Leadership-Made-In-Africa: Leading effectively in a (fuel) crisis

the fuel crisis

Few things strike fear into African leaders’ hearts than the words ‘fuel crisis’. Images of rioting youth, tear-gas pellets from police, long lines at fuel stations and potential military coups come to mind when government leaders hear those fearful words. The fear is not limited to government leaders: in the NGO and private sector, images of unhappy workers, increased absenteeism, abandoned company vehicles, cost overruns, cash shortages and revenue shortfalls create ulcers for organisational and company leaders when those fateful two words are heard.

It is little surprise, then, to learn that in the wake of the fuel crisis that has been sparked across Africa – largely due to the supply chain disruptions sparked by the Ukraine conflict – many leaders of organisations in Africa are losing sleep and holding crisis meetings. The vast majority of African countries are grappling with fuel price increases and fuel availability shortages.

In Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Morocco, Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Sierra Leone (just to name a few), the effects of fuel price increases are manifested in currency devaluations and budget deficits for governments, food price increases, increased poverty and starvation for citizens, and mass demonstrations (both peaceful and violent) that threaten peace and create fertile ground for military coups and civil wars.

There are a plethora of opinions available online regarding what should be done on a macro-economic level during the fuel crisis.

Opinions include increasing investments in green technology and energy production; creating more investor-friendly policies for domestic agricultural production; focusing on value-addition in the agricultural industry in Africa to reduce the demand for foreign exchange and reliance on imports; seeking debt-relief from donor countries to alleviate the pressure on financial budgets; and providing subsidies to citizens to alleviate the poverty pressure.

Some have even advocated accelerating implementation of the AFCFTA as a potential solution. All of these policy suggestions have varying levels of merit depending on the specific country and/or organisational situation in which a leader may find him/herself. In this article, I am going to focus on answering the individual leadership question about leadership in a crisis situation: What should a leader do in a fuel crisis situation like this? How should a leader act and what leadership strategies are effective during such a crisis? We can learn some lessons from how various organisational leaders handled the coronavirus crisis of 2020. I will illustrate this in the next few paragraphs.

Dear African leader, here are three things that you should strongly consider doing during this fuel crisis. These strategies are effective regardless of what size of organisation you lead.

  1. Communicate more than you ever have to your constituents/employees, and do it proactively

It is always tempting in a crisis to go into ‘cave mode’ and believe that the problem is yours alone to solve; or the problem belongs only to you and your board members or you and your management team/cabinet members. This caveman syndrome is particularly prevalent in male leaders. In a crisis, this is highly counter-productive. It is important for you as the leader to understand that your people are also fearful; they are afraid of what the crisis will mean for them. They need reassurance that they will get through this, and they need reassurance that you will not abandon them during the crisis.

In Malawi during June 2020, an unassuming high court judge called Chifundo Kachale was appointed to chair the Malawi Electoral Commission – in the wake of an overturned election that had thrown the country into a state of political limbo.

In the midst of a global pandemic with international partners and donors insisting that elections could not be held, Justice Kachale was appointed and given a little less than a month to conduct elections. Operating under the maxim that “Covid 19 should not kill democracy”, Justice Kachale mobilised his team with regular and proactive communication; and was proactive in ensuring that communication from the MEC was clear to the nation in order to reassure anxious citizens about the status of the electoral process and procedures for voting.

As a result of this proactive communication and leadership, Kachale became the first African to lead an African presidential election re-run that was won by an opposition leader. Kachale understood that his employees and citizens of Malawi also had the ability to make small changes on a micro level that collectively might move the needle significantly enough to help his organisation achieve its goal of weathering the crisis and achieving the goal of conducting safe and fair elections.

Dear African leader, your employees or citizens are also blessed with ideas – some of them crazy – which may be the genesis of the creative thinking you need in order to find innovative solutions to the problem. Remember that in the absence of information from their leader, the people will fill in the gap with imagination and misinformation.

This misinformation, when allowed to fester, becomes ‘fact’ and drives their behavior. A leading cause for many of the demonstrations in African countries during the fuel crisis has been the lack of presence and communication directly from their president.

  1. Seek solutions from and exchange ideas with your peers

In a crisis, it is important to remember that out there are peers running similar organisations to yours – which are either going through a similar crisis or have gone through similar crises before, and these peers have ideas and solutions you may not be aware of.

Additionally, they have the value of experience – having tried some of the ideas that you may be considering – and can give you valuable feedback or foresight to avoid some of the pitfalls and take advantage of the opportunities. While it is easy and comfortable to spend most of your time with your direct reports discussing the crisis, it is critical that you gain valuable ideas and share ideas with peers.

In February 2020, when the AU convened an emergency meeting of African health ministers to discuss the impending coronavirus crisis just 22 days after the WHO had declared it a global pandemic, this meeting set the stage for building critical relationships that would enable African health commissioners to draw lessons from each other and effectively manage the crisis. Almost all AU member-states implemented the initial control measures, including economic lockdowns, in most cases weeks before even reporting their first COVID-19 cases.

When the scramble for PPEs and masks revealed a global bias toward developed countries, it was the exchange of ideas between health commissioners and ministers that led African countries to commission local production of PPEs and masks – which resulted in millions of lives being saved because Africans were not at the mercy of global pharmaceuticals for the production of life-saving equipment.

  1. Communicate early with your creditors/investors/donors

Nothing distracts a leader from a crisis like worrying about matters that are important but not urgent. A crisis is a matter that is important and urgent. A leader dealing with a crisis must develop the discipline to ensure important-but-not-urgent matters are not allowed to cloud her/his thinking so that the urgent matters can be dealt with.

Creditors, investors and donors are a critical constituency for any organisation; without them, the organisation will eventually run out of cash and grind to a halt the same way a bus that does not get refuelled for a long journey will eventually run out of diesel and grind to a halt before reaching its destination.

However, as important as the donors, investors and debtors are, their expectations must be proactively managed during the crisis to ensure they do not take any debilitating decisions which may exacerbate the crisis. Better yet, they should be informed about how they can add value in the crisis, so that if they feel so inclined they can take decisions which help to alleviate the crisis.

This is a lesson that corporate leaders around the globe have learned well and use effectively. In March and April of 2020, several publicly-held corporations in Africa – including Nedbank and Standard Bank – warned investors of significantly lower profit expectations being caused by the Coronavirus epidemic’s economic implications.

In Rwanda, because of the close and early communication between government and the private sector, government launched the Economic Recovery Fund (ERF) to support affected businesses through subsidised loans from commercial banks and MFIs, and credit guarantees.

This is an example of how early communication from leaders to creditors or donors allows these creditors (including government) to make decisions that will give support in the crisis. In the non-profit world, global non-profits like Oxfam were notifying their donors in June 2020 about the need for greater support to vulnerable populations.

The lesson to be learned here about crisis leadership, dear African leader, is to communicate early and often. Bad news is not like wine; it does not get better with age. In a crisis, your people need to know you are aware and you will find a way – even if you are not sure yet what that way is; your peers need to know that you have ideas and are willing to listen and learn as well as share; your creditors or donors need to have their expectations reset, and also be assured that you will captain the ship through the storm.

In the current fuel crisis, whether you are an executive director of a non-profit or CEO of a company, or the permanent secretary of a government ministry, follow these principles so that your organisation can weather this crisis and come out stronger for it. Remember that in every crisis lies an opportunity for exemplary leadership. Africa needs you to the best leader you can be!

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