African Leadership: Powerful Paradigms for the 21st Century

Cover of African Leadership: Powerful Paradigms for the 21st Century


Table of contents

(18 chapters)

Whereas leadership has existed on the continent of Africa as long as African peoples therein, the study of the same is limited in scope, depth and availability. Even as African scholars decry this dearth of available literature, they are at the same time actively involved in remedying the situation. In this chapter, the author attempts to answer a couple of questions: what is African about African Leadership? How can we engage in radical scholarship of African leadership? The author concludes with an invitation to readers of the edited volume to answer those two questions for themselves, as well as allow the chapters to help them rethink their own position and practices, arguing that leadership scholarship is always about both theory building and enhanced practice.

African Political Leadership


After several years of political emancipation from colonial rule, it is time for African nations to do the same economically. Our analysis indicates that the current political leadership environment is VUCA laden and complicated, leading to grand challenges on the continent. Therefore, the old political leadership models are inadequate for addressing the African VUCA and leadership landscape, hence, the inability to achieve the needed economic advancement. We propose a paradigm shift in political leadership for the continent to bring the decades-long desire for economic freedom to fruition by adopting the relevant organizational science and corporate leadership models for political leadership effectiveness in this complex and dynamic environment. We accomplish this by integrating three frameworks to derive nascent management and leadership capabilities relevant to the new African political leadership context and to ensure current and future leadership readiness for this new environment.


The performance of public sector institutions has always been contentious – this is as old as the system of government itself and its provision of collective goods, irrespective of whether they are tangible or intangible. In the context of South Africa, with its ever-increasing political competitiveness, this chapter assesses political leadership and the African philosophy of Ubuntu or humanism in improving public sector performance management in the country. It does so by addressing certain distinct questions: What is the state of public sector performance and leadership in South Africa? What have scholars contributed in linking public sector performance, and the politics and public administration dichotomy? Are the Batho Pele principles, underpinned by Ubuntu, a worthy notion on which to pillar African political leadership? By adopting an interpretivist, qualitative research design, the study reflects on the essence of a public administration that is effective in delivering political goods and managing the performance of bureaucracies and the political leadership therein. This chapter argues that the performance of public administrations remains a “wicked” problem in South Africa as political populism is on the rise in the country. However, the argument is made that with “good” political leadership – which naturally and effectively encompasses the philosophy of Ubuntu and which understands and mobilizes statecraft – great strides can be made beyond the current rhetoric.

African Healthcare Leadership


Prior COVID-19, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that less than 50% of the world's population was able to obtain essential health services. These numbers have decreased with the onset of the pandemic. Concurrently, the pandemic has amplified the gaps in access and extended inequality in African contexts. This requires a concerted effort to reimagine and rebuild Africa's healthcare system to inclusively attend to the needs of society's most vulnerable populations. Women in leadership provide an opportunity to do this. Through the advancement of strategic leadership development focused on women and girls, developing African healthcare contexts have the potential to aid in the eradication of endemics like gender-based violence, extend community sustainability, and elevate the collective consciousness for women, girls, and other marginalized populations. Through this chapter, the authors present a compelling and holistic conceptual model and the accompanying practice grounded in transformational and adaptive leadership, systems thinking, and strategic social influence that creates the foundation for the development of women in leadership to advance developing African healthcare contexts. The implications for this emergent strategy advance the field of leadership calling for applied leadership within African healthcare contexts, advance society through a coordinated and integrated approach to healthcare service and patient care, and create direct linkages to the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3 – Good Health and Well-being, SDG 5 – Gender Equality, SDG 10 – Reduce Inequalities, and SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities, while advancing our collective global community.


Administering healthcare within developing contexts of Africa presents a myriad of challenges. This includes competing priorities, cultural differences, language barriers, resource limitations, supply chain management disruptions, and an infinite array of ever-changing political, social, environmental, and economic dynamics. However, leadership and more specifically, intentional relationship development grounded in strategic diffusion networks have the potential to mitigate these challenges and maximize the adoption of life-saving technologies, pharmaceuticals, and treatment plans. This chapter provides context for the systemic healthcare challenges facing developing contexts across Africa, utilizes the theoretical frameworks of adaptive leadership and complexity leadership to create a holistic approach to relationship-building within these contexts, and illuminates the strategic influence, agency, and adoption and diffusion strategies that ultimately have the potential to create pathways to promise and save lives within underserved and under-resourced communities.


