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Mar 11, 2005 - the process and impact of the InterAction leadership programme ..... is a leader, but we have different roles” (Male, Marketing Manager, Zambia). ..... knowledge that can inform leadership development in Africa, ubuntu offers a ...

African Leadership: Insights, Meanings, and Connotations Philip Kirk, University of the West of England, UK, and Richard Bolden, University of Exeter, UK. Paper to be presented at Leadership and Management Studies in Sub-Sahara Africa 2006 Conference, Zanzibar, Tanzania, 26-28 June 2006 INTRODUCTION This paper provides an account of insights, meanings and connotations about leadership in Africa. The ideas presented are based on our research with a cohort of 300 African leaders from 19 sub-Sahara countries participating in a pan-African leadership development programme. Our intention, through this paper, is to contribute to the debate about the role of leadership for social change in Africa. A Renaissance of African Leadership? In recent years there has been a call for an “African renaissance”, whereby Africans are urged “to be true to themselves” (Louw, 2002:14), to liberate themselves from colonial and postcolonial thinking and to re-engage with African values (Koka, 1997; Mbigi, 2000; Mulemfo, 2000; Teffo, 1997). This call emphasizes the importance of education and of the development of indigenous knowledge, as Tahbo Mbeki, the President of South Africa, stated in his recent address to the Association of African Universities conference: “Education has an important role to play in the economic, cultural and political renaissance of our continent and in the drive for the development of indigenous knowledge systems. This implies that all educational curricula should have Africa as their focus, and as a result be indigenous in its grounding and orientation. To address this state of affairs we need a distinctly African knowledge system” (Mbeki, 2005) At the heart of this movement is a call for leadership, a leadership that is distinctively African and that is suited to the epoch. As Festus Obiakor, observes: “Theories of effective African-centred leadership must be taught in African schools from pre-kindergarten to university levels. Africans need African-centred leaders and not European-centred leaders. African-centred education is the key to building patriotic African leadership” (Obiakor, 2005: 417). Leadership is thus seen as a catalyst for social change and transformation, but only where it is deeply rooted in African concepts of identity and community (Mbigi and Maree, 1995; Olojede, 2005; Prinsloo, 2000). The call then is to develop a body of indigenous knowledge about African leadership: a body of knowledge that could become the basis for the development of a new generation of leaders whose purpose is to transform Africa not into something that it isn’t but into what it could be; from an Africa perceived as in some way deficient (the “begging bowl” of the world) to one which celebrates the majesty of Africa. In effect, to address the “moral crisis” faced by African society that “comes from the fact that Africans have shifted away from their own value system and the moral values that go with it, to other value systems underpinned by other metaphysical foundations” (Ntibagirirwa, 2003).


Whilst we, the co-authors of this paper, are wholly sympathetic to this aspiration, it does raise some challenging questions for us as researchers: ƒ

Firstly, from an ontological perspective, how confident can we be in any body of knowledge (whether African or other) about a concept as elusive as “leadership”? Different schools of thought (modernist, post-modernist, and social constructionist) reach fundamentally different conclusions about this, as discussed later.


Secondly, from an epistemological perspective, are ways of knowing about leadership ‘gatherable’ and open to representation? From a methodological perspective, can such ways of knowing (experiential, presentational, propositional, and practical (Heron and Reason, 2001)) be gathered in a way that is functional without being reductionist? In selecting and de-selecting from the gathered ideas about leadership (many of which may be inherently conflicting) with the aim of producing a synthesis that informs action we will inevitably give precedence to some voices over others. The process of editing, whilst pragmatic and well-intentioned, is ultimately political: we chose (whether intentionally or unintentionally) to include or exclude on the basis of our own preferences.


And thirdly, is the notion of “African leadership” even useful or meaningful? Given the vastness of the continent, with its diverse cultures and histories, is the term “African leadership” actually likely to hide more than it reveals?

With these questions in mind, our approach was to listen to the voices and experiences of Africans themselves in the telling of their stories about leadership, and their experiences of leadership development. This paper presents insights that have emerged from our research with 300 African leaders on a year long pan-African leadership development programme; men and women from across sub-Saharan Africa and all spheres of activity. The thoughts and ideas presented about leadership are thus rooted in the experiences of practicing African leaders. At a time when the social, educational and political context of Africa is calling for the use of indigenous theory in leadership development we believe the insights provided by the participants in this research will add a timely contribution to the thinking and practice of leadership in Africa. That the insights about leadership reported here come from personal stories is important. But it is not just that these are personal stories; their value is that they “occur in the relationship between the individuals and their environments” (Murphy and Ivinson, 2003:5, our emphasis). In other words, they are set in a context which incorporates the physical, historical, political, cultural and social environment; thereby giving the resultant knowledge (or “knowings”) a socio-cultural rather than simply personal perspective. RESEARCH CONTEXT The authors were commissioned by the British Council as independent researchers to explore the process and impact of the InterAction leadership programmei, which seeks to transform Africa in a manner wholly aligned with the idea of an African renaissance as outlined in the introduction and the UK Commission for Africa (2005). The programme was developed out of a long process of consultation and discussion with partners in Africa and the UK that resulted in a set of guiding passions, principles and assumptions (see Table 1).


