Have you ever wondered why some African Presidents who enter the job with the best of intentions and carry the hopes of a nation (or at least a majority) with them upon their arrival, fail so abysmally to achieve the outcomes that their citizens (including themselves) hope to achieve? There are some learned people that chalk it up to an innate selfishness and corruptness of these Presidential leaders.
Others claim that it is because the leaders were intellectually or experientially unfit for such high positions of leadership. Still others postulate that the political parties that facilitate their elevation to the position of President refuse to allow the President to make the right decisions.
Have you ever wondered why businesses in Africa that are majority-owned by Africans grow at one-third of the annual rate of growth of businesses in Africa that are majority-owned by non-Africans? (according to studies published by the World Bank). Does such a statistic upset you, as an African? (it should!). They are businesses that compete in the same market (Africa), hire some of the same people, and in both cases have shareholders who would like to maximize their profits. Why such a stark difference?
After decades of studying Africans in leadership, I am suggesting that the reasons for both phenomena have common roots: the lack of Peer-Learning and Coaching. Today, I am going to share insights on the importance of peer-learning.
After I earned my first CEO opportunity I was introduced to a CEO peer-learning group by the Chair of the Board of the company that I was leading. He “suggested” it to me in a manner that led me to believe that this was an instruction disguised as a suggestion.
I was pleased, though, after attending my first peer-learning meeting in 2005 and discovered that having a group of 15 – 16 CEOs meeting together in a meeting facilitated by an expert facilitator was time well spent as I became more aware of facets of leadership, the business environment and management that I had not known, and was able to leverage the “safe space” created by the facilitator to bounce new ideas off of some peers who had no problem telling me when the bright idea that I had was “stupid”.
This group provided an accountability structure outside of my corporate board structure that allowed me to periodically vent and find solutions to problems that were plaguing me and the company that I led. Looking back now, I realize that this service, which cost a lot of money, was well worth the investment to help me make consistently better decisions. We met once a month and I hardly ever missed a meeting. Sadly, this service – back in 2005, was not available in Africa. I was a CEO in the USA and had access to it.
Today, this service is available in Africa, yet many leaders do not know about it and continue to make sub-optimal decisions because they lack a peer-learning space to enhance their awareness of solutions to problems that plague them and their organizations.
Many African Presidents do not have access to such a service, to bounce ideas off other Presidents and learn from them and share learnings with them so that they can solve problems in their countries that are typically common to other countries. Many Presidents do not have access to monthly or quarterly peer-learning meetings or safe spaces where they can vent their frustrations and present their challenges to find solutions or test out their bright ideas for others – who have no reason to simply blow smoke up their backside – to provide honest feedback on.
This is crucially important for a national President because on the day that the President first assumes office she or he knows very little about what it takes to do the job properly, and it very likely to make some sub-optimal decisions, the repercussions of which she may spend the next few years trying to recover from. This peer-learning deficiency is similar to a vitamin deficiency…it does not result in immediate paralysis or sickness, but over time it leads to weakness and ineffectiveness.
A leader who gets isolated by hearing only from his subordinates (management team) or his bosses (the Board) will soon start to suffer from leadership vitamin deficiency and his decisions will quickly become sub-optimal.
This challenge is not unique to African Presidents; African Ministers of Government, Chief Justices, Heads of state-owned enterprises, all face challenges in leading their organizations/communities that appear to be unique but in reality are often similar when compared to the same positions in other countries.
Yet, these poor leaders quickly find themselves in the leadership version of solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is the isolation of an individual that is confined to his cell for the majority of the day. While leaders of organizations are not locked up in a cell, from a mental and intellectual perspective, they are locked up, because there are many areas of their job that they cannot discuss with subordinates or bosses. They do not have or create the opportunity to share ideas with peers and thus eventually start to demonstrate the effects of solitary confinement.
According to Dr. Sharon Shalev, who authored the book “A Sourcebook on Solitary Confinement” in 2008, isolation over time manifests itself in the following problems: anxiety, stress, depression, hopelessness, anger, irritability, hostility, panic attacks, hypersensitivity to sounds and smells, problems with attention, concentration and memory, paranoia, poor impulse control, and angry outbursts.
This list reads like a list of issues that I have observed many leaders afflicted with in my study of leaders in Africa. There are many Presidential Secretaries who privately admit that their bosses suffer from at least three of these symptoms.
Humans require social contact. We thrive on exchange of ideas. Like hot coals that stay hot longer when they are together than when they are apart, we must engage with each other in order to maintain and grow our effectiveness. To be socially effective, we must engage socially. To lead effectively we must engage with other leaders in spaces that ensure that we can speak freely and frankly and learn without worrying about looking silly.
Leaders need access to spaces where they can share and test ideas without the concern or someone running off with the rumor that “Dangote is thinking about opening a cannabis factory!” and posting it on social media. Leaders need to have safe spaces where they can show their vulnerability and receive encouragement without being judged or castigated as unfit for their position by people who can make decisions on their job position. These spaces are difficult to create and they can be created by world-class African coaches.
Dear African leader – do you have access to a safe space where you can engage with peers and learn from them, share learnings with them, present your problems to them, and acquire solutions? If you don’t, I urge you to find one. If you cannot find one, reach out to BCA Leadership and ask for one. We can create one for you and your peers; this kind of peer-learning has been the secret to success for many Fortune 1000 leaders and elected leaders in more developed countries. It is available now to us in Africa. Engage with a peer group to enhance your awareness and make more optimal decisions. Do not allow the access to such powerful peer groups be the sole purview of leaders of European and American multinational companies and organizations operating in Africa. You can have access to it as well.
Africans need you to be the best decision-maker that you can be. Join a peer-group facilitated by a world-class African coach.