Leadership Made in Africa with Modupe TAYLOR-PEARCE: Organizational discipline and organizational success


I was traveling through Germany one day with a group of travelers from five different countries (and three continents) and the subject of German efficiency came up. One of my colleagues commented that living in Germany must be tough because the country is “so strict”. “Everything in Germany is so militaristic and organized” he commented.

“The people here do not seem to be able to have any fun!” This initiated a discussion between us, during which someone else pointed out that “Germany is one of the most productive nations in the world and its people provide a living in the form of aid for millions of people in Africa and give us cars to drive. Are you sure they are not living better than we are?”

Another traveler commented “Well, I don’t see too many Germans rushing to leave their country to live elsewhere, but I see lots of other Europeans trying to get permits to live in Germany. The place cannot be that bad to live in.” The initiator of the discussion retorted “Well, I know that I don’t want to live in Germany. I prefer living in my home country of Armenia and enjoying a lifestyle that does not feel like a straitjacket!”

The conversation reminded me of a similar one that I had with a friend from Burundi. We were traveling on a flight from Nairobi to Bujumbura to Kigali and he commented that he would never want to live in Rwanda. When I asked him why, he said that because living there feels like you are living under “martial law”.

“The place is so strict, there are so many security people, everyone there looks like they are living on edge, and one cannot feel free and live in a place like that!” I gently pointed out to him that I had attended parties in Kigali and the people there seemed to be having fun and young people played sports, smoked and drank and partied late into the night like any other city that I had visited. My friend was unconvinced. “There is just too much discipline there,” he complained. “How can you have a whole nation living in an atmosphere where they are afraid to do anything?”

I asked him whether the nation is afraid to do anything, or the nation is afraid to break the law. He argued that this was exactly his point. When people are so afraid to break the law, they cannot be living free and cannot enjoy life and he did not want to live in that kind of society.

At this point, I decided to risk our friendship by asking him why the people of Rwanda have a higher life expectancy than the people of Burundi, and have a higher per capita income and average level of education. He bristled at my question. Because we have been friends for a while, he could be honest with me. “I still prefer to live in Burundi!” he protested. “I’d rather live free and be poor than endure tight living and be rich!”

Of course, given the fact that my friend is a beneficiary of world-class education in Europe, has a job with a multinational organization and has the luxury of spending less than two months a year in Burundi, I was skeptical of this statement and pointed out to him that perhaps his opinion would change if he were really poor and had the same level of education as the average Burundian he might not be so quick to make that statement. Our conversation stopped for a while after that. When we resumed talking on the flight, we both decided to talk about a different subject.

These two incidents occurred within four months of each other and they got me thinking, what is it that makes Germany and Rwanda similar to each other? Why are these countries both able to punch above their weight in economic prowess and development outcomes as compared to their neighbors around them? Germany is the largest economy in Europe and has one of the highest human development index levels in Europe. (Human Development index is a composite measure based on life expectancy at birth, expected years of education for a citizen, and Gross National Income per capita).

Similarly, Rwanda is a country that boasts of a higher human development index than Uganda, DRC, and Burundi, three of its four neighbors…a feat that is all the more remarkable considering the almost-zero level of HDI Rwanda started from in 1994.  What is the reason for this state of affairs? Are Rwandans and Germans more intelligent (IQ) than their neighbors? Are they endowed with natural resources that are of greater value than their neighbors? The answers to these questions is a resounding NO.

The difference between these countries and some others is the level of discipline that permeates in the daily behavior of the people. Both of these nations are nations in which there are laws; however, those laws do not make them unique. What makes them different is that the laws are adhered to and they are enforced. This is an indication of the level of discipline in an organization or society.

The smaller the distance between the de jure behaviors and the de facto behaviors of an organization, the more disciplined the organization is and the more successful the organization will be in the long term.

Organizational discipline is a term that makes most people cringe. The term give many folks images of life in a straight-jacket, with minimal fun and lots of Big Brother watching over you. We understand it, we applaud the results of it, but many of us would prefer not to experience it from the inside.

As customers, we love buying food from companies that consistently deliver the right product to us at the right time and the right quality so that we can be assured of feeding our hunger without acquiring a stomach ache in the process. As spectators, we love watching a sporting event where we see the players all operating in perfect synchronicity, complementing each other’s moves and together achieving a level of performance that we instinctively understand is greater than any of them could achieve individually.

As citizens, we applaud when we can go to a registration or license office or log in to a utility company website and receive prompt service because the employees are present, on time, and coordinated. We reward organizations with discipline by buying their products and willingly subscribing to their services because we are confident that we will get what we pay for when we ask for it and at the quality level that we want it and at the time we want it. Behind the scenes of such organizations are people who operate in a manner that is in sync with the rules and guidelines of the organization.

Like a 4X100 relay quartet, the employees in that organization are confident that when the first runner starts running with the baton, by the time she reaches the 90 meter mark the second runner will not only be ready to take the baton, but will also have started running so that the baton changeover does not result in a reduction in the baton’s speed.

The second runner also is confident that as she starts running, as long as she puts out her hand behind her to receive the baton, the baton will be placed in her hand; she does not have to look back to check that the first runner is putting the baton in her hand while she is running; this looking back would result in lost time and productivity.

She simply runs and knows that the first runner will do her job exactly according to the way that they have agreed and it is indicated in the guidelines for the team. The same applies for the third and fourth runner until the baton makes it around the track in the shortest time possible. For this to happen, each of the runners has to abide by the rules of the team and the rules of the sport. If one runner decides that it would be easier for her to run in a different lane from the one that the team has agreed to run, the team loses.