6 Passions (1) Africa (2) Age (3) Gender (4) Community (5) Leadership (6) Me

7 Principles (1) Africa for Africa through collaboration (2) Appreciation, good will & good intent (3) The power of questions (4) Exploiting the magic of difference (5) Inviting & working with chaos & order to allow great things to emerge (6) Enabling people to do great work (7) Working towards congruence

8 Assumptions (1) In every organisation something works (2) What we focus on becomes our reality (3) Reality is created in the moment and there are multiple realities (4) The language we use creates our reality (5) The act of asking questions to an organisation influences that organisation (6) It is important to value differences (7) People have more confidence to journey to the future when they carry forward parts of the past (8) If we carry parts of the past forward, they should be the best about the past

Table 1 - Guiding philosophy of the InterAction leadership development programmeii. It can be seen, therefore, that the programme placed a strong emphasis on appreciative inquiryiii, African identity and leadership within a community context. The programme itself comprised a series of residential events including: selection, in-country launch, pan-African events, Module 1 in country, Module 2 in country and Module 3 in country. Throughout, an emphasis was placed on discursive, experiential learning with limited formal input. The intention was that participants and facilitators were equals (there were no “experts”), and the main programme was preceded by a process of facilitator development so that each country had their own African facilitator to deliver and co-ordinate sessions. An underlying principle was that this was to be a programme for Africans by Africans. Our aim as researchers was to hear and report the meanings that these African leaders attached to leadership. The intention was, therefore, not to generate an “objective” representation of the “truth” or “reality” of leadership in the contexts to be explored, but rather to create some compelling, engaging and occasionally competing accounts that could be shared so as to encourage further reflection and discussion. Methodology Our research took a narrative and action research approach to exploring the impact of the InterAction leadership programme both in terms of the manner in which it facilitates the emergence of new concepts of leadership in Africa and how it impacts upon the communities in which the participants engage. The research is distinct from the more formal programme evaluation conducted by the British Council and partners, by the way in which it considers leadership within the broader social context within which individuals live and work, rather than being exclusively concerned with the process and content of the programme. The InterAction programme was thus conceived of as providing a framework within which they developed and explored their understandings and practice of leadership in their different communities, but to which they each brought a whole host of personal factors (such as past experience, personal circumstances, age, gender, etc.) that helped shape their process of engagement.


Our research approach was to engage with participants (and other stakeholders) in the programme as co-inquirers into the meanings they were attaching to the notion of leadership and how they enacted these meanings, as leaders, to bring about wider social impact within their communities. The research methods were designed to draw on (and triangulate where possible) a range of data collection methods (including participant observation, individual and group conversations/interviews during and after the programme, an online survey, community visits, and analysis of secondary materials) that would enable an inductive understanding of the manner in which the programme facilitates new ways of thinking about and enacting leadership. The rich and diverse body of data called for a variety of analysis methods. The primary mechanism, in the spirit of action research, however was an inductive, qualitative approach whereby the researchers immersed themselves in the observations and narrative accounts, letting patterns, concepts and ideas emerge over time and then shared these with other stakeholders. As such, the research process can be considered as one of provocative social construction, whereby the researchers, in collaboration with other actors in the research process, constructed and challenged varying representations and interpretations of the data over timeiv. We were mindful throughout that thoughts about leadership drawn from personal experience do not come ready made, pre-formed, just waiting to be offered in neat sentences at research interviews. Images about leadership emerge from and through conversations; in the telling of the stories (Chia, 2000; Czarniawska, 2003); or as Shamir (2005: 491) argues “life stories are social reality” (initial emphasis). THEORETICAL CONTEXT In order to reveal the distinctiveness of the African stories collected during this research it is useful to contrast them to Western conceptions of leadership, looking for potential areas of connection and difference. As indicated in the introduction, leadership in the Western literature continues to be a contested idea and we will now briefly consider the competing perspectives (and agendas) of the modernist, post-modernist and social constructionist. 1) Establishing the ‘true’ nature of leadership: a modernist perspective The most prominent approach to the field of leadership studies has been concerned with establishing the true nature of leadership. Different people (for example Horner, 1997; Tirmizi, 2002; Yukl, 1999; Bolden, 2004) have reviewed the extensive range of leadership studies over the last century, largely concluding that these studies have approached the phenomenon of ‘leadership’ as: − Attributional: locating leadership in the personal behaviours and characteristics of the leader. Among these approaches are trait theories, theories about the styles and behaviours of leaders, the competencies leaders should have, whether they should be exercising transactional, transformational or servant leadership. − Relational: locating leadership in the relationship between leader and followers. These include leader-member exchange theory, distributed leadership, and social identity theory. − Contextual: matching leadership style to the context in which it occurs. For example contingency theory, situational leadership, action-centred leadership. What all these approaches have in common is their aim to identify key factors involved in leadership and to see how these factors relate to one another in the provision of effective leadership. The premise is that if we can understand leadership better we can provide better


