They say everything rise and fall on leadership. The African problem, so it appears to be rightly argued, is a leadership problem. But what exactly about leadership is the problem on our beautiful continent of unspoilt natural magnificence?
Arguably, one of the rampant social phenomena that appears to hamper social and economic progress of, almost, any country in Africa is corruption. Almost without exception, all African states appear to wrestle, in one way or another, with corruption, and its cousins of favouritism, nepotism and bribery. Men and women, once honourable and upright, are, in an instant, turned into dishonest and dubious characters. The probability of someone in an influential position being approached at a social gathering, say at a funeral, wedding, meeting, bar or eatery, about this or that business venture, “deal” or a tender is high.
Academic definitions and arguments about corruption is beside the point: corruption is there and we know it. However, for the sake of clarity, corruption as used in this context refers to an addicted mind-set that thrives on the misuse of public office for private gain.
Parboteeah, Seriki and Hoegl (2014:986) provided what appears to be illuminating reasons for the prevalence of corruption on the African continent as follows:
“The high level of corruption that characterizes sub-Saharan Africa today may have manifested itself during the colonial period, when people saw the ruling government as outsiders. This created an ‘us vs. them’ mentality among government employees, thus justifying the taking from ‘them’, the government, for the betterment of ‘us’, the local people. A consequence of this mentality is a lack of probity in public life and a degeneration of the moral tone of society, which undermine commitment to selfless service”.
What Parboteeah, Seriki and Hoegl (2014:986) infer in the foregoing quote is precisely what the problem is about leadership on the African continent: inattention to re-norm people’s mind-sets after independence to view present governments and institutions as theirs and not of those of some other colonial and imperial forces from which to capture things. The belief system that we are describing, that needs to be transformed, manifests itself in the expressions such as “our time to eat”, “benefitting from the fruits of independence” and “sharing the cake” etc. One of the poignant expression of this belief system can be typified in the following quote:
“If you cook food, you must eat it. You don’t cook food and ask people to eat it. People will be wondering why you are not eating the food you cooked” (The Namibian, 11 September 2017, p.6).
Perceptions, such as these, refers to failure or inability to re-norm mind-sets after freedom from colonialism to take accountability over present governments and institutions and not regard them as those of some other colonial and imperial forces from which to take back. Unless mind-sets such as these are eradicated, the chances for social and economic progress are likely to be diminished.
What, then, might be solutions to corruption?
As the above-highlighted quote by Parboteeah, Seriki and Hoegl (2014:986) suggested, “a consequence of this mentality [corruption] is a lack of probity in public life and a degeneration of the moral tone of society, which undermine commitment to selfless service”. Therefore, one solution to corruption might be promoting higher purpose values that infuses selfless service. That is where servant leadership, that appears to be lacking in an African context, comes in the picture.
Servant leadership, that seems to be closely related to spiritual leadership, is a practical leadership philosophy focusing on choosing to serve others first. Servant leaders are “servants first” with the objective of making sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. In a servant leadership approach, leaders put the needs of their followers first. Based on the frequent usage of the word “boss” in daily-lived experiences, servant leaders seem rare in our settings. This might be due to the conventional leadership philosophy that trained and conditioned people to believe that being in leadership means being a “boss” that should be “served”. A second struggle, at a place that in the future will be declared a national shrine, must be launched against entitlement tendencies, corruption, “boss” mentality that diminish selfless service. It is not about fighting individuals but against the world-order system that promotes a lack of probity in public life and a degeneration of the moral tone of society, which undermine commitment to selfless service.
How can a system that promotes probity in public life and a regeneration of moral tone of society be inculcated?
Servant leadership should have its disciples and apostles (role models). It will not come about without role models and fervent followers. Servant leadership is largely interior, that is, a deeper inner conviction to serve others. It is something to do and not a thing to theorise about, pretend or wish for. Therefore, there should be concerted national efforts to identify, introduce and reward servant leaders in national systems, processes and institutions. Of course, servant leadership should be introduced in educational and training programmes. However, training about servant leadership without role models that manifests servanthood are likely to be futile.
Parboteeah, K.P., Seriki, H.T. & Hoegl, M. 2014. Ethnic diversity, corruption and ethical climates in sub-Saharan Africa: recognising the significance of human resources. International Journal of Human Resources Management, 25(7), 979-1001.
The author, Matthias M. Ngwangwama is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. His area of specialisation is organisational behaviour, with focus on organisational strategy, culture and leadership.