The journey so far: Fred Swaniker, founder, African Leadership Group

Fred Swaniker

Ghanaian entrepreneur Fred Swaniker is the founder of the African Leadership Group, which consists of: the African Leadership Academy (ALA); the African Leadership University (ALU); the African Leadership Network and the ALU School of Business.

1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.

Last year, we had a serious conflict in our organisation. When we started the ALU, from the beginning our plan was to do something disruptive, unconventional, innovative and large scale. We wanted to develop three million leaders in 6,000 days and become financially sustainable. Yet somehow a significant proportion of our team was misaligned with our vision.

They wanted to stay small, not expand to other countries, to do things the traditional way and did not agree with our plans of becoming financially sustainable.

We took a hard look at how this had happened and realised that at some point in our growth, we had hired people who had the skills we needed, but did not share the same personal values and beliefs as we did. This was causing misalignment. And the misalignment was slowing us down.

So we asked them to make a choice: join wholeheartedly or leave, and we offered people three months of pay and assistance in finding a job somewhere else. About 30 people left the organisation. As heartbreaking as this experience was, the stakes were simply too high.

I have found that achieving something difficult with a team that is 100% committed is hard. Achieving something difficult with a team of people who are not committed is impossible. In the end, it was better for all involved. The organisation is now moving faster and people who remained are happier, their personal beliefs and values are aligned with the organisation’s.

2. Which business achievement are you most proud of?

I am proud beyond words of the movement my co-founders and I sparked 15 years ago to seed a new era of ethical and entrepreneurial leaders for Africa.

We did this, initially, through the creation of the ALA. Over the years, the Johannesburg-based high school has set in motion a new paradigm for leadership development in the 21st century and has received global acclaim.

In the years that followed, the ALA led to the founding of the African Leadership Network, the ALU and now our new leadership accelerator, ALX. Together, they share a common moonshot to catalyse the greatest generation of homegrown leaders that Africa and indeed the world has ever seen.

3. Describe your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.

Admittedly, I am impatient by nature. Couple that with the “crisis of leadership” on Africa’s doorstep. My intensity, at times, rivals that of a championship athlete or a firefighter racing towards a burning building.

I recognised this leadership vulnerability in myself early on. Over the years, I’ve learned to harness my impatience in positive and constructive ways. When I sense the need for our organisation to move faster and more nimbly to address Africa’s leadership deficit, for example, I turn my frustration into inspiration around our unifying “battle cry” to develop three million African leaders in the next 6,000 days.

4. Which popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?

Over the years, we’ve all come to accept the mantra, “The customer is always right,” as gospel. In January, I shared a New Year’s resolution on my Facebook page that challenges this cherished assumption. I urged people to stop and think hard: “Is what our customers want, really what they need?” Very often, what our customers want is exactly the opposite of what they need.

As someone who develops human potential through education and leadership development, I’ve learned that what my students (my customers) want, is often not what they need. They might, for example, want easy exams and assignments. But what they need are tough, painful assignments that push them to their limits and equip them for the complex problems they will face in the future.

They might want no rules, but what they need is discipline and a rigorous routine so they can be ready for a world in which one cannot just do what they please. They might want to eat pizza and hamburgers and ice cream every day, but what they need is a balanced diet with vegetables, fruit and protein so they remain healthy.

As we develop young leaders for Africa, I tell our staff that our job is not to please them. It is to prepare them for the tough world they will face – whether they join a global corporation, start their own business, lead a world-changing NGO or serve in government. We need to build their resilience, perseverance, courage and imagination. That is what they need.

5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you got started?

I had no idea that being an entrepreneur would be this hard.

Before I became an entrepreneur, I thought naively that, “The best idea always wins.” What I have learned over the years, instead, is that execution beats ideas any day. Vision and ideas are important. But without the resilience, perseverance and perspiration to bring them to life, they are little more than dreams. As the adage goes, an idea without diligent execution is little more than a hallucination.

Africa is full of “talkers” and not enough “doers”. At the African Leadership Group, we challenge the leaders we’re developing not just to be talkers, but to “do hard things”. Stick with it, and execute with world-class excellence. That is real entrepreneurship.