leadership. Each successive study seeks, as in the children’s game of “tailing the donkey”, to offer a contribution that completes the picture. The participants in the “tailing the donkey” game are blindfolded, and pencil-in-hand, place a mark on a paper on which there is a picture of a tailless donkey. The one whose mark is nearest to the rump of the donkey wins! The fact that the game is played blindfolded is ironic given the next approach considers that the search for a true meaning of leadership is illusory. 2) The myth of leadership: a post-modernist perspective A second approach to leadership studies is to consider leadership as “an alienating social myth” (Gemill and Oakley, 1992) that is created and maintained to serve a political purpose. In the view of the critical-theorist, academics and practitioners given to capitalist ideologies create and perpetuate the idea of leadership to establish an organising principle which maintains power imbalances in work organisations and other social systems. By creating a dependency culture the many non-leaders (“followers”) become compliant to the demands of the “leader” and resistance is minimised (Grey and Willmott, 2005). In this perspective the search for the truth about leadership, the discovery of the essence of leadership, would be seen as simply illusory. It is like hunting for the Abominable Snowman, or the Holy Grail – a quest that is doomed to failure. This view would say that whilst there are many descriptions offered about what leadership is, these are just a façade, rather like a richly gilded sarcophagus lid which, when lifted, reveals an empty tomb (Alvesson and Sveningsson, 2003; Wood, 2005). This perspective states that we construct the notion of leadership because it serves someone’s interest to do so. It is the reverse of the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes where the Emperor believed he was wearing a most wonderfully tailored suit of clothes, when in fact he had been duped by a crafty tailor and was instead naked. In this case the clothes (mantles) of the Emperor leader are real, but underneath the clothes there is no Emperor. Alvesson and Sveningsson (2003), for example, question the existence of leadership beyond the attributions or discourse (language use) arguing that “thinking about leadership needs to take seriously the possibility of the non-existence of leadership as a distinct phenomena” (p.359). 3) The way leadership is constructed matters: a social constructionist perspective In this view whether leadership exists or not as an ontological debate is sterile. We can become preoccupied with discussions that take us away from the real issues that matter to people; their health, security, welfare for example. The operational truth is what matters. How people conceive of leadership affects how social systems operate and as a consequence affects the well-being of the social system and the people in it (Smircich and Morgan, 1982). It becomes important to know in given cultures what notions about leadership exist and how it impacts that system. It will affect, at all levels of analysis, the interactions between people, the distribution of resources, and decision making processes. This is so at the national level in terms of how nations are governed, and it is true in much smaller social units, such as how members of a family operate. In this view leadership is a social construction (Schall et al, 2006), and it becomes important to know the workings of social constructions to raise critical consciousness in order to effect beneficial social change (Freire, 1969). Grint (2000) proposes such a perspective when arguing for a “constitutive theory” of leadership whereby leadership “is a performance not a recipe; it is an invention not a discovery” (p. 417). Such a perspective neither accepts nor rejects the existence of “leadership” but simply reminds us that the majority, if not all, of what leadership is or appears to be is a subjective construction. Leaders and followers (and others) construct the


circumstances that enable the recognition of “leadership” and hence its utility within the social system. We operate from this perspective, although would tend to direct our attention to the leadership processes of the collective rather than the construction of the individual leader (Gergen, 1999; Drath, 2001). What people think about leadership undoubtedly affects their lives and their interactions with others and this, in turn, impacts the entire system. Whether or not these interactions and impacts are ultimately beneficial, detrimental or irrelevant is fundamentally down to how they are conceived by the various actors. If the leadership of a social system emerges out of the interactions between its members, then by developing a capacity for critical inquiry into those interactions, members of that social system are better able to shape the kinds of leadership they are creating. For this reason leadership development must incorporate a reflexive process of awareness-raising. As Clifford Geertz (1973) has said, we are all caught in webs of meaning that we ourselves have spun. RESEARCH OUTCOMES As indicated above, our operating assumption for this research is that leadership is a social construction: meanings of leadership and identities of leaders emerge out of the interactions of people in their communities (Griffin, 2002:195). It follows from this that the participants’ understandings about leadership have been socially constructed over time, through their interactions with people in different life communities, both past and present. This of course includes the experiences and learning gained as participants of the InterAction leadership programme. It is possible therefore, that participants carry several mental models of leadership in their heads (and hearts), and that these models co-exist with different concepts coming to the fore and operating in different domains of life. It may however also be that the process of constructing new models of leadership involves the incorporation, moderation or rejection of older ones, and as a result, at any period of a person’s life a dominant meaning of leadership holds. In this section we present the main findings from our research under the headings of connotations and meanings of African leadership. In each case, as predicted above, we noticed multiple and competing conceptions layered one upon the other. Connotations of African Leadership As indicated in the introduction, given the vastness of the continent and the immense national, tribal, ethnic and religious diversity it is possible that the term “African Leadership” may too broad in its ontological assumptions to say anything much about “leadership”, let alone any sense of a distinctively “African” leadership. Despite this, however, we did find that for the participants engaged in this programme, one ultimately designed to encourage collective social action, the term did evoke some clear responses. For almost half of the respondents to the online survey (n=70) the concept of “African leadership” provoked a primarily positive reaction, reflecting a sense of pride about what Africa is; what Africans have done and what they can do as leaders. “African leadership” was for them about being engaged together as Africans in a stirring enterprise whose time had come. It was, for these people, a term evoking pride and optimism, and was often contrasted with previous negative images of corrupt and self-centred leadership. “Africa is part of the world, and the new wind of leadership that is democratic encourages participation and guarantees the rights and freedoms of its citizenry has become the order of the day. The days where African leadership was a replete of 6

