I am writing this article with the assumption that many African Presidents (and their governments), with the exception of one or two cases, fail to achieve what they promise their people at the beginning of their term of office. This failure of leadership shows itself in the poverty that the African continent continues to suffer. The failure also shows itself in the untapped potentials (human and otherwise) of many countries on the continent. Rampant corruption is another indicator.

What then explains the failure?

If, for now, we work on the basis that my assumption that there is a failure of leadership in Africa is correct, what are some of the possible explanations for this failure? How can such failure be corrected or avoided?
As Dr Otto C Scharmer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) puts it, the failure of leadership (in reference to leaders anywhere in the world and in any sector) comes from two critical factors. Firstly, leaders are often unable to “access their own ignorance”. Secondly, leaders are unaware of the need – and often lack the skills – to engage in meaningful dialogue with those around them. Let me explain.

By “failure to access one’s ignorance” I mean the inability of leaders to know what they ought to know to be successful in their work. To be continuously successful, leaders must hear, see and experience what is truly going in the systems they run or manage. We all have our own leadership blind spots. Our challenge (and task) is to increasingly become aware of these blind spots so that we can access new data/information that should ignite new responses. One way in which leaders can access new data is by engaging in honest dialogue or conversation.

Believe it or not, although we hear and see that leaders are often in meetings, they rarely have dialogue with their equals. I am using the term dialogue in its etymological meaning – flow of meaning (dia – logos). In this context, true dialogue happens when leaders seek to co-discover or co-create meaning with their fellow leaders. Meaning is not always self-evident. It must be discovered. I have been privileged to observe those who serve Presidents or Heads of State in different parts of Africa through my work as an adviser to the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative and my own experience of having served President Mwanawasa. Through my work, I have learnt that those who work around Heads of State rarely engage the President or Prime Minister (or any person of power) as an equal. This situation tends to play at every level of leadership. Why might this be the case? The office of President or Prime Minister comes with such aura and some of form of mystery that, if not well managed, it tends to ‘drown’ or ‘swallow’ and even ‘smother’ the voices and thoughts of people around it. This, more often than not, happens under the guise of ‘respect for the highest office in the land’.

Respect for the President or Head of State emanates from what the office represents. It represents and embodies the ‘spirit of the nation’. It is the highest expression of the unity or oneness and collective will of a country. To this extent, then, the office of Head of State is sacred (deserving utmost respect). The office of President is even more mysterious in cultures and traditions were leaders are deemed “Father of the Nation” or “Father of our Liberation”; inviting reverence as the normal attitude and response before the leader. If this situation is not mitigate (by mainly actions of the leader himself or herself), those around the leader may not find it easy to pitch themselves as equals to the person who holds the high office. The job of those around the President is, subsequently, reduced to merely following presidential instructions. Presidential advisers cease being advisers and begin to compete on who carries presidential instructions, expressed or imaginary, the fastest.

Another way through which a leader can access his or her blind spot is through seeing and experiencing the system one is superintending. This means the President should find and establish processes and techniques through which he or she accesses the real world in which his or her citizens live. The visit of a President invites extraordinary efforts to make the place look ‘fit for a Head of State’. With the good intentions of being respectful to the President who embodies the spirit of the nation, people tend to go out of their way to welcome the visitor. As a result, the President tends to experience the life that his citizens do not live. He eats the food that people can afford only for important guests. He experiences surroundings that are far much cleaner than his people usually live in. People go out of their way to show respect for the head of state.

One of the jokes I have picked in the UK is that the Queen of England thinks all rooms outside her palace have the smell of paint. This is because rooms that the Queen visits are often re-painted just before she makes her visit to ensure that they are ‘royalty clean’. More often than not, Presidents have no idea what the real situation of most citizens is. Even those leaders who come to power on the strength of their ability to understand the people’s will and needs can fast slide into ignorance of what is truly going on. After operating and living in an ‘abnormally’ powerful and resource-rich environment for two to three years, leaders may tend to create a figment in their own minds. They take their circumstances as every person’s world. A few months of visiting only well adorned places, buildings that are properly refurbished, the natural environment that is nicely kempt (and often seen through tinted windows of a bullet proof Mercedes Benz car), and travelling without being hindered by traffic lights and on aircrafts that must wait for you; the President begins to think his personal efforts and those of government have paid dividend. Personal well-being becomes national well-being.

