In thinking about a vision for leadership in Africa, we do not want to fall into the despondency trap, lamenting the dearth of enough good leaders on the continent. Instead, we want to highlight the leadership capital that the continent has blessed the world with over the years, from a Nelson Mandela from the Cape to a Kofi Anan from Cairo. It is by creating responsible leaders of this ilk that we will make our way towards a peaceful and sustainable world.

Nelson Mandela once wrote: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” Is this not true about leadership as well, namely that it should never be done with self-interest in mind, but always with a view on the positive dividends that can be created for others? For Africa to achieve its full promise, we need both: leaders with a big heart, and inclusive well-being for all her people.

However, we need to balance optimism and opportunity surrounding Africa’s abundance and youthful human dividend with realism and caution about some serious challenges that stand in the way. Among the latter are the systemic risks that place our economic, social and environmental systems in jeopardy and threaten to rob us of the dream that Thabo Mbeki so eloquently described in his “I am an African” speech: “Whatever the difficulties, Africa shall be at peace! However improbable it may sound to sceptics, Africa will prosper!”


Achieving prosperity needs many factors to work together, one of them being leadership. From an African perspective, we need leadership of a special kind, namely men and women suitably able to guide the continent’s progress towards a sustainable future by exercising wisdom and courage in decision-making and good stewardship of the continent’s resources and identity. The Third King Report on Governance for South Africa (2009) calls such leadership responsible leadership and ties it to a set of values, namely responsibility, accountability, fairness and transparency. Such leaders are mindful of the impact of their organisations on the economy, society and the environment, and therefore they are ethically fit, future and sustainability minded and sensitive to the needs and interests of all their stakeholders.


For a continent of a billion people, we need a multitude of responsible leaders, probably about 10 million of them (working with a 1:100 ratio). We need them across all sectors of African societies and we need them in all layers of management. This is where our challenge becomes real: we are indeed short of numbers and we are short of quality institutions to produce such a big pipeline of high quality leaders and managers. We do not have the requisite capacity to develop enough of these leaders if we keep relying on conventional bricks-and-mortar type approaches. As such, we need to develop multi-level approaches.

Here is where we want to focus on the contribution that boards can make to the multiplier effect in the leadership development for Africa that we are looking for. Due to their very role in governing their organisations, boards can build organisational cultures that will equip others to lead, even in the absence of them having had sufficient formal management education. We expect the ethos and example of the board to infuse the organisation with values, disciplines and practices that will cascade down the leadership levels and ripple throughout the various functions and units.

We tend to make two mistakes in leadership development, namely relying too much on individual brilliance and classroom learning. Research has confirmed that the development of leaders also requires real-life contexts and interaction with others. It is in these settings that core values can be revealed, responsibilities be clarified and the counsel of others can be sought in the face of difficult choices. Organisations offer these living classrooms to leaders on a daily basis. Offered to us on the proverbial tray, this is an opportunity we should seize.



The Africa Directors Programme is offered through a partnership between Stellenbosch Business School, the INSEAD Corporate Governance Initiative, the Old Mutual Investment Group and the Institute of Directors of South Africa. For us, as the codirectors, this programme is firstly about developing directors as ethical and responsible leaders; people who govern their organisations with competence and moral integrity. In presenting this programme, we hold on to the ideal that every director can lead from an inner authenticity, while at the same time governing the organisation effectively in the interests of good corporate citizenship and stakeholder value protection. If we get this right at a board level, it sets the pace for what is possible at other levels in the organisation.

For our vision of leadership in Africa, we want to leverage the positive value of an Ubuntu approach. In this expression Africans say: “I am because you are; you are because we are.” Emphasising our humaneness, Ubuntu refers to mutual support, respect, interdependence, unity, collective work and responsibility. Leadership in this context is understood in relational terms and attentive to the needs and interests of stakeholders. Such leadership will not shy away from addressing society’s fault lines regarding inequality, racism, poverty, unemployment and corruption, or the environmental precariousness manifested in climate change, non-renewable energy utilisation, deforestation, land degradation and water pollution. The leaders we envision for Africa are those with the wisdom and courage to choose against what is corruptible and unsustainable and, instead, stand on the side of the best that Ubuntu represents.

We agree with Sir Adrian Cadbury, who already in 1992 declared that “the governance framework is there to encourage the efficient use of resources and equally to require accountability for the stewardship of those resources. The aim is to align as nearly as possible the interests of individuals, corporations and society.” We believe that we need to align the interests of directors, executives and managers as well. If we can get these right and we can scale it from the boardrooms on the continent as a launching pad, we may succeed in creating virtuous organisations where leaders will learn to lead responsibly and sustainably. In this manner, Africa’s prosperity may not be a mere reflection of others but will itself lead the way towards a peaceful and sustainable world.


Prof Arnold Smit
Associate Professor in Business in Society, University of Stellenbosch Business School
Prof Marc le Menestrel Co-Director of the Africa Directors Programme and Visiting Professor from INSEAD Business School (France)


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