The 21st-century African leader

Rajiv Ball Maron Zewdie
Article by: Rajiv Ball, Maron Zewdie
The 21st-century African leader

On the occasion of Africa Industrialization Day 2018, we outlined some thoughts on the state of leadership development on the continent. We do this recognizing that it is impossible to generalize in a continent as diverse as Africa with over 50 countries and over 1 billion inhabitants. Thus, we zoomed out to paint a broad stroke picture of leadership in Africa in both a historical and global context.


When we think about leadership development, we always start by exploring the context. What is the context in which leaders operate? And, therefore, what sort of leadership qualities are critical for being a successful leader? In a historical and global context, there are a number of defining characteristics which recur across the continent and demand specific qualities in African leaders.

Leading for growth

The 1980s and 1990s were in some ways lost decades for Africa as economic growth struggled to keep up with population growth. The last two decades have seen this situation change dramatically, with The McKinsey Global Institute entitling its 2010 report on Africa ‘Lions on the Move’.  In this era of rapid economic growth, leaders need to be more comfortable with making small and rapid decisions, creating short learning loops and being comfortable to pivot quickly as the context changes. At the same time, leaders need to be able to take accountability and responsibility for some of the negative by-products of rapid economic growth – whether it is environmental degradation or the increasingly stark contrasts between the “haves” and the “have-nots” of Africa.

Thinking local

Post-colonial Africa had an infatuation with all things Western. When Kwame Nrumah led the Gold Coast to independence from Britain in 1957 and set off the wave of decolonization across Africa, for many African leaders, modernization and industrialization meant copying the West by importing lock-stock-and-barrel Western industries, Western practices, and Western norms. This model did not deliver as expected, but in the meantime, a generation of African leaders created a different path forward by building fit-for-purpose local solutions. Think economy-shifting MPESA in Kenya, and smaller industry-defining solutions like MamaOpe in Uganda or Cardiopad in Cameroon, to name a few examples.

These innovations came from African leaders tapping into our heritage, history, and creativity. Being able to be in the present and “Sensing” the needs of the moment is a critical quality for African leaders. Through sensing, leaders gain the relevant input to design fit-for-purpose solutions for Africa and avoid erroneously copying and pasting solutions from elsewhere.

21st-century african leader
Local solutions and innovations came from African leaders tapping into their own heritage, history, and creativity. #africa #creativeleadership #AfricaIndustrializationDay2018 #innovation Click To Tweet

Building a strong inner axis

Despite the progress of the last decades, Africa remains a volatile and uncertain place. Government actions remain unpredictable; courts struggle to enforce rules and regulations in a transparent and quick manner. With ever-shifting external factors, African leaders need to have a strong inner axis or inner compass to guide them. Among other things, this means having sharp clarity on personal values and being able to advocate for these, even when they may be under threat. Values-based leadership helps provide a pillar of stability when the external context is constantly shifting.

Expanding African leadership

How can African leaders further develop their leadership qualities, both those outlined above and more broadly? In many developed economies, the infrastructure for building leaders is well established, consisting of corporations investing in leadership development, business schools offering leadership curricula and an ecosystem of professional coaches and trainers who work in this space. In Africa, this leadership development infrastructure is less well-established. Therefore, leaders need to take responsibility for their development and cultivate their own practices for growth. These three activities form a good foundation for African leaders to develop themselves:

Failing to plan is planning to fail

A first step is to define your leadership plan of action setting out how you intend to grow as a leader. Potential Topics to explore here include:

  • What are your passions and strengths and how can you use them more in your daily life?  
  • What are your values and how can you stand up for them?  
  • What is your purpose or your ‘why’?  
  • What are your growth areas and the things that you need to do differently to become a more effective leader?  
  • What are you willing to change about who you are as a leader and what are things you will not be willing to change?

Receiving feedback from others – your boss, your direct report, your peers – is a critical source of insight for building your plan.

The 21st-century African leader
Receiving feedback from others - your boss, your direct report, your peers - is a critical source of insight for building your leadership plan. #feedback #peercoaching #leadership Click To Tweet

Each one teach one

“Each one teach one” is an old African proverb, which apparently resurfaced in America during the slave time, and holds true today as ever before.  Finding a committed partner to accompany you on your leadership journey helps to reinforce the changes that you seek to make. The partner could be someone who advises you but equally someone who coaches you through the journey, asking you the difficult but necessary questions that you need along the way.

Leaders are readers

US President Harry Truman noted that great leaders explore widely and reading is one of the key mechanisms for doing this. Today, with the internet, much is available online and for free. Once you have created your plan, explore the internet to see what resources are available to support you. THNK also offers resources on the topic of creative leadership.

As we approach the end of the second decade of the 21st century, Africa has everything going for it: a young, vibrant and entrepreneurial population, ever strengthening public institutions and rapidly growing economies to mention just a few things. Whether Africa realizes its full potential will ultimately be decided by today’s generation of leaders, and the mark that they leave on our continent.

To develop the skills you need to become a 21st-century leader, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.