May 2018

What Enables or Disables Leadership for Transformational Change in Africa?

Suda Perera, E. Houston Shearon, Paul Jackson, Heather Lyne de Ver

This paper reviews the findings of a study that hypothesised that leadership had been instrumental to bringing about change in Africa but acknowledged that what constituted leadership, and how leadership had facilitated change, was poorly understood. The study sought to unpack how change had taken place, how fundamental it had been, the role leadership had played and the factors that had both enabled and hindered the achievement of change.

This paper draws together the findings from nine case studies from six countries: Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Ghana, Tanzania, South Africa and Uganda. Tentative key findings of the cases were as follows:

  • Across Africa, instances of widespread dissatisfaction with the existing rules of the game have created opportunities for transformational change.
  • In these instances, a type of leadership has emerged. ‘Leadership for transformational change’ differs from traditional management or individualistic leadership in that it seeks to fundamentally alter the rules of the game and set out a vision for making change happen.
  • Such leadership goes well beyond technical or managerial competence. It involves mobilising collaboration and resources for a common developmental good. True transformation requires leadership to exercise political savvy.
  • Understanding leadership therefore involves examining the interests and incentives of the actors driving the change, the coalitions they build to facilitate it and the followers who support it.
  • A number of intrinsic and external factors are required, including: a conducive environment; actors who can seize opportunities; leaders with credibility; coalitions of change agents who can work together; and a process that builds on small initial gains to effect wider change.
  • Potential disabling factors include drastic changes in the political system; the emergence of a powerful group of spoilers; fragmentation of the leadership process and loss of direction; lack of genuine buy-in; and unintended consequences of the change process.
  • Some factors can at particular times be enablers of leadership and at other times become disablers. In the case of LUCHA (Lutte pour le Changement) in DRC, the factors that enabled the leadership to build up a mass movement later became obstacles.
  • In some cases, change took place as a result of authoritarian leadership styles, while consultative or collaborative leadership processes prevented more widespread change.
  • Complete transformation was rare; rather, pockets of transformational change emerged.

We can also say that change can be facilitated and led through different leadership styles. In some ways, this subverts some of the traditional leadership literature by showing that there is no linear relationship between leadership style and the type of change that results. Rather, we show that different leadership styles can lead to significant changes in the rules of the game in specific contexts. Particular leaders were able to transcend the confines of their context. They either changed the rules of the game to allow change to happen or became very good at playing the game to enable change within the confines of the rules.

Although we cannot draw robust conclusions from the nine cases covered, they do show that interesting and important stories of positive leadership and transformational change are taking place across Africa. It is hoped that this paper will serve as a starting point for further research into how positive change happens in Africa, and the leadership processes behind such changes.

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What Enables or Disables Leadership for Transformational Change in Africa?

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