abuse of power are fast giving way to a more participatory process where every citizen has a stake in how the state is governed.” (Male, Development Worker, Ghana) For about a third of respondents, the term “African Leadership” evoked primarily negative connotations. For these, the concept was associated with national political leadership and with despotic power hungry leaders who had used their positions for personal gain, and were frequently unwilling to let go of power. They were sensitive to the negative image it conjured in their minds, and many felt that it represented one side only. There were examples of excellent political (and non-political) leaders and that the opportunity for a new approach was there to be seized by a new generation of leaders who were more in tune with the needs and aspirations of a people who were themselves politically demanding as citizens. For these the acknowledgement of past problems represented a realism which would fuel a more positive future. In one case the question itself was considered inappropriate and “African leadership” was considered to be a pejorative term with racially or continentally discriminatory roots. The remainder of respondents were relatively neutral, seeing African leadership as the same as elsewhere. Comments such as “leadership is non nationalistic” and “leadership is leadership – anywhere” were typical. Some, though, while embracing this universal concept of leadership also spoke of the distinctiveness of the African context and the need for leaders to be alert to “the peculiarities of their communities”. As one succinctly put it, “leadership is generic; it only has to be applied in context”. One thing that clearly emerges, however, is that the connotations of “African Leadership” are fundamentally emotive. It may cause people to be rightly wary of the importation of other models of leadership, which may be neo-colonialist by intent or effect, or indeed wary of the suggestion that outside models are superior in any way and that ‘African leadership’ through its naming is ‘othered’. For the majority of participants, however, the term carries a positive ring, an endorsement of Africans who provide leadership in an Africa in which they take pride. A more geographically located statement like “Leadership in Africa” is certainly more neutral than “African leadership” which suggests leadership that resides in, and is owned by Africans. It will provoke less emotion, and that may be its strength, but for the same reason it may also be its weakness. What is also striking is how the concept of “African leadership” is also fundamentally conceived of in tension – the past experience and current reality may be negative but the hopes and aspirations are positive. Connecting with a wider “Africa” was generally a new but highly inspirational concept to participants. The implications of these findings in the context of the development of indigenous leadership knowledge are considered later in the discussion section of the paper. Meanings of African Leadership When going beyond the connotations of African leadership to consider how it is understood by participants and what it means to them three principle themes emerge: holding the tensions, shedding unhelpful past images, and constructing new identities as leaders. Holding the tensions One of the most important findings from this part of the enquiry is that multiple meanings and interpretations are frequently held by the same individual(s) and can co-exist with varying degrees of comfort and discomfort. These conflicting meanings can arise from a variety of sources, including the impact of historical, cultural, social, political and psychological factors. Colonial history and the experiences of decolonisation (all through


political struggle, several through armed struggle), for example, have shaped leadership thinking at a national level. Traditional cultures, including religion, have been important local influencing factors in gender and age role constructions. Urbanisation, and with it education, the media and the Internet, inevitably clashed with local traditional cultural influences, often weakening them. An example is the tension between the power of community (the ‘ubuntu’ factor) and the power of position (the status/charismatic factor). For individuals, leadership development, in the absence of any single leadership narrative, has been about finding, or rather forging, among the competing influences, a leadership path that works for them. Jackson (2004) proposes that recognising and engaging meaningfully with these “integrating” and “disintegrating” dynamics is essential to understanding management and leadership in Africa: “Africa’s history, even before the slave trade, is one of cross-cultural interaction and often antagonistic dynamics (…), normally within systems of power relations (…). Modern organisations in Africa still contain these diverse cultural elements: ideas and practices as well as people. Not only is an understanding of these dynamics necessary, but also a reconciling, integrating and synergising of disparities contained within dynamics are (sic) essential to management and organisation development efforts in Africa.” (Jackson, 2004, p.3) Shedding past images of leadership Through life experience as well as the experience of the InterAction leadership programme participants have come to an emerging clarity about the nature of leadership. Interestingly, this seems to come most often out of a process of rejecting what they have experienced as the shortcomings of previously held notions of leadership. Life experience has, at different stages, added new layers of meaning about leadership. Leadership learning has been about unlearning, about working out which of these images of leadership are helpful and which should be discarded (in effect moving from disintegration to integration). So for them it was rather like peeling away layers of the onion. Participants did this in their frequent expressions of what for them leadership is ‘not’. In this way it seems that the emerging view of leadership which they express is grounded in the realities of their experiences. The process of sifting through their experience has resulted in participants rejecting past images of leadership which for them were negative, exclusive and inhibiting and, instead embracing a more affirmative, inclusive and “life giving" view. Table 2 captures these shifting perceptions and understandings.