In conversations with fellow leaders (ministers and advisers), Presidents end up receiving half-truths and sometimes outright lies. My teacher, Lance Secretan – one of the world’s leading thinkers on the subject of leadership and bestselling author of numerous books, says, “The higher you go, the less truth reaches you”. People around the President tend to second guess what would please the ‘Boss’. From time to time, President Mwanawasa would invite me to Nkwazi (official residence) for lunch or dinner. Over a meal, he would ask me what my thoughts were about some of the issues that were going on in the country. He would often end with the question, “What do you know about what is going in the country that I should know?” or “What is affecting our people that I should worry about tonight?” In those moments, I knew that the President was looking for ‘brutal facts’ rather than polite conversations that showered him with praises. He would often remark to me, “It is very difficult to have honest adult conversations when you are President. Many people I have a lot of regard for seem to lose their voice in my presence, what could explain this?”

President Mwanawasa yearned for peer challenge and rarely got it. I cannot count more than five names of people who I saw engage the President as equals. The rest grovelled and almost knelt before him. Their role was simply to oblige to the expressed or imaginary wish of the boss. Obliging is part of what it takes to work for a President, but it is only half the story. The other half is engaging the President in tough conversations so that he is well positioned and well informed to make the often tough and critical decisions that the nation deserves and expects.

Dr Kaunda, the first President of Zambia, expressed similar yearning. He once shared with me that among the critical things he missed while he was Head of State was engaging in quality and honest conversations with colleagues. A few years ago, while I worked for Oxfam GB, I had the privilege of inviting Dr Kaunda to officiate at an Oxfam function in Lilongwe, Malawi. I flew from London to Lusaka in order to travel with the former President to Malawi. Recognising the status of Dr Kaunda, Oxfam flew the former President in business class while I travelled economy. He was the only one in business class that day. Thirty minutes after the plane took off from Lusaka, Dr Kaunda said to one of the air hostesses, “I have a friend sitting at the back of the plane. Kindly permit him to come and sit with me.” His request was granted expeditiously. I was delighted to sit directly opposite the former President.

I couldn’t resist asking Dr Kaunda, “With the benefit of hindsight, Your Excellency, what are the key lessons you picked from your time as our head of state?” He looked at me for a few seconds without uttering any word. He gave out his characteristic smile and then said, “My young man, that is a critical question”. He paused again. He then went on to share with me how difficult it was for him to have colleagues to genuinely think with. “There were a few exceptional cases, I must say.” He shared a moment when he met someone who was not willing to sacrifice the truth even in the President did not like it. “Soon after independence, a young Zambian judge ruled against the state,” Dr Kaunda began. “This was a case in which I, as head of state, was deeply interested. I felt that if the case was ruled in favour of the state, it would enhance our political independence from the colonialism. The young Judge ruled against the state.” He paused, again, for almost minute. “When I had the opportunity to meet the young judge,” he continued, “I asked him why he had ruled against the state. The young judge said to me, ‘Your Excellence, while I understand and appreciate our nation’s political agenda, the law currently does not support what the state would like to do.’ I asked Dr Kaunda, “What did that make you feel?” He replied, “Young man, although I did not like the judge’s answer, I could not ignore his courage and was deeply humbled. Humbled, indeed. The young judge’s response made me realise the importance of working with people who are courageous willing to tell the truth as they know and see it.” He remained silent for a while as if to let me internalise what he was saying. Dr Kaunda concluded, “A few months later, I invited the young judge to be our first indigenous Zambian Chief Justice. I knew that our judiciary would be in capable hands.” He was referring to Justice Annel Silungwe.

How can a leader constantly receive honest feedback?

In one of his articles to the Post newspaper soon after the inauguration of President Michael Sata (Zambia’s fifth President), Professor Hansungule stated that the one key quality of leadership in our time is the ability to listen to the people’s will. I totally agree with Prof Hansungule. However, the challenge lies in whether there are conditions in which the leader can engage in honest conversations so that he can access the will of the people. Anyone who has worked around powerful men and women can attest to how difficult it is to tell “the emperor that he is naked.” Prof Edgar Schein of MIT, under whose feet I have had the rare privilege of learning, says that there is one key lesson he has learnt in his more than 50 years of working with leaders in different parts of the world. The lesson is that unless the leader suspends, from time to time, social rules around his or her office, he or she would increasingly lose the ability to engage in honest conversation and feedback.
In most societies, if not all, there are ‘social rules’ or ‘socially acceptable ways’ or the ‘etiquette’ of how to communicate and relate with leaders. These rules are, in their original and purest form, meant to signify the importance of the role played by a given office. They are also meant to enable the office occupant perform certain roles with ease for the benefit of the constituency. What does suspension of social rules then mean? This is when a leader deliberately creates, from time to time, an environment or conditions were those around him or her can share what they think and feel without any inhibition. Some aspects of the Japanese culture developed its own practice of how to suspend social rule for the greater good of the military. It is called After Action Review (AAR). Upon accomplishing an operation, the commander or head of the platoon would call all those who were involved in the operation to conduct an AAR. During the AAR, social rules of the military (deep respect for ranks and seniority) would be suspended. The private soldier and the commander would temporarily have equal status as they review their actions. They both would have equal amount of time to speak and ask whatever (tough) questions they have. They would challenge each other’s views. At the end of the AAR, the truth was often found, enabling the military to learn from its actions for the future.

