ost discussions on African development tend to include the leadership question.
There is growing frustration, especially among Africa’s youth, on the inability of the current political system to provide them with better representation and a stronger say in how their countries are governed.
Apart from the age factor, many of Africa’s leaders are also accused of not adequately adapting to the demands of the global economy and largely ignoring the adverse impacts of climate change within their borders.
Being a leader is no easy task. Successful leaders are often viewed as possessing a combination of personality attributes as a desire to lead, integrity, self-confidence, intelligence, adaptability, assertiveness and emotional stability. Such personality attributes may be combined with social attributes related to particular types of schooling and possessing the right family background.
Although there is limited research on African leadership, much of the current literature paints the continent’s leaders, apart from a few, as ineffective. One school of thought is that both private and public sector leaders must be trained to develop better managerial capacity.
However, some question the relevance of applying western approaches to leadership training in an African context arguing that leaders frequently revert to their pre-training behaviour. The role of culture, understood as shared values and norms in society, is frequently cited as the primary reason that explains why training alone is inadequate when leaders are confronted with daily challenges that require them to satisfy a wide range of societal demands.
Indeed, the conduct of leaders is typically shaped by numerous consensual aspirations or central values. Some cultures may demand that leaders demonstrate participatory and inclusive leadership behaviour while others (e.g. in hierarchical societies) may be more accommodating of an autocratic style.
In contrast to so-called “essentialist theories” that define leadership in universal terms and identify predictable traits and behaviours, relational theory argues that leaders in certain cultures place considerable emphasis in maintaining their relationships with others.
Accordingly, what distinguishes many African leaders from their counterparts is “familism” where the actions and ideals of individuals are determined by the need to continue to maintain and promote the welfare of the family group. Individual behaviour that promotes the fortunes of a family as a whole are prioritised.
In such contexts, junior members of the family, including children, may be discouraged from taking individual initiatives that go beyond daily chores.
A majority of political leaders in Africa may thus adopt relationship-based management strategies aimed at projecting themselves a “patron” to their followers instead of demonstrating a commitment to attaining specific organizational goals.
And followers, in turn, may not necessarily voice their discontent – preferring to avoid raising uncomfortable and critical questions in the hope of maintaining a good relationship with their leaders.