FROM Leadership is................. Intimidating and inaccessible Beyond my capability

TO Leadership is .............. Desirable and possible for me Possible within the capacities I have and the tools I have learnt on InterAction Inclusive (for women too, for young people too, for anyone) In touch with what is happening For people in all positions in all different life communities Being who and what you are with the help of others About connected networks of people working together Mobilising power in the community About beneficial social change, it is about humanity About building the capacity to influence from where you are About connecting About engaging chaos and complexity to create new and good things A challenge for us together. Change is possible and it starts with me. It energises and mobilises me Personal and predispositional About being genuinely authentic Inter-connectedness and inter-dependence; individuals in their communities About having conversations About the leader providing an environment which enables others to achieve as well About conveying meaning and possibility

Exclusive (for men, for elders, for the select few) Theoretical (aloof) For senior people usually in politics or in work organisations Being the best About heroic individuals Being obsessed by personal power About personal gain Influencing from the position of authority in the hierarchy About dictating About order and control Too big a challenge for me. Immobilises me.

Positional About being structural Individualistic About setting rules About the leader achieving About conveying disconnected information Table 2 – Changing meanings about leadership Constructing new identities as leaders

Establishing new working meanings about the notion of leadership enabled the participants in this study to reconstruct their identity as leaders, and indeed their behaviour (given the premise that how we see ourselves affects how we act), as the following examples illustrate: Everyone has a part to play in leadership: -

“Everyone is a leader, but we have different roles” (Male, Marketing Manager, Zambia).


“I previously thought of leadership as political, e.g. the President. Now I see everyone is a leader, mother, father, etc. even if they don’t necessarily know it ... you can do it at any level” (Female, Customer Sales Manager, Zambia).


“So I came to see first you can be a leader anywhere. And everyone can be a leader because everyone has some areas of competence. And second once you understand


yourself and know you have certain capacities of leadership and you can’t have all of them, you can walk anywhere, you can lead anywhere, anytime, it’s just a question of getting to know what kind of tools you can use at what time: you need to understand yourself” (Male, Political Science Student and Community worker, Tanzania) For these participants, exercising one’s capacity to change a system for the better is conceived of as a leadership act, and such actions are possible from any position or role in that system. This is not to deny power imbalances but to deny that leadership can only be exercised by the powerful. Leadership is relational: -

“Do I see myself as a leader now? Yes. Yes. I have noticed that you can never think you are settled as a leader. You have to go back to listen to the community, to analyse, to ask them what they want you to do for them, not what you want to do for them” (Female, Artist and Assistant University Lecturer, Tanzania).

When leadership is seen as a relational process with one’s community, rather than having all the answers for the community, then for this woman it becomes possible for her to see herself as a leader and it provides an understand of how continuing interaction with her communities was crucial to enacting the role. Leadership is a choice: -

“I used to see leadership as someone in authority, my headmistress, my principal, all these kinds of people. I began to realise that I too could be a leader, of me, of my own life. I can also have the ability to be a leader in the community in which I am living” (Female, Legal Officer, Tanzania).

In this reconstruction, the choice is not whether one is a leader or not. The choice is whether one exercises leadership in the leadership position everyone has. A common feature of all these examples is that participants came to embrace a leadership identity for themselves irrespective of whether they held formal leadership roles or not: if you are a member of a social system you have a leadership role to play! DISCUSSION We have indicated how the concept of “African leadership” holds multiple and conflicting meanings and connotations and how engagement in a leadership development process can facilitate a re-evaluation of these. In this section of the paper we will consider the implications and lessons of these insights. 1) African leadership development involves integrating meaning and identity What emerges from the research is that leadership development in the experience of these participants has been much more than internalising prescribed models or principles of leadership. By having the opportunity to go through a reflective process of personal inquiry, of working out their own meanings of leadership from experience in their different life roles, participants developed an enduring sense of personal identity as leaders. This suggests that an important part of the leadership development process is to provide participants with the opportunity to engage in the task of integrating meaning and identity. Becoming aware of the wider body of thinking about leadership, such as the principles, passions and assumptions, which provided the theoretical framework for the InterAction programme as we saw earlier in Table 1, is important. The programme however experientially provided participants with the


