Leadership Made-In-Africa: Feedback is the breakfast of champions

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Dr. Modupe S. TAYLOR-PEARCE

Growing up, I believed that I was one of the most harassed children in the world. Why? Because on Sundays, when we had to go to church, my father (who was then a lay-preacher in the Anglican church) would insist after church that I tell him about the sermon. And he was not just satisfied with “Oh, the sermon was good” or “I liked the sermon, Daddy” It was even worse on the Sundays that my father was preaching.

Not only would he ask me to recap the main points of the sermon, but he would ask me to give him “two things you liked about the sermon and two things you did not like.” Now, this was torture! I was supposed to not only pay attention to the sermon (while most of my friends would be sleeping or playing games in church) but I actually had to give my dad feedback and analysis on the sermon as if I were an adult. Who does that to a 15-year old child? Seriously! What I did not realize at that time was that my father was demonstrating one of the most powerful leadership concepts to me and training me to be a leader’s helper.

He was demonstrating that good leaders solicit and welcome feedback and use it as a tool to grow and improve. Today, at 89 years old, my father (now an Anglican priest) is still one of the most sought-after preachers in Sierra Leone…a feat he is achieving long after his “shelf-life” was supposed to be over (based on comments from some younger preachers).

He is sought after because he keeps improving his craft by leveraging feedback to make subtle changes to his content and delivery in order to enhance the value of his service. If only other preachers would figure out my father’s secret! We might have more people filling the pews of Anglican and Methodist church buildings in Africa.

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Over the past fifteen years, I have watched the summit of men’s tennis change hands from Roger Federer to Rafael Nadal to Novak Djokovic as they have each driven themselves to become champions. One of the stories I enjoyed reading about was the story of Novak Djokovic during the years when he was consistently number 3 in the world and trying to break through to the number 2 or number 1 spot.

He struggled until he started receiving feedback from two people: a nutritionist who observed that he was getting fatigued in the middle of games and attributed it to his diet; and Boris Becker, a former number one player in the world who noticed that his mental preparation to matches needed adjustment and helped him to become a more mentally fit player and deal with the challenges of highs and lows in the middle of big matches.

At the highest level of tennis, all the great champions have coaches – not because the coaches are better tennis players than they are, but because the coaches give them feedback on nuances and adjustments they need to make in order to be even more successful than they already are. What a novel idea! These champions believe that not only do they need feedback to get to the pinnacle of their profession, but they need feedback to stay at the top and become better while they are at the top.

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What can we, as leaders of organizations and companies, learn from Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, or my father?

We can learn that FEEDBACK IS THE BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS.

The challenge with receiving feedback is that it can sometimes be a painful experience. Very few people enjoy being criticized or informed about what they are doing that needs adjustment. We don’t mind positive feedback; in fact we love to hear it. (“Yes, sir, that was an amazing speech you delivered at the shareholder’s meeting!”…”Wow, madam, you ran that meeting so flawlessly!”).

However, the danger of reveling in positive feedback at the exclusion of negative feedback is that it fosters pride and creates hubris in leadership. When we revel in the positive feedback, the people who surround us are observing and believe that giving us positive feedback is the best way to get on our good side; and they provide it in droves, even if it is not honest feedback. We become surrounded by an echo chamber of adulation that leads us down the dangerous path of becoming the naked emperor unaware of his nakedness.

So, what do you need to do to ensure that you become and stay a champion in leadership?

  1. Actively seek out both positive and negative feedback. The higher your position in leadership, the less inclined people will be to give you feedback if you are not intentional about asking for it. Can you imagine someone approaching a Bishop of the Anglican Church after the Easter Sunday service to inform him that his sermon was boring? It would never happen unless the Bishop was intentional about asking for the feedback.

Similarly, very few people will inform a Head of State that the television interview she gave was not very good or her answers were counter-productive, unless the Head of State asks for feedback. It is much easier for people to give you feedback when you lead a small organization than a large one; when you are a mid-level manager than when you are the CEO. So, dear leader, be intentional about asking for feedback. When you ask for it, avoid questions like “Did you like it?” or “How was it?” These questions are leading or vague and do not give the most useful answers.

Instead, ask questions like “What did you like about the speech and what did you not like about it?” or “Tell me one thing that you believe I could have done differently to make it better?” The leaders who ask for feedback regularly are the leaders who are more aware of adjustments they need to make and make those adjustments in order to become better at what they do. Be a champion!

  1. Resist the temptation to push back on negative feedback and/or push away people who disagree with you. Nothing screams “don’t tell him anything negative” to your team than you arguing against the feedback you just received or you acting. It would be better if you had not asked for feedback in the first case, but when you are defensive, you are communicating to people that you have been hurt or upset by this and they will make a mental note to keep their mouths shut from now on or only tell you what you want to hear (ie, accolades and adoration).

When you receive negative feedback, simply listen and say “thank you”. If you do not understand, ask for clarification and be sure to let the person know that you are only trying to understand what they mean and you appreciate their feedback. Similarly, if you have someone on your team that frequently disagrees with you, resist the urge to remove them from your team. If you get rid of everyone that has an opinion different from yours, you will be surrounded by yes-men and yes-women who will hardly ever give you a different opinion from yours and thus your knowledge and awareness will not increase and you will not become a champion.

So listen to feedback and give time to those who have differing opinions to be heard. It does not mean that you have to act on their opinion or do exactly what the feedback provider is recommending. But it does mean that you will make a decision from a place of greater awareness and therefore you will make better decisions, which is the mark of a champion leader. Be a champion!

  1. Get a coach. A coach is a thought-partner who supports you in making you aware of yourself as a leader, sometimes by holding up a mirror so you can see yourself. The coach is also an accountability partner who supports your journey to being and staying a champion leader by encouraging you to seek feedback and act on that feedback. Like Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, getting a leadership coach does not mean that you are deficient in leadership; it means that you are savvy enough of a leadership professional to recognize that the best have to get better in order to be and stay the best. Be a champion!

Africa needs champion leaders. African organizations, communities, companies, and countries need leaders who make optimal decisions consistently and achieve their organizational goals. Africa needs leaders who will intentionally seek out feedback and engage coaches to become better leaders. Dear Leader, are you ready to be a champion?

>>>the writer is a scholar and practitioner of organizational development and leadership and a leadership Coach and Facilitator. Over the past three decades, he has successfully coached and trained leaders in Africa, North America, and Europe. His passion for leadership enhancement was born out of his experiences as a cadet in the U.S. Military Academy (West Point) and as a military officer serving in combat in the Sierra Leone Civil War where he was shot twice.

As the only Sierra Leonean with a Ph.D. in Leadership, Modupe was the founding Dean of the African Leadership University School of Business, an institution providing a Pan-African MBA degree to Africa’s mid-career professionals.  He is the Founder and CEO of BCA Leadership (www.bcaleadership.com), an organization that has impacted over 3000 African leaders with coaching and knowledge-sharing services. He leads a team of thirty-two Coaches across Africa and he is the curator of The Made in Africa Leadership Conference.  Contact Modupe through email at [email protected]

To register for The Made in Africa Leadership Conference scheduled for 15& 16 June, 2022 in Lusaka – Zambia, visit www.bcaleadership.com

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