Leadership And Entrepreneurship In Africa

Inspired by Thomas Wedellsborg’s podcast “The Secret to Better Problem Solving” we recently hosted an internal workshop about problem reframing. After hearing some of his insights we realised that this method could be applied to the way we think within our own company

Let’s talk leadership.

When approaching the topic of leadership in an African context, I feel it important to first define what leadership means to me. I would hazard a guess that the definition may vary vastly from one person to the next based on their context and experience.

Firstly, and most importantly, leadership is not management. Although leaders are often in management positions, management exists at a functional level whereas leadership exists at a strategic level. This contrast is in fact so strong that I would argue that some of the best leaders would not make very good managers.

Leaders cannot be defined by their age, appearance, job title or their place in the much-favoured organogram. True leaders have the ability to encourage, excite and energise. They have the nous and presence of mind to spot and take opportunities when they present themselves. They have the ability and confidence to show empathy – to show their most human side without fear of exposing too much.

Good leaders know how to harness the energy of others, understanding when the task at hand is better done by someone else and creating an environment in which “someone else” feels valued and respected for their contribution. A good leader knows how to manage failure – not letting it get the better of them or their team, but rather using it as the energy they need to persist and ultimately succeed.

Most importantly, good leaders are able to read situations and move with the ebb and flow of a changing environment. They are able to forego all that was “given” and change direction to ensure they stay on the path to success. While doing this, they are required to sell this change internally to a potentially resistant tide. A great leader will do so seamlessly.

Yes this is brief and some may argue a slightly different variation of the definition, but I feel that this definition goes enough of the way to contextualise the subject when entering into a discussion on leadership in an African context. In doing this, I highlight how the African business environment requires impeccable leaders in order to achieve success. 

TIA (This is Africa)

Now don’t get me wrong, I am certainly no “old hat of business” in terms of experience on the continent, but I have had my fair share – enough, in my opinion, to speak on the topic with authority.

Bump into any true African explorer and the phrase “Africa is not for sissies!” is one you may hear quite often. It will likely be accompanied by the term “Pay your school fees” and “TIA (This is Africa).” These phrases, although often throwaway comments, quite nicely sum up why a business on the continent is so unique and demands great leadership. It may also explain why if you ever find yourself talking to an African businessman or woman, you are likely talking to someone who walks around with their eyes wide open – a hardened, steely, street-smart individual.

“So, why is it such a challenge?” You may be asking yourself. What makes doing business on our unique continent so much more complex than the likes of Europe, America or Asia?

In brief, and in no particular order, I would list the following business environment characteristics of Africa as contributing toward the vast difference between our continent and those mentioned above.

Africa is harsh!

Spanning macro and micro environmental factors, doing business in Africa is certainly not simple. Power-cuts, limited access to communication technology, currency controls, socio-cultural divides and scarcity often of the most basic goods and services can make living and work on the continent physically and emotionally taxing. The emotional strain that this places on you and your character is not to be underestimated.

It can be dangerous. 
Instability of governments, lack of enforcement bodies, and personal ties often trumping the legal system, can pose significant risks. If you are in a foreign territory, you are very much expected to play by the local rules and stepping even slightly out of line, sometimes unknowingly, will find you in a lot of hot water.

Connections, connections, connections.
Africa is all about relationships and connections. No sales proposal is stronger than a trusted source and known ally. Without these connections, finding business opportunities and even having a chance at the prize is near futile. Connections and strong ones at that are the key to success.

Playing by-the-book.
Not always in the most sinister of forms, but very often, what is considered best practice or even ethically correct in the first world, may not apply to local contexts. This can be confusing as well as frustrating for a lot of Western-minded businesses. It is often the straw that breaks the camel’s back and leads to some Westerners retreating from the continent altogether.

The ever-shifting goalposts
As soon as it seems like the red African dust is settling, you can be sure that new challenges will invariably appear. This will require you to play and think smart. The simplest of an incorrect decision may find you at a loss. A change of president, a change of ownership laws, an influx of counterfeit products – these is but a few of the shifting goalposts to which I refer.

“African Time” (CAT + ∞)
Lastly, it is often joked that the speed at which things take to get done in Africa have been given their own time zone, namely “African Time.” The joke I am afraid stems from the unsettlingly true reality. Unless you know people who know people, things can take forever to get done due to a lack of staff, lack of efficiency and over officious requirements. Often this is stifling to business and has sent many individuals packing as they simply wait around for too long, expending time and energy that was simply not accounted for.

So what does good leadership have to do with a successful business in Africa?

Business on the continent can be very daunting, but for the most part, it is incredibly fun and a true playground for opportunists and entrepreneurs.

The key take out from this article should be that good leadership embodies the qualities that allow one to deal with complexity and change, whether this manifests in the business environment, with people, technology or even the most simple of human needs, security, food or water. In Africa, none of these elements is ever a given.

Leadership as defined in the opening paragraph requires confidence, strong relational skills and the ability to engender loyalty and belief. The trick is to always remain vigilant, humble and be prepared to make a rapid exit at any time.

With strong leadership, great things can be achieved on this interesting continent we call Africa.

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