opportunity to achieve a fit between the image they had of leadership and the image they had of themselves. It was when participants were able to establish this fit, to embody in themselves the meaning of leadership they had developed, they were more equipped to take up their leadership roles in life: at work, in the home and in the community. At this point their conceptions of leadership, self and community converged. We have seen too that the need to work at finding convergence between meaning and identity is a continuing one as contexts and roles in life change. Such reworking requires reflexivity, a capacity to critically reflect on experiences of the past as well as experiences in the moment. Changing contexts and changing interactions disturb our settled notions of leadership and of ourselves too. They have to be reworked continually in the dynamics of our interactions. It is through this reworking that we become able to take up our leadership roles with sufficient clarity, confidence and authority. If the aim then is to develop leadership capacity in participants, there should be opportunity for participants to: 1) explore and develop the leadership meanings they hold through life experiences (“What meanings/confusions about ‘leadership’ are around for me?”); 2) explore and develop the images they have of themselves as leaders: their self-identity as leaders (“Do I see myself as a ‘leader’?”); 3) find ways of integrating meaning and identity in a good enough way that allows them to exercise leadership. The process of integrating meaning and identity is worked out in the context of the interactions between the participants and the people who make up their life communities. This applies of course to the leadership development workshops themselves. Meaning making and identity creation are relational processes, never solely acts of personal agency, and like all relational processes, they are shaped by the political and power dynamics at work between the people involved, all with their own histories, cultures and private agendas. Being alert to such dynamics requires a capacity for spirited inquiry, which is crucial to leadership development. 2) African leadership is associated with the concepts of agency and role taking The second insight is the re-conception of leadership so that the term becomes rooted in the concept of “agency”, which may be described as purposeful and transformational engagement by people with the communities in which they live. In the context of development, Paolo Freire talks about the capacity for people not just to adapt to the reality of their environments but also to engage with their environments to transform that reality (Freire, 1969:4). To exercise agency as a ‘citizen’ of one’s workplace, local or national community, is thus to exercise one’s leadership. It is in this sense that the word ‘agency’ is used here. The impact of associating leadership with agency is profound in that it: •

extends and opens up the notion of leadership to a wider range of people, not simply people with designated leadership roles such as Chief Executives, but to all people associated with the enterprise;

extends the notion of leadership beyond the usual areas associated with leadership, for example politics or work organisations, to a wider range of life communities such as the family and neighbourhood communities.


Whether we think of individual or collective leadership, the incorporation of agency into the concept of leadership radicalises leadership and makes the concept less narrow and restricted. It suggests taking up leadership of one’s life in pro-active ways. Exercising such leadership from one’s different roles in life can be contrasted to an abnegation of leadership characterised in the term ‘acedia’ (without hope). Figure 1 illustrates this:

The decision to take up a leadership role AGENCY ‘Can do’, want to do, want to make a difference for the better Active engagement

ACEDIA Anomie, alienation, loss of heart, hope and will. Passive, disengaged.

Leadership in a community or enterprise is the exercise of agency by its members.

Figure 1 - Leadership and agency in social systems Agency thus energises and releases leadership. It suggests a distribution of leadership in a system that is exercised by all members of that system, including of course those who have formal and designated leadership roles. In the sense it is used here, distributed leadership is not an alternative to hierarchical leadership, but is a leadership that operates within existing formal leadership arrangements; as Spillane et al. (2004) argue leadership is “stretched over” the situation. It works simultaneously with “concentrated” and “dispersed” leadership in the same system, or to put it in African terms, there is a need to work with the paradox of the twin realities of ‘Ubuntu’ and ‘The Monarch Chief’ (Chiwanga, 1993). The monarch chief provides an important symbolic role in holding together a space (the village boundary or the work organisation) and the idea of the village or the organisation (what it represents in its values and its aspirations). People with formal system-wide leadership roles such as these have a vital role to play. They interpret the desires and hopes of the communities they are charged to lead. In these ways their role is to hold and manage the boundary of the village or the organisation in the wider environment. The leader thus serves the institution she or he leads by being “the focal point of the whole community, building that community, holding it together, animating it to action, signifying its unity, enabling it to function”, in effect not just a figurehead, but a physical embodiment of what the community stands for. Chiwanga argues for the mhuduma (servant) role of a leader in liberating the rest of the community to carry out their leadership roles. In this way he says the community or enterprise begins to build, “a common memory, a common praxis, and a common hope” (Chiwanga, 1993: 304). To use the metaphor of warp and weft of leadership, the formal designated leaders in carrying out their functions as described above provide the warp, and the members of the enterprise,


