Three leadership lessons from the great African novelist, Chinua Achebe, found in his last book, THERE WAS A COUNTRY.
What he learned from his father-in-law
Christie (his wife) and I were talking one evening when Okoli walked into the living room. We exchanged greetings. He sat down and listened to our conversation while sipping wine, watching the two of us talk. By this time I could say confidently that he liked me. We got along very well. But in the course of the conversation he missed something Christie said and asked for clarification. At this prompting I responded by saying jestfully in Igbo: ‘Rapia ka ona aghaigha agba,’ or in English, ‘Don’t mind her…wagging her jaw…’
T.C. Okoli sat up and rebuked me. He said: ‘Don’t say or imply that what someone else has to say or is saying is not worth attending or listening to.’ It immediately struck me that I had to be careful about the way I handled someone else’s words or opinions, especially Christie’s. Even when there was strong disagreement, one had to remember to be discordant with respect.
What he learned from his teachers (at the University of Ibadan)
My professors were excellent people and excellent teachers, but they were not always the ones I needed. James Welch said to me, ‘We may not be able to teach you what you need or what you want. We can only teach you what we know.’ [...] ’I learned, if I may put it simply, that my story had to come from within me. Finding that inner creative spark required introspection, deep personal scrutiny, and connection, and this was not something anybody could really teach me.’
What he learned about leadership from Nelson Mandela
What do African leaders envision for their countries and their people? I wondered yet again. Have they not heard that where there is no vision the people perish? Does the judgment of history on their rule mean anything to them? Do they remember how a man called Mandela, who had spent twenty-seven years in prison for South Africa, gave up the presidency of that country – a position he so richly deserved – after only four years and made way for another and younger patriot? Why do African leaders choose bad models like Malawian president Kamuzu Banda instead of good ones like Mandela? Have they considered how Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe has ruined the cause of land distribution by demagoguery and a thirty-year tenancy in power?
Which makes me wonder whether any of these life presidents consider how Mandela became the beacon of justice and hope on the continent, indeed for the world. For those who do not know, Mandela did not have an easy life. He fought alongside African heroes such as Steve Biko, Walter Sisulu, and Oliver Tambo, among other brave activists, for the liberation of his people from one of the most racist systems the world has ever known. For his efforts, he was sent to prison.
Most men would have been broken, or consumed by bitterness. But not Mandela. This giant among men walked free that fateful day, on February 11, 1990, after nearly three decades of imprisonment on Robben Island, hands held high, fist in the air. His release was beamed across the planet. The world was pleased, but nowhere as ecstatic as his African brethren around the globe, who saw in Mandela the personification of their highest aspirations and the embodiment of the kind of leadership Africa needs desperately.
Mandela has delivered magnificently on those dreams. And it is to this great man, lovingly known as Madiba – father of the nation of South Africa, antiapartheid leader, lawyer, writer, intellectual, humanitarian – that present and future African leaders must all go for sustenance and inspiration.
(Achebe, Chinua, THERE WAS A COUNTRY: A Personal History of Biafra, New York: The Penguin Press, 2012.)