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Sunday, April 14, 2024

African Leadership Studies: Beyond theoretical exceptionalism

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Geert Hofstede has argued that Western theories and styles of leadership are not appropriate for non-Western cultures. Hofstede claims that this is so because leadership studies theorists grew up in particular environments that inevitably limit the applicability and utility of their concepts of leadership to other environments. This proposition represents a form of theoretical exceptionalism and diminishes the globalising potential of leadership studies scholarship. In this paper, I propose to demonstrate that situational, transformational, transactional, servant and other theories of leadership may usefully be applied to the study of African leaders. Using Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, the former Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela as case studies, I argue that leadership studies theory is applicable to the study of leadership regardless of cultural idiosyncrasies. It is my contention that the problem lies not with the Western theories or styles of leadership per se, but with the nature of African leadership and the cultural context from which it emerges, within which it is embedded and within which it is exercised. Africa’s developmental failures reflect first and foremost a failure of leadership. And the theoretical exceptionalism that theories of leadership studies are not suitable tools of analysis for African leadership should be rejected in favor of experimentation.

One may be forgiven for observing that the vast amount of leadership studies literature reads as if leadership exists only in the West. Leadership studies scholars’ preoccupation with their immediate environments and audiences obscures the presence of other environments and audiences equally invested in solving leadership problems in their communities. Organisations and managers are studied as if they only exist in western societies and remedies are suggested that are specifically designed to solve problems in western leadership and organisational cultures. The “we” we encounter in so many works on leadership studies often refers to “we” westerners, not we human beings. The University of San Diego’s Professor Bob Donmoyer speaks of a certain culture of “regionalism” in leadership studies that urgently needs to be addressed. Not only is there a need for African leadership studies, Asian leadership studies, Latin American leadership studies and Middle Eastern leadership studies; western leadership studies scholars may find much that is useful in looking at other leadership and organisational cultures beyond their immediate spatial and academic environments. 

Leadership is a universal human process. It is found in all human societies. Since human beings are essentially similar in all the ways that really matter, it follows that theories used to understand and explain human motivation and behavior in one part of the world may be used to explain human motivation and behaviour in other parts of the world. Of course, no theory of leadership may be applied wholesale in any part of the world without taking into due account human differences and cultural idiosyncrasies. But overall, we can safely argue that as valid generalisations on human nature, theories of leadership apply to their subjects regardless of spatial or temporal differences. Once created, knowledge becomes a universal artifact that recognizes no boundaries.

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Organisational culture and leadership theory lends itself particularly well to the study of leadership in Africa. Edgar Schein’s insights help us visualise the African nation-state as an organizational “macro culture” within which exist levels of organisational “micro cultures”. Schein suggests that understanding the “shared assumptions” of group members is key to resolving intra-organisational conflict and maintains that “leadership and culture are two sides of the same coin”. Both insights are useful to an understanding of African leadership cultures. Culture, Schein writes, “is ultimately created . . . by leaders”. The cultures of material poverty and political intolerance in contemporary Africa are no mere accidents of history; neither are they manifestations of inherent African backwardness; or lasting immutable effects of the colonial encounter. They are in fact created and nurtured by African leaders. The saying that a people gets the leadership it deserves may perhaps more usefully be rendered a people’s leadership determines the nature of the culture they get. Leadership cannot be divorced from its cultural context, just as culture cannot help but be shaped by leadership. 

Bolman and Deal speak of leaders as often incarcerated in a “psychic prison” that prevents them “from seeing old problems in a new light or finding more promising ways to work on perennial challenges”. This is a particularly useful insight into understanding the seemingly inscrutable antics of many post-colonial African leaders. Determined to hang on to power at all cost, many independent African leaders are perpetually in a state of denial; they claim progress and prosperity when their nations and people lack the barest necessities of life; they commit unspeakable crimes against their fellow citizens in the name of a national security that never was; they muzzle dissent and kill their opponents even while proclaiming their impeccable record of human rights and the rule of law. Bolman and Deal’s concept of the psychic prison might help us understand just why African leaders commit these crimes and break all rules of ethical behavior, often in broad daylight, before everyone’s eyes, and with a nonchalant attitude. African leaders of the post-colonial era often wield a “vision” in one hand and a club in the other. You either support them or shut up. 

Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first prime minister and president was, on the one hand, a successful nationalist and pan-African leader who led his country to independence, initiated a number of important development projects, and contributed to the process of decolonisation across Africa. He did a lot to propagate the idea of a united Africa and was instrumental in the formation of the Organisation of African Unity, now African Union in 1963. He initiated a lot of important domestic development projects that continue to benefit the people of Ghana to this day. On the other hand, however, he was a power wielder who systematically monopolised the Ghanaian political space, criminalised his political opponents, muzzled freedoms of expression, association and of the press, had himself declared president for life, and turned his newly independent country into a single-party dictatorship, thus stifling his people’s creative and developmental potentials. His immediate political legacy was a quarter century of political turmoil that saw a series of failed experiments in civilian and military leadership in Ghana.

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Nkrumah’s domestic policy actions suggest that Machiavellian leadership theory is a useful lens through which to understand his transition from a freedom-loving nationalist leader to the dictator of a single party state.  Between 1947 when he returned to Ghana (then called the Gold Coast) and 1966 when he was overthrown in a police-military coup, Nkrumah initiated a series of policy-action transformations that suggest the adoption of the twin Machiavellian personas of the lion and the fox. Let us illustrate:

In 1947, Nkrumah accepted an invitation from the United Gold Coast Convention to return to Ghana knowing, as he admits in his autobiography, that he could not possibly work with what he called the convention’s “reactionary leadership.” He admits that he knew “it was quite useless to associate myself with a movement backed almost entirely by reactionaries, middle class lawyers, and merchants, for my revolutionary background and ideas would make it impossible for me to work with them”. It could therefore be argued that he accepted the UGCC’s invitation for Machiavellian reasons: to use the UGCC as a means of furthering his own political ambitions. He admits that he had his own plans and would not hesitate to pursue them whether the UGCC leadership liked it or not. And that is exactly what he did.

Europe’s subjugation of African territories during the periods of the scramble and pacification was often effected by a combination of force and cunning, of military might and fraudulent treaties of friendship and protection, of Machiavellian lion and fox tactics. African states that resisted colonial encroachment were forcefully subjugated and pacified, while occasionally, African leaders unwittingly signed away their sovereignty to European powers. In order to satisfy the requirements of the Berlin Act that came out of the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, European powers had to demonstrate effective claim to and occupation of African territories. This they did either by force or by producing written evidence of African sovereigns’ consent to submit to their protection or rule. Nkrumah translated these imperial strategies of force and fraud into his policies of Positive Action and Tactical Action, the former a show of nationalist muscle modeled on the Quit India campaign, the latter a show of nationalist cunning to effect the final push against colonial domination. In deploying these two approaches, Nkrumah used the same Machiavellian Lion-Fox strategies to fight British imperialism that Britain used to subjugate Africans.

Nkrumah’s twin policies of Positive Action and Tactical Action were in line with Machiavelli’s exhortation that the prince must be able to be both a lion and a fox. The prince, Machiavelli teaches, “must know that there are two kinds of combat; one with laws, the other with force. The first is proper to man, the second to beasts; but because the first is not often enough, one must have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to know well how to use the beast and the man”. And “since a prince is compelled by necessity to know well how to use the beast, he should pick the fox and the lion . . . one needs to be a fox to recognize snares and a lion to frighten the wolves”. 

From 1947 to 1949, Nkrumah played the fox to outsmart the UGCC leadership. From 1949 when he founded the CPP to 1951 when he became Leader of Government Business, he played the lion through Positive Action. From 1951 to independence in 1957 he reverted to playing the fox through Tactical Action. Positive Action required him to seem tough and fearless as a lion in order to force the British government to grant internal self-government to the Gold Coast. Once internal self-government was achieved, he turned to Tactical Action, which he described as “a contest of wits” in order to convince the British government that his party was capable of ruling the country. In typical Machiavellian fashion, Nkrumah tricked London into believing that he had abandoned his hostility toward imperialism, even though that was furthest from his mind. After independence in 1957, Nkrumah eased back into the lion persona and renewed his relentless onslaught against imperialism, neocolonialism, and those he considered their local agents and stooges in Ghana. His hostile anti-capitalist rhetoric did not deter Nkrumah from seeking financial assistance from the capitalist West in order to implement his most important development projects. Nkrumah was, in effect, a consummate Machiavellian.


This paper presented at the 16th Annual International Leadership Association Conference is an abridged version of a longer study. Dr Baba Galleh Jallow has a BA in History and Political Science, MA in Liberal Studies and a PhD in History. He is currently assistant professor of African History at Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska, USA. Before going to the USA, he worked at WAEC, served as editor of the Daily Observer and was founder editor and CEO of The Independent newspaper.


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