Leading through followership in Africa
Posted Mon, 05 Sep 2005

Business and political leaders all over Africa are at the centre of the continuing analysis and near paralysis of the continental debate on why Africa, after so many centuries of struggle, still continues to struggle.

Much has been said about the poor quality of life in Africa and the role that its leadership has played in a situation which most feel is getting worst.

Africa’s leadership is being held responsible for the economic, political and social realities that face the continent today.

Much has been written on the role of good leadership, the qualities and how to become one. So there really is no need to debate that issue. What I wish to argue is the need to focus on followership, effective followership, even courageous followership.

It has been so easy to point fingers at political and business leaders, whilst conveniently absolving everyone else from the responsibility we have as followers. The most capable followers in the world will fail if they gripe about their leaders but do not help them to improve.

What is the essence of being a courageous follower? It is to win, for the followers, the favour and mind of the leader, so that they may tell him and will always tell him the truth about everything they know, without fear of the risk of annoying him; and even in the process, oppose the leader in a gentle manner and based on a track record of good accomplishments be able to dissuade him of every evil intent and literally bring him to the “path of virtue”.

What influences the type of relationships followers in Africa have with their leaders? How courageous do they need to be in a continent that has, in the last 300 to 400 years been ravaged by slavery, colonisation, apartheid, dictatorships, poor governance, instability, civil war and corruption?

A situation President Mbeki of South Africa described as continued “inhumanity to man”.

What influences the relationship of a follower with a leader? Some followers have greater influence on leaders on a more personal and individual level than others, irrespective of political or even professional affiliation.

Those who influence the leader usually have a deep sense of worth, are not intimidated by the trappings of power or position, speak forthrightly (and consistently so), care very deeply about the purpose of the organisation (or even country) and pursue it relentlessly.

It has even been said that such influential followers have learnt to understand the moods and situations of the leader to guide them on when best to approach and broach those issues, which have remained cantankerous, sensitive and even unresolved.

How courageous must followers be to support African business and political leaders in formulating solutions on how to deal with the challenges posed by the lack of power and energy across the continent; improving the poor telecommunications network in most countries; dealing with health ravaged by HIV/Aids, malaria and much more?

There is the colossal task of educating the youth of the continent, where 50% of Nigeria’s population is below the age of 20; the challenge of beneficiation of the continent’s natural resources, where South Africa continues to export gold instead of jewellery, Nigeria crude oil instead of refined oil products and Ghana cocoa instead of chocolates we must face up to the global challenges of catching up with technology and its application; the crippling debt burden that will probably keep Africa poor for ever and the need to make Africa more globally competitive.

How courageous do followers have to be?

The great paradox of followership is that of responsibility. We are responsible – whether we lead or follow, we are all responsible for our actions and also share responsibility for the actions of those we can influence.

Followers too must be ready to serve – even though they do not sit in the hot seat. They must be ready to challenge the status quo and the changes which evolve daily.

They must be courageous enough to participate in the transformation, which is sweeping across the continent under the banner of Africa’s own initiative – Nepad.

Leaders require a vision – a sense of purpose for which everyone needs to be engaged. African leaders must have a collective vision for the continent. Nepad provides a platform on which the collective desires of Africans and their aspirations can be encapsulated; it has provided a focus – a vision.

To be courageous, the 800 million odd people in Africa must revolve around this continental vision and not around the leaders that have the mandate to deliver it. If the purpose is not clear and motivating, leaders and followers alike can only pursue their perceived self interest and not the continent’s or even country’s interest.

Followers must always orbit around the purpose and not around the leaders.

“Follower” is not a term of weakness, but the condition that permits leadership to exist and even gives it strength. The value of a follower is measured by how completely the follower helps the leader and the organisation to achieve their common purpose.

There is therefore a need for courage because it balances power in a relationship. An individual who is not afraid to speak and act on the truth as perceived, despite external inequities in a relationship is a force to be reckoned with.

Culture in Africa can challenge the courage, which a follower shows. The respect for authority and respect for seniority, however defined, will make the typical African silent.

It is said that 70% of followers will not question a leader’s point of view, even when they feel a leader is about to make a mistake. Yet learning to speak forthrightly to an elevated leader is not presumptuous; it is an essential part of courageous followership.

Followers must find an equal footing with the leader and this can only be on an intellectual, moral or even spiritual ground, where the issues are always at the centre of discussions and not emotions or personalities.

To find equal footing with the leader - especially in Africa, one must look beyond the title, trappings and power of office and seek to see the human being occupying the office.

The trappings of office in Africa can be intimidating. But the question to ask is - who is this leader outside his role of office? Do we find him slower than we are, do we have to cover for this person or will we show him up in public whenever we get the chance? Are we prepared to educate and train him?

There are many circumstances, which elevate people who a follower may not regard as an equal, to a position of leadership. Internal politics in the organisation, discrimination, or the more justifying policies on the need for cultural and ethnic diversity have landed people in positions of leadership, which some followers might be inclined to challenge.

In other cases, people are elected to a position of leadership through popular votes (and Africa knows enough about the credibility of that process). Closely related to this are leadership opportunities arising from connections, people with very high public profile or are just plain charismatic.

Of course there are situations arising from family owned businesses, where the leadership is based on family succession.

Irrespective of the circumstance that gives rise to this situation, should the guiding principle of a courageous follower not be “service to the cause? Followers must revolve around the purpose of the organisation and put the leadership through its paces and through effective dialogue, educate and enhance the capabilities of the leader.

So as organisations and institutions around the world focus increasingly on leadership issues, there is now a corresponding need to focus on followership and the reasons have become quite obvious. With the level of transformation that must take place in Africa, the responsibility must be shared by all.

There is thus an opportunity to draw on the collective genius of the people who surround leadership. This supports democracy at a national political level and empowerment at a corporate level.

A mechanism is thus put in place to challenge the leadership continuously by a courageous team of followers who are encouraged to be strong and faithful to the ‘cause’.

Finally, we will find that the focus is no longer on just the leadership; it is now on the whole team of followers because they too now share the responsibility for success.

It is time for everyone, without exception to collectively rise and become courageous followers. We must remember that it is the quality of the followership that determines the quality of the leadership.

At the end of it all, we are all responsible.

Fuloso Phillips is MD of Phillips Consulting Limited. He is a certified Management and Chartered Accountant who has worked for major international firms such as the Pfizer Group, Coopers & Lybrand International and the SCOA Group in Nigeria.




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