The devastating 2014 Ebola outbreak caused human and economic loss, but it also resulted in remarkable improvement in healthcare leadership. The impact is most evident in the affected West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. In this chapter, the Ebola experience is used as a framework to explore the essential elements of healthcare leadership, with particular attention to healthcare crises in under-resourced communities. Overall, healthcare leadership presents unique challenges. In common with leaders of other industries, healthcare leaders must inspire others, create a sense of purpose, make difficult decisions and collaborate with a range of people. But, because their focus is on complex systems that aim to improve people's physical and mental well-being, expectations of healthcare leaders are especially high. Their work can be a matter of life or death. For the leader in an under-resourced area, the challenge and expectations are even higher, particularly in the face of new or emerging health threats. The key to effective healthcare leadership is systems thinking which involves looking at the entire system of care as an integrated whole, rather than discrete parts that operate in isolation. Healthcare leaders must understand that health means mobilizing multisectoral knowledge and resources and applying innovative and multiactor approaches to prevent, detect and address health problems. Since the 2014 Ebola crisis, healthcare leaders are increasingly using a systems approach by looking at the culture of health systems, the impact of diseases locally and globally, and the applicability of health interventions in different environments. In the post-Ebola era, steps to strengthen the healthcare system are described which includes the roles of healthcare leaders. These steps include deployment of field epidemiologists and community health agents, community education and fuller use of the One Health Platform, which allows actors from different sectors (human health, animal health and environmental health) to collaborate. Finally, suggestions for healthcare leadership training are offered.


Through this chapter, readers are ferried through the Presidency of Festus Gontebanye Mogae, the President of Botswana from 1998- 2008. His Presidency occurred during the debilitating period of the HIV/AIDS scourge, the African blood diamonds brandishing label by the developed world and the drought that menacingly swept through Botswana leaving the nation distraught and poverty stricken. Despite all the hurdles and volcanoes enveloping his presidency, Mogae shouldered the leadership responsibility squarely and emerged victorious through the utilization of effective communication channels, the implementation of versatile leadership skills that valued collaborative partnerships and consultation, and the practicing of good corporate governance principles that became the hallmarks of integrity and ethical standards that shaped the character of his leadership. More importantly, Mogae embarked on the war against the HIV/AIDS scourge with resilience, hope and positivism that were equally unparalleled in outcome and success. Through an analysis of documents, a systematic review of critical events that shaped his presidency is described.

African Business Leadership


In the sub-region even though most entrepreneurial activities are borne out of necessity, such as need for employment, there are some entrepreneurs, particularly women who are opportunity-driven, who are pulled to start businesses due to the positives associated with the entrepreneurial journey. Opportunity-driven entrepreneurs start their businesses with an aim to fulfill a dream, realize a passion, or gain some independence and experience their autonomy. They are growth-oriented and develop creative ways to solve problems and effectively deal with challenges they face in their firms and satisfy the needs of their clients. Some female entrepreneurs in Ghana use innovative ways such as growth-oriented training, innovative recruitment, and selection practices. Innovation training practices, for instance reflect the personal values of the entrepreneur thus making innovation within the small and medium enterprises to be vision-led rather than market-led. Entrepreneurs who are innovative and growth-oriented provided proactive training and made use of technology to provide leadership and to better equip their employees.


This qualitative descriptive research study served to clarify sustained social and economic natures of African business innovation and entrepreneurial development leadership. The research question included interviewed African leader participants (5), “How do you describe your experience in African leadership?” In-depth phone interview responses detailed familiar leadership words and phrases about historic, cultural, and economic environments. African leaders described how they understand, discover, observe, and share perspectives on African leadership experiences for personal hardship, survival, and societal, cultural, physical, and organizational change. Using phenomenological research methods, transcript analysis of interview experience responses integrated common properties. Verbatim transcriptions, and reading, sifting, combining, reducing, and interpreting the data collection resulted in thematic coding and categorizing. Investigation results included interpreted meaning for facilitated interactions in African leadership descriptions. Study conclusions highlighted many, varied, and unusual pathways for African leadership, rather than a single model. Sensitivities to participative, divergent, and non-linear thinking characterized transformational African leadership styles (Green, 2014). Possible research implications contributed to future work, connecting the study findings with Network Theory.


As a result of diminishing numbers of women in executive leadership portfolios, the study sought to glean underlying reasons in the light of supportive legislation in South Africa supporting gender development in the workplace. A qualitative study was conducted within a South African business context to explore the notions and perceptions that fracture gendered leadership. The lived experience narratives were analyzed into themes, with a systematic review of existing scientific academic literature. The study was dominated by two concepts, as the paradox of black girl magic and the queen bee syndrome among black women in leadership were reported by the different narratives. The contradictions that each of these concepts represents provides the structural inequities experienced by black women in business. Of prominence in the findings was the alignment of women to the boys’ network, irrespective of whether in a leadership role or not. The study is underpinned primarily by the theory of intersectionality which contextualizes the intersections of race and gender aligned to the structural inequities and the social constructions of reality. This will be intensified by Bordieu's theory of masculine domination which exposes the underlying enigmas of the unholy alliance with the boys’ network. A clear distinction is analyzed with the exploration of black girl magic which alludes to the positive attributes that black women can bring into leadership roles, but their success and manner of leading is mangled with the negative aspects of the queen bee syndrome which entrench further subjugation of women.