based on their membership not hierarchy or status, exercise their leadership: the weft of community leadership. In taking up their individual roles community members exercise individual leadership, and as they take up their roles in relation to each other they provide collective or “system” leadership (Kirk, 2004). 3) African leadership is rooted in African social values A third insight is that leadership is rooted in the values of the society in which it occurs. A majority of the research participants spoke of the positive aspect of “African leadership”, set in African values. As one participant (a manager involved in community development work with vulnerable and disadvantaged children and youth orphaned by HIV/Aids) put it: “Yes, there is a lot more to African Leadership than the general term ‘leadership’.... Africans have great stories on leadership; above all we have one thing no one can take away from us, that is the spirit of “ubuntu”... (Female, Manager, South Africa). It is widely acknowledged in the academic literature that “effective leadership processes must reflect the culture in which they are found” (Dorfman et al., 2006: 242). If leadership is a phenomenon set in a particular culture and context, is there a distinctive feature about leadership in Africa that distinguishes it from leadership in any other part of the world, say American leadership or Asian leadership? One view is simply to acknowledge the vastness of the continent of Africa, covering 20% of the world mass, with a population of 900 million, speaking over 2000 languages, in 53 countries, all with their own beliefs, different traditions and histories, and to accept that the notion of a distinctiveness that embraces the whole continent is unrealistic. If so, then we must inevitably reach the conclusion that the term “African leadership” is not in any meaningful sense useful for developing leadership in Africa. And yet the participant in her quote above expresses an alternative perspective. It is one that points to the spirit of community. It is known by different names in Africa, but the most well known is ubuntu, which in this view represents a common social reality across sub-Saharan Africa. Ubuntu envisages individuals and community as a relational entity, each giving value, purpose and identity to the other. In this perspective the individual and the community are truly recognised in their inter-relatedness. In a Winicottian sense they are defined in their relatedness. Does ubuntu, provide Africans who want to develop a new generation of leadership in Africa with a distinctive social value that can properly and helpfully be called African leadership? To answer this we need to ask whether Africans see ubuntu as something more than a romanticised notion, one that puts a communal gloss on unequal relations between people masking real power and resource inequalities. And even if the ontology of ubuntu can be established as a distinctive social value, can it truly be seen as a feature of social life across the continent? The answer to both these questions given by participants on the InterAction leadership programme is yes. Symphorien Ntibagirirwa (2003) urges Africa to return to what he calls “the African value system”, which is grounded in the Bantu ontology or notion of being, which we paraphrase here as selves in community or ubuntu. He concedes that while this value system has been generalised to all Sub-Saharan Africa (a view he holds) others, he says, may see this as being limited to the Bantu people who are mostly found in Africa south of the Equator.


How then is this communitarian value system conceived, and what implications for leadership in such a value system? Louw (2002: 1) cites the 1997 South African Government White Paper on Social Welfare official recognition of Ubuntu as: “The principle of caring for each other’s well-being ...and a spirit of mutual support ... Each individual’s humanity is ideally expressed through his or her relationship with others and theirs in turn through a recognition of the individual’s humanity. It also recognises both the rights and the responsibilities of every citizen in promoting individual and societal well-being” ( The basic idea of this value system is that the human being is a community being, who without losing personal identity or morality, finds her or his identity and ways of being, in relationships with others. This relationship does not imply that the individual is swallowed up by the community, for Louw (2002:10) ubuntu is not “an oppressive collectivism or communalism”, on the contrary, ubuntu accommodates diversity in community (Ndaba, 1994:14). “Ubuntu dictates that, if we [are] to be human, we need to recognise the genuine otherness of our fellow citizens” (Louw, 2002:8). If ubuntu is not the swallowing up of the individual by the community, neither is it the negation of the community in a frenzy of individualism. The Cartesian conception of the detached individual who “exist(s) prior to, or separately and independently from the rest of community or society” (Louw, 2002:8), is at odds with ubuntu. In ubuntu, individuals and community find their ends and means, their being and their doing, in their interactions. In Ntibagirirwa’s (2003) advocacy for a return to the African value system, it is the notion of ubuntu that holds the paradox of individual and community in dynamic and inter-dependent tension. This represents a real alternative, an African alternative, to the twin dangers of the subjugation of the individual to the collective (experienced in oppressive communism), and the detached super-ordinacy of the individual (a competitive individualism antithetical to society). But isn’t this all overly optimistic? Many life experiences related by our participants point to a reality of negative leadership experiences that are light years away from the idealised notion of ubuntu. The task is the conversion of principle to practice. For African leadership development many authors have agued the case for ubuntu (Mbigi & Maree, 1995; Louw, 2002; Ntibagirirwa, 2003; Prinsloo, 2000; Chiwanga, 1995). In the search for indigenous knowledge that can inform leadership development in Africa, ubuntu offers a positive idea that is known and valued by people from diverse backgrounds. It is a connecting idea that has a long and cherished heritage and lives in the collective consciousness (Prinsloo, 2000:278) and perhaps the collective unconscious too. The task perhaps for African leadership development is to take the principle, the spirit of ubuntu, relate it to the reality of people’s experience, and explore ways of translating it into the practice of effective transforming leadership in particular social contexts. For this to happen, the idea of ubuntu needs to have hooks, theoretical and practical, and it is hoped that the observations presented and the insights above may provide such hooks. In the section on Research Outcomes we give accounts of how participants have sought to reframe their thinking and practice of leadership in ways that are consistent with the principles of ubuntu. For leadership development in Africa, as a principle alone, ubuntu cannot be the answer, but it can be a most effective starting point and guiding principle for inquiry as African leaders seek to explore the implications of the ubuntu principle in their enactment of leadership. This is both ubuntu’s limitation and its extraordinary value.