AAR is practised in some Japanese companies and other systems world-wide that have learnt the ‘ritual’. On a Friday, for instance, the managing director or head of department of a company would invite a cross section of staff – juniors and seniors – for a drink. As soon as staff step into a pub or bar, they are presumed to be drunk. This means that every member of staff, even before he or she sips his or her drink, can say to the managing director or any other staff, “I think that decision you made last Monday was really silly…” and gives reasons. The whole drinking session, often without anybody getting really drunk, is a conversation about how serious issues affecting the company can be tackled and lessons learnt. As soon as the drinking session ends and the staff have stepped outside the bar, normal social rules or etiquette are expected to be in operation, irrespective of whether one is truly drank or not.

A few weeks ago, I was in Lusaka visiting my ailing father. When I saw that he was not in so much pain, I asked him if there was any equivalent of AAR in our traditions and culture. He explained to me that among the Ba Bemba, for instance, were praise singers who had unlimited access to the palace. Although these singers were thought to compose and sing songs of praise for the king, they equally composed and sung songs of rebuking the King when he was perceived not to be running the kingdom properly. The King was not permitted to punish them even when they said something he did not like. Their ‘office’ was protected by tradition. My father explained that the skill of the praise singers lay in their ability to tell it as it was while still “saving the face of the King”. This means that the praise singers critiqued the King in the language that only those properly educated in this form of communication could decode. For the rest of the people, these were just ordinary songs. For those with ‘ears’, the King included, songs were sometimes tough feedback for the ruler.

Reflection points for our new national leaders in Zambia

There is a new air of hope in Zambia since the Patriotic Front swept to office. Generally, people have high hopes that the new leaders will make a difference. President Sata has made key and important pronouncements that if implemented should make Zambia one of the beacons of hope on a continent that seems to be stuck in mismanagement and, as the current Minister of Finance would put it, ‘kleptocracy’ (theft). I offer the following as reflection points for our leaders in government, and perhaps, business and civil society:
• Create opportunities where those around you can tell you what their honest thoughts are. The power of your office combined with our traditional respect for leaders will tend to prevent you from relating as an equal to those around you. From time to time, create conditions were others can communicate with you as a peer as sincerely they can.

  • Surround yourself with men and women who have the courage to share what they think, feel and what they are learning from society, no matter how unpalatable that might be. Do not be shy away from employing those who are not enthusiastic about praising you.
  • Whenever you can, access the reality of the citizens’ living conditions when they are not camouflaged by the need to impress you. Find the time to see – by yourself – situations as they truly are. If you can, spend 40% of your time doing paper work in your office and 60% meeting and talking to people (customers, debtors and creditors in the case of business leaders) in their true or real environment.
  • Employ managers who are more skilled than yourself to take care of the administrative duties of your office. For the President, this means identifying a highly qualified and competent Chief of Staff and Senior Advisers. For Ministers, this means looking out (through the President) for true professionals for Permanent Secretaries and Directors of key public institutions.
  • Leaders need to create what one of my mentors and celebrated authors, Nancy Kline, calls “Think Environment”. Most leaders’ work situations are “Instruction Environments”. A Thinking Environment assumes equality between people, creativity in the search for solutions, and taking turns to make contributions. Failure to create a Thinking Environment leads to infantilisation of adults and poverty of ideas and the ensuing actions. A Thinking Environment leads to productive dialogue. When expertly facilitated, dialogue generates wisdom and new knowledge.
  • In today’s world, the currency is shared leadership. The era of single hero leaders or ‘lone rangers’ is gone. No single leader can find answers to the many complex challenges that confront our society. Collaborative leader is the answer.

Martin Kalungu-Banda (The author of this article is an Organisation Development Consultant and author of the bestseller “Leading Like Madiba: Leadership Lessons from Nelson Mandela” and “It’s How We End That Matters: Leadership Lessons from an African President”).