African Grassroots Leadership and African Diaspora Leadership


Leading change oftentimes comes down to creating the conditions to shift the status quo of an organization, community, or nation. In the case of the pan-African movement, this is about a shift of the status quo continentally. We look back and learn how these changes took place, we study the impacts, the moves that allowed people to emerge differently, to lead effective change. The outcomes of leading this effective change often point to a shift in the status quo. That shift in how people organize and led change gets written in history books. In this scenario, we have the unique opportunity to examine these cases as emergent, hearing firsthand accounts of those individuals, people, organizations, and communities that are shaping the movements. This is that account of how leadership is conceptualized, redefined, and practiced by emerging actors across the continent today.

“Action without thought is empty; thought without action is blind” (Kwame Nkrumah). Nkrumah's sentiments describe a practice of leadership that is intentional and disrupts arbitrary borders and dividers to build a strong pan-African movement. Emerging actors today are leading change on the African continent by shaping a new vision and framework for African leadership. By understanding their stories, we deepen understanding of this framework.

In this chapter, we will share the stories of three individuals (chapter co-authors) who are exercising leadership at the intersections of grassroots organizing and political engagement, and in doing so, who are seeking to shift the status quo. Each practice-based account offers insight and firsthand accounting of how a rising generation is redefining leadership at local, regional, and transnational levels.


Wangari Maathai – environmentalist, political activist, human rights champion, and international spokesperson for environmental justice – combined scientific expertise with traditional African respect for the land and compassion for individual persons. She was thus able to build a movement to preserve the land, foster citizen empowerment, and inspire activism to effect systemic change. Her legacy is both local and international, with more than 5,000 active citizen networks in Kenya having planted more than 51 million trees.

As a child, Maathai was taught to revere the earth as infused with divine presence. Through study, she added knowledge of scientific principles that govern the natural world, as well as complex interactions between humans and earth. What she saw was the delicate and essential interdependence of environmental and social needs.

Over the course of 45 years of activism, in Kenya and on the world stage, she learned to address individual human suffering and challenge the systems responsible for the pain, including political and economic corruption. Maathai was, in many ways, a prototypical grassroots leader in the heroic vein. She insistently rebuffed attempts to romanticize poverty or consider it inevitable; she refused to surrender to oppression and exploitation – sometimes at significant personal risk.

Maathai left rich resources – a memoir and handbook, essays, speeches, papers, editorials – plus an active Movement. Emphasis in this essay, which draws on those resources plus insights of scholars, journalists, filmmakers, family, friends, and critics, some through personal interview, is what her strategies and achievements suggest for ongoing leadership for Africa.


This chapter presents the opportunities, strategies, and challenges related to an effort to embed a leadership coaching culture into the culture of an academic institution in Nairobi, Kenya. That effort has been the work over the past several years of four Certified Organizational Effectiveness Coaches trained by Coach Development Institute of Africa. Each tells the story of how and why she moved into coach training and why she views coaching as key to driving social change. The chapter describes the strategies they are using to address opportunities they see and challenges they have encountered. The chapter also presents their preliminary thoughts on a coaching model influenced by both Western approaches and African cultural beliefs, values and attitudes.


This chapter explores the leadership role of Catholic Sisters in Africa and the changing understanding of their role in the larger society. The study draws on field research examining the impact of a leadership training program for women leaders of Catholic Sisters in East Africa. The chapter notes how the Sisters readily identified with how leadership among local women functions in a group-based and situational manner, rather than alone or in terms of clear hierarchical protocols more typical of men.

The program encouraged the women religious to become more active in the public sector to advocate for policies related to their experience of providing services to the people to have a multiplier effect. Some were initially not too open to the idea of their Sisters engaging with politicians.

However, after completing the training program many congregational leaders came to understand the importance of encouraging their more articulate members to become proactive in promoting public policies in the areas of basic education, health, and social development.

Along this line, Major Superiors of women's congregations quickly recognized that the UN-declared Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) not only describe much of the work that their Sisters have been doing for years but also the need to prod their governments to make good on their commitments to realize them. These opened the door both for advocacy and eventual partnerships in the service of the common good of their people.


Leadership studies, as an academic discipline and field of practice, have predominantly been developed in relation to Western forms of knowledge, norms, and cultural practices. Knowledge and ways of practicing leadership in Sub-Saharan Africa contexts are often unseen or marginalized in formal leadership studies literature. This is also true for the way leadership is practiced throughout the networks of the African Diaspora. The influence of uniquely African ways of knowing, doing, and experiencing leadership is even more challenging in the context of the African Diaspora. Often contextualized within the legacy of the Transatlantic Slave Trades, and increasingly shaped by contemporary dynamics of globalization, the African Diaspora and leadership exist at the intersection of multiple cultures and contexts. Leadership theory and practice must account for these inter- and multicultural contexts to better understand and practice leadership in the African Diaspora. The objective of this chapter is to develop a collective, constructionist, and practice frame capable of teasing apart cultural and contextual influences of leadership in the African Diaspora. This is not a comprehensive account of approaches to African Leadership, but instead a preliminary effort to mark out collective, constructionist, and practice approaches to leadership in the African Diaspora as it exists in practice and might inform future research and leadership learning and development efforts.

Concluding Section

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