CONCLUSION In this final section of the paper we consider the implications of these meanings, connotations and insights for the development of a body of leadership theory and evidence of practical value to Africa and beyond. It is well documented that cultural differences greatly influence social values and behaviours and thus habitual, desirable and effective forms of leadership (e.g. House et al., 2004; Hofstede, 2001; Trompernaars, 1993). Likewise, many authors (e.g. Blunt and Jones, 1997; Wheatley, 2001; Jackson, 2004) have highlighted the manner in which Western management and leadership theory may represent a new form of colonialism - enforcing and reinforcing ways of thinking and acting that are rooted in North American and European ideologies whilst representing others as “under-developed”. Whilst such points argue against the blanket implementation of universalistic models of leadership and leadership development and demand sensitivity to cultural contingencies we would warn against a wholesale shift to particularistic models that are considered only of value within very specific contexts. Thus, the search for an “African” theory of leadership clearly needs to take into account indigenous and regionally-specific knowledge but if, in doing so, non-African ideas are negated then the resultant learning will be severely impoverished. The extent to which leadership theory is context-general or context-specific is a moot point and beyond the scope of this paper; the question leadership development must address, however, is that in valuing indigenous knowledge must we presume that there is no value in learning from others from different contexts? In a study of two Western and three Asian cultures Dorfman et al. (2006) found support for Bass’s (1990) and Bond and Smith’s (1996) contention regarding the validity of both “universal” and “culturally-specific” perspectives. They argue that “the similarities and differences between cultures can be meaningfully integrated within contemporary theoretical frameworks and simultaneously make sense for the specific cultures under study” (Dorfman et al., 2006: 250, 252). We concur. Our view is that it is never wise to throw the baby out with the bathwater. While we have to be aware of the deleterious effect of forcing and perpetuating a hegemonic pedagogy, and while we recognise the need and value of indigenous knowledge, at a very real level we are a connected people across the globe and it seems a shame to discount the value of learning from one another; across cultures in the same country, across countries within a continent, and across continents. The story of the Ganma metaphor is briefly retold below to celebrate the fact that mutual learning can come through engagement of different traditions, and to be cautious too about the nature of that learning. The indigenous people of Australia, aware that importing knowledge can become a form of neo-colonialism, nonetheless speak of the value of the waters from internal rivers (indigenous knowledge) and those of the wider oceans (other knowledge) coming together in a confluence that produces new knowledge seen as a foam they call ganma. For them ganma has a special value; all can learn from it. Ganma they say however is not to be captured: try to capture the foam in our hands and it evaporates. It is only through the simple act of gently holding out our hand to connect with the foam that it will linger, revealing itself to us. Held lightly we become aware of it and its value (Pyrch and Castillo, 2001). The ganma metaphor teaches the co-authors of this paper the need for humility, of the need to present our insights about leadership in Africa respectfully and lightly. We thus offer them


for reflection and consideration, but not as definitive statements. They will be useful for those interested in inquiry, not in set piece answers. As two Western researchers we are aware of the how our own identities and histories can impact the research. We have sought to be clear about our own agendas in the process. We wish to play a part in facilitating the storytelling by Africans about African leadership. The process, we have been told by research participants, has been developmental for them as leaders (as it has for us as researchers and human beings). In addition, the ideas that emerge from their stories we believe will make a timely contribution to the development of leadership thinking and practice for other leaders in Africa. It is sometimes necessary to travel 3,000 miles away from one’s own culture to understand that culture a little better. So, for us these stories of leadership in Africa may also provide insights into how leadership theory and practice can be developed in the UK, US and elsewhere outside of Africa. As such, we hesitate to label what we have observed as “African leadership”, in the fear that by doing so we may alienate and disengage those who are not “African” and those who do not see “Africa” as directly relevant to them. But likewise, we are also certain that what we have seen is fundamentally African – the authenticity, vibrancy and passion speak directly of African humanist principles yet if, as we proposed earlier, leadership is a social construction then it remains within the reach of anyone (regardless of their nationality) to engage in the forms of leadership we have discussed. A final comment we wish to make is that as action researchers, who recognise the myth of positivist paradigms that purport impartiality and researcher ‘objectivity’ in the study of social systems, we, the research initiators, have worked collaboratively with participants in collecting and interpreting the ‘data’. In doing so we acknowledge that who we are inevitably affects the research process and the interpretations we draw from it. The ideas in this paper therefore represent a point on a journey of inquiry (rather than the end) about leadership development in Africa. We hope they will add to the conversation on that journey and encourage further exploration and dialogue amongst fellow travellers.

Notes: i

This programme was sponsored by the British Council, through money from a Spending Review bid from the British Treasury, and delivered in partnership with Questions of Difference (QoD) and LEAD International. We would like to acknowledge the contribution and support of all those who have assisted us in the course of this research. ii Please note that the passions and principles were developed by Questions of Difference in conjunction with the African partners and remain the intellectual property of QoD. The eight assumptions are based on Cooperider’s assumptions of Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider, and Srivastva, 1987). iii See Cooperrider and Srivastva, 1987 for a theoretical overview and White and Nemeroff, 2005 for an example of its application in South Africa. iv See Bolden and Kirk (2005) for further details of the research method.


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