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Is it possible to define the African leader?

The media love to tag leaders by their places of origin. References to European leaders, African leaders, Asian Leaders and so on appear regularly in reports and book publications. But such references share little about the individuals and the leadership being inferred, other than from where they hail.

Nigerian telecoms billionaire Mike Adenuga

Nigerian telecoms billionaire Mike Adenuga

Our articles in this series made a number of critical arguments about what makes effective leaders, and specifically what we believe makes high impact leaders. To this we add that there is no such being, persona or character that can be described as the archetypical “African” leader. The richness and diversity of cultures in Africa as represented by hundreds of languages, traditions, rituals and ethnicities, defy aggregation. In fact, we would argue that to present some case that a definable style and approach to leadership emanates from Africa is, simply, nonsensical.

Leaders such as Daniel Amlalo of the EPA in Ghana, South Africa’s revered Nelson Mandela, Kenya’s Nobel Laureate, the late Wangari Muta Maathai, the current generation of civil rights activists in Egypt, Nigeria’s telecoms billionaire Mike Adenuga, to mention only a few from the vast African talent pool, are extremely successful. However, between them they have little in common except their passionate pursuit of the goals that best serve their stakeholders. They all work long hours, and sacrifice personal interests, exactly as do high impact leaders from Europe, Asia and the Americas. There is nothing particularly African about the generic fundamentals of leadership.

But leading in Africa, as you find elsewhere in the world, does hold unique challenges and this is where the characterisation of the African leader is perhaps most appropriate.

What makes Africa different then?

  • Growing up in Africa is tough. Africans who travel in the developed world notice the difference immediately: simple, everyday things that people take for granted in France are difficult and sometimes impossible to get in a village in Uganda: potable water on tap, public transportation and electricity. To rise to any kind of prominence and success requires creativity and extraordinary perseverance.
  • Educational infrastructure in Africa suffers from poor teaching skills, bad facilities and lack of the basics such as text books. How do you even begin to prepare a child for competition on the international stage? We once spoke to a Masai woman who was the general manager of an upmarket lodge in the Masai Mara – in her primary school years she had to walk 20km every day and took her classes sitting on a stone beneath a tree. But she became an example to her tribe and a successful leader in her own right.
  • Markets in Africa, seen holistically, are not as sophisticated as in New York or Barcelona. The rules are tough to comprehend, and the competition comes at you from surprising corners. The entrepreneurial spirit is blossoming and you have to be really smart and resourceful to be different. How do you keep your small business going with the unreliable electricity supply in Lagos and Nairobi? You make a plan, as the thousands of small businesses in many African cities do.
  • Logistics in Africa are, mostly, nightmarishly expensive and challenging. Border crossings and customs are physically demanding, often riddled with corruption, and time-consuming beyond anything you will encounter in Europe. Road conditions range from difficult to impassable and the weather extremes make matters worse. Try and get your goods to the market in time for the Christmas rush!
  • Add to this a political and economical landscape made ever more complicated and unpredictable by leaders with, sadly, a record of self-serving and corrupt morals, and a judicial infrastructure that disallows the enforcement of basic commercial and legal rights and obligations.

Yet, despite these challenges, you find successful Africans in business, politics and society in Africa, the Americas, Europe and Asia. They have learnt to deal with the obstacles, possibly more so than their counterparts from more advantaged environs. But regarding the effectiveness of their leadership, the fundamentals are still valid – leaders are required to produce results. They cannot do that other than through their people, and this requires them to build trust relationships based on competence, reliability and integrity. They have to understand the basics and execute these across a variety of contexts and complexities.

African leaders are no different to their colleagues from Rome, Istanbul, Chicago and Hong Kong. They may have travelled a tougher road to get there, but to stay there is no smaller or larger task.

Ian Dean ([email protected]) is an independent consultant and a scholar of leadership. He works internationally to help organisations improve the performance of their leaders and businesses. Hennie du Plessis ([email protected]) works as a strategy and performance consultant and uses his corporate experience to help drive positive change in organisations. This the last in a series of six articles How we made it in Africa has published over the past two months in which they share their insights on leadership.


  • I have been working on the issue of leadership in Africa for 10 years now. I agree with Ian and Hennie that many of the leadership traits can be found anywhere in the world, but I believe they underestimate the influence of the upbringing, education and social-cultural context in which these leaders have developed. These circumstances have had a profound impact on the values and ideas of these leaders and has led to distinctive attitudes and behaviour that you will find across the African continent among political and business elites. In that sense, there is some truth in the notion of “African leadership” that distinguishes it from leadership elsewhere.

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