Leadership Made in Africa with Modupe TAYLOR-PEARCE: The bitter is sweet, the medicine food


During a flight from Nairobi to Bujumbura in 2016, I made friends with a Burundian businessman. He was a jolly fellow, easy to have a conversation with, bubbly and curious. It did not take me long to figure out that this guy was a hustler. His business involved “many things” and he gave me the impression that he simply went into whatever area was flush with money in Burundi.

He had some ties with the government and revealed that he sometimes handled the procurement of certain goods and services. I told him that I was on my way to Kigali and that I was working there. He frowned. “That place is like a prison,” he said. “No life there for the people. Too many rules; I rather live free than live oppressed.”

I confess that I did not have the courage to press him further to elaborate on his statement. Perhaps it was due to mental fatigue as I had been traveling for nine hours prior to that flight. Whatever my reason (or excuse), I did not learn much more about the rationale behind my Burundian friend’s claim that Rwanda is “a prison”.

However, the description stayed in my mind for a long time, even as I worked in Rwanda. I was well aware of the prevailing presence of security forces on many streets and street corners in Kigal. Even if I had not noticed them before, I now noticed them after this flight. They did not appear to interfere with life or the movement of people; they simply were there.  Their presence certainly seemed to have an effect, though.

Everywhere in Rwanda the image of law and order was in plain sight to see. People moved about in an orderly fashion, motorbike riders wore their helmets, market vendors sold in stalls (and not on the streets), traffic lights and traffic signs were obeyed by motorists, streets were clean, gutters were free of trash, street lights worked and utilities worked. I also befriended a Rwandan young man who became my squash playing partner and he introduced me to some of the night life in Rwanda and I discovered that the youth in Rwanda did indeed get to party!

It did not appear to be the prison that my Burundian travel-mate had described; it was simply a place where rules existed and they were obeyed and enforced. The human development index of Rwanda shows the highest rate of improvement of any African country over the past two decades, and it is not hard to understand why: the public education system is well funded and unblighted by corruption, the public health system is well-resourced and available to all Rwandans regardless of their economic status; and the reliability of public services and growth of infrastructure (roads, internet, energy, water) is impressive enough to make one feel like one is living in a more developed country like the UK or USA.

A month ago, I visited Singapore for the first time. Singapore is a country with almost half the population of Rwanda and half the land mass. With weather that is similar to that of any West African country, Singapore is one of the world’s development wonders.

First, I was blown away by the airport, which featured a mall/amusement park that is larger than any mall in Africa…and that’s just at the airport! The trains and busses are all air conditioned and clean, and the train stations are spotlessly clean and air conditioned. The entire country is clean; sidewalks, gardens, roads, parks, public spaces, public restrooms, markets, and recreational facilities.

Despite having weather conditions that are similar to West Africa, I was never bitten by mosquitos or other bugs. When I asked my hosts why, I was informed that the health authorities spray the gutters and sewers and other common areas to ensure that these pests do not find a comfortable place to exist and grow within Singapore. I learned that their public education system is first-class, their public health facilities are the envy of other countries, and I have experienced first hand the reliability of their public services (energy, water, transportation) and infrastructure (roads, rail, bridges).

What was amazing to me is that despite the obvious culture of law and order (nobody is allowed to chew gum, and it is illegal to eat or drink in public trains or buses), I did not see a single policeman or security personnel patrolling the streets in Singapore. The only time I saw police was on the highway at the scene of an accident (a minivan overturned and crashed in the highway).

When I asked my host, he explained to me that this was not always the case…in previous years there were visible signs of police and Singapore was well known for public caning to maintain public discipline; however today this is no longer necessary because the citizens of Singapore have adopted the culture of discipline. Not only do they obey the laws but they are quick to enforce it when their fellow citizens (or strangers) disobey the law. They will point out to the stranger their infraction and get the person to correct themselves or they will report the person to the authorities.

The laws still prohibit littering, vandalism, theft and other crimes as they did two decades ago but now adherence to the law has become voluntary amongst the vast majority of the citizens. Toray, because the citizenry has adopted the discipline that was enforced on them decades ago, Singapore is so clean and orderly that it makes London and New York City look like trash dumps.

Recently I was blessed with the opportunity to facilitate a leadership retreat for the top management of a large public sector organization (name withheld) in West Africa. This organization operates in a country where indiscipline is rife and the head of the organization wanted the organization to adopt discipline as a centerpiece of the organizational culture. It was heartening to see the leader passionately exhort his management team to view organizational discipline as a competitive advantage and not as a form of punishment being meted out on them.

The senior managers shared their fears and concerns with the proposed new direction of the organization and the challenges that it would pose for them as they were now being asked to become more disciplined and to instill/enforce discipline within their employees. One senior manager complained that this would make him “unpopular” and his employees may gang up on him and sabotage the department’s work.

The head of the organization was unfazed by the pushback from his senior managers and informed them that even though the journey would be hard, he was determined to see the organization make this transition from a less disciplined to a more disciplined organization and he would work with and keep around those managers that adopted this strategy with him.

I kept reflecting on how many countries in Africa would be transformed if their leaders were to be courageous enough to discipline themselves and their cabinet ministers so that they in turn would do the same to their direct reports and their direct reports would do the same to their direct reports until eventually the entire country would understand and obey the laws of the country, regardless of what day of the week it was or what mood they are in.

What an acceleration in development (human and infrastructure) would occur when discipline became an organizational and national norm!

Dear African leader, instilling discipline in yourself and your team is not an easy task, but it is worth it.  While it may result in frowns and groans in the short term, it will manifest itself in smiles of victory in the long term. While your constituents or employees may complain that you are “a hard woman” or “a heartless soul” in the short term as you enforce the rules without prejudice to one person or another, they will hail you as a great leader in the long term as they benefit from and see the positive outcomes of your disciplined decision-making.

Remember that to achieve greatness for your organization, you and your team have to embrace the bitterness of discipline and accept the medicine that you know is good for you even though it may taste awful.  The difference between high-performing countries or organizations and medium-performing countries and organizations is DISCIPLINE. Adopt it, communicate it, enforce it, live it, Your people will eventually be glad that you did.

>>>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 12 & 13 June, 2024 in Nairobi in Kenya, visit www.bcaleadership.com

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