desired concept, power. Allow me to offer more clarification. I am referring to a particular power, one not of authority or coercion, but of influence, i.e. the ability to get people willingly to sign up for a particular idea, cause, or journey.  This speaks of a potency that is neither dependent on disruptive behaviours stemming from impotence nor those dominating and self-indulgent behaviours growing out of an inflated sense of omnipotence. We have had and still have too much of the latter, where it is about power for the sake of power; a position that serves as partial explanation for the leadership mess we (the world) are in. This is when leaders lose their sense of boundaries and impact on people, organisations, institutions, societies in such a way that a good life for all remains a pipe dream. This leads to a second point, i.e. we have a fast-changing context and we do not have sufficient leaders with the necessary character to navigate this landscape. 

Character is the inflection point in our conversation, i.e. the education and development of leaders needs to happen on the level of the individual’s character. There is no need for a definition of leadership or to subscribe to a particular leadership theory stack in order to understand this. I do know, though, that wherever people form communities there is always a need for someone to play the role of leader and, if leaders are not forthcoming, people will look for them. However you would want to define ‘them’. It is not a difficult task, as people with ambition and a need for power and prestige put up their hands and eventually end up in leadership positions. Once they have that role, they receive power and opportunity to have impact. 

To build on the concept of character and drama, when we speak of a role in the context of leadership, Shakespeare’s words come to mind: All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women, merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.  This is no flippant comment. On the contrary, one may ask: What is it that causes deep appreciation from the audience (followers) during ‘entrances’ and ‘exits’?  I have a sense that it is not when the role player gets under the skin of the character, but when the character gets under the skin of the role player, resulting in a deep sense of authenticity, which cannot be shed in the cloakroom after the show, but accompanies the actor home. At that mysterious  intersection, without any announcement, a social covenant is struck between leader and follower containing all the intellectual, emotional,  and moral commitment required for the journey. This authentic character potently uses power in the best interest of the world, our continent, our country, the organisation. It is not the kind of power that ‘feeds on other people, that takes away in order to get’,  it is an ambition that serves and is worthy of imitation.

Power to what end?  In the bigger scheme of things, it means to use the magnificent endowment of resources this continent has and build Africa as the Tree of Life.  This means going beyond the visionary statements that the AU issues or our own NDP and similar visions, however aptly and inspirationally described. Without courage to implement, there is no notion of leadership, only provocation. Imagine a critical mass of authentically powerful leaders that wisely construct a new social covenant and then, with courageous moral creativity, drive it to implementation and completion. Imagine the Africa we can have. 

(On the issue of the events in the South African parliament. I have run out of space but for now let it suffice to say: We had the experience but missed the meaning? ) 

To be continued.

Frik Landman, is the CEO of USB Executive Development (USB-ED)
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