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Leadership in the African Context

It was while attending a 60th birthday celebration that I met an inspiring woman who spoke to me about her leadership training work with African women on the continent. She described how her sponsors imposed a western approach to leadership that she is expected to deliver as is.

However, through her experience of working in west Africa, with women from different regions of a particular country, several aspects became apparent to her in her contextual application of leadership theory to a group of women who are not only from a foreign culture to the trainer, but who amongst themselves, come from various tribal backgrounds.

What is critical to note here is that where there can be over 200 tribes in one African country, there are also over 200 different cultures, traditions, beliefs and attitudes to bridge in the context of leadership. Furthermore, there is no such thing as a one size fits all approach to leadership development which becomes apparent with the awareness that there is likely a complex history between the tribes in question.

So, the two questions that we need to reflect on are:

1) How does one go about developing leadership skills that take into account the diversity that is Africa?

2) What are the core tenets that take into consideration the local culture and approach whilst being universally applicable?

These, I believe are the driving questions that help leaders to develop an emotionally intelligent approach to difference. Afterall, African leadership is all about African solutions to local problems, with an emphasis on ubuntu (the idea that community is one of the building blocks of society).

Global north countries have always viewed Africa as a place afflicted by corruption, dictatorship, rebellious leaders, greed, misuse of power, incompetent leadership and political as well as economical ineffectiveness. What is often misunderstood is that Africa has a rich heritage of leadership, although it is not consistently observed. There are similarities, but also differences from region to region and from country to country.

The different approaches to leadership became prevalent after the introduction of Christianity and the Muslim faith. During these historical periods, African leaders and their people adapted to western concepts whilst some abandoned their traditional religious values, customs or even their own culture. As a result, different types of leaders emerged who were moulded in different ways. Each era has brought with it tremendous change in the lives of communities yet if examined closely, contributes to our understanding of leadership.

Leadership is accomplished when an individual has authority or influence over a group of people. In Africa, a leader is viewed as a servant of their tribe or community so, Africans treat a leader as an appointee to serve the people. The following elements are worth noting when discussing leadership in an African context:

  • There are no leaders without followers, therefore Leadership entails interpersonal influence over followers.

  • Leaders use influence to guide a group, tribe or community through a predetermined course of action or towards the achievement of a specific goal.

  • There is an assumption and acceptance of hierarchy within a group.

These concepts explain the power of leadership over a community. In an African village, the hierarchical structures are formal and well defined. A good leader helps the community to establish goals, and then guides them through the whole process, allowing the group to be effective. In other words, the life and care of the villagers is directed by them and they are also accountable to the whole village.

Leadership skills can be taught but leadership is earned; it is earned by consistently demonstrating competency, compassion, a sense of justice and unity. The values that a leader carries with them demonstrate a legitimate sense of care for people coupled with accountability. As he or she leads, the leader becomes accepted as a member of the community, a resource for the group and a co-worker in building the community up. In this way, leadership becomes a shared function than an investment in one person.

In imparting leadership skills to people in Africa, instead of imposing the western view of leadership onto local people, the better approach would be to co-create an applicable framework that takes into consideration their local context. In other words, any leadership training programmes must get the approval of the very individuals it is targeting in order to truly be effective.

If you have any views on this topic, we would love to hear from you!

To your success!


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