If one of the runners decided that it would be more fun to engage in a night of partying the evening before the race – despite the team having guidelines that all runners should get eight hours of sleep and avoid the consumption of alcohol 24 hours before the race – then the team will lose as the runner will struggle to run at her normal speed which makes the entire team slower and may also impede the smooth handover as the next runner may be used to a specific timing which will now be interrupted by the after-effects of a night of partying.

Organizational discipline is the reason why companies like Ethiopian Airways, Kenya Airways, UBA, Ecobank, Coca-Cola, and Heineken have thrived in Africa; the lack of organizational discipline is why companies like Ghana Airways, Nigeria Airways, Continental Bank, Trade Bank, and Nakumatt are no longer in operation or have been liquidated.

So, if organizational discipline yields desirable outcomes, why is it not adopted universally by most organizations? Why would any African leader not implement organizational discipline in his or her organization? There are three potential reasons:

  1. Lack of self-discipline. In many African countries, after a new President has taken over, the first challenge that the new President faces is one that does not appear immediately as a challenge; it is the visit of certain current investors/businesspeople in the country. These investors come to welcome His Excellency and as part of their welcome they sometimes come with a “welcome gift” in the form of cash.

Depending on the country and the President and the visitor, this gift has been known to be as small as one hundred thousand dollars and as large as twenty-million dollars.  The first mistake made by these leaders is accepting these “gifts” and using them for their personal expenses. This activity, not matter how clandestinely the President attempts to do it, quickly becomes known to the President’s inner circle and cabinet (sometimes the word is spread by the investor) and they then receive the message that it is acceptable to use one’s office for personal gain.

Months later while His Excellency is extolling the importance of the Anti-Corruption Bureau and a culture of Accountability and Transparency, the Cabinet simply shares knowing looks with each other as many of them are conscientiously engaging in their versions of deal-making to use their “good office” to feather their respective nest eggs.  The first person that any leader has to lead is himself/herself. You are your first leadership customer. Your decisions as a leader on what to do for yourself and to yourself will have a significant impact on your willingness and ability to instill discipline in your organization.

This is why pot-bellied leaders are bad for Africa. Pot-bellied leaders are leaders who struggle with self-discipline and their lack of self-discipline should serve as a warning sign to their organizations. In a similar manner, African leaders who have extra-marital affairs (ie, a leader with a wife and a girlfriend) are leaders who struggle with self-discipline. When a leader struggles with self-discipline, the probability that s/he will be able to implement organizational discipline is low.

  1. Lack of courage. Implementing organizational discipline is not easy for a leader. It invariably comes with criticism, especially from those closest to the leader. A leader who wants to make their organization disciplined is going to have to contend with or close their ears to comments similar to those made by my Burundian friend or my Armenian colleague. It takes courage to implement organizational discipline because the first group that the leader will have to implement the discipline upon is the leader’s direct reports…the people that engage with the leader the most often.

It is easy to impose discipline on an employee three or four levels below you; however, disciplining a member of your executive leadership team or your senior management team takes a lot more courage because this is usually someone that you interact with a lot, someone who knows you very well, and someone who may possess skills, talents, and resources that you and the organization need to be successful. The risk of dis-engagement of that person is real and comes with consequences.

As a result, some leaders choose to shirk their duty to discipline those closest to them, and this lack of courage results in a slow deterioration of discipline in the organization as the rest of the organization quickly learn that the rules “don’t apply to everyone”. When the rules do not apply to everyone, eventually, the rules do not apply to anyone.

  1. Lack of awareness. On 12 February 2023, Rihanna, the Grammy-award-winning singer of Barbadian and Guyanese descent, delivered an amazing concert during the halftime period of the sporting event that is easily one of the three biggest sporting events in the world. During an interview a few days before the event, Rihanna shared that she was not getting much sleep because her team and her were going through hours and hours and days of practice to get the show perfect and perfectly coordinated. She assured her fans that she would get sleep the night before the Superbowl, though. One does not have to be a music fan to know that Rihanna is supremely talented and could easily wow an audience with little practice just opening her mouth and singing a song.

However, even with her amazing talent, Rihanna understands that in order to deliver the best service to a global audience, she and her team needed to be completely in sync. Everyone, from the singers to the instrumentalists to the stage hands to the lighting professions and to the sound engineers to the dancers to the choreographers to the TV crew…all had to be completely in sync, knowing their roles, knowing the rules, observing the rules, and performing their roles.

The level of discipline that it takes for Rihanna to deliver the stand-out performance that she delivered is higher than many musical bands, groups, and singers are willing to go through. Rihanna is not the second-higest-selling female artist in the world because she has the second best voice of all time; she sells a lot of records because she is aware of the importance of practice, self-discipline, and discipline of her team.

Her awareness makes her invest the time and emotional energy it takes to ensure that all the people in her organization adhere to the rules and guidelines required for her to consistently produce and deliver the service she promises at the quality and quantity her fans demand.

Dear African leader, do not shy away from discipline, whether it is in yourself, your team, or your organization. It is not a bad word; it is a requirement for success. In Africa, when you implement organizational discipline, you may be unpopular for a while; but remember, you are serving the people with leadership, which requires you to help them make progress rather than wallow in comfort. That is your responsibility. Treat it with the seriousness and gravity that it deserves.

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