Turning Opportunities Into Success - The Challenges of Leadership

I am delighted to speak to you today at the graduation ceremony of Ashesi University. When your President asked me to speak with you today I did not hesitate to accept because of my admiration for what your university is doing to set new standards for university education in Ghana which today faces major challenges in responding to the needs of an increasingly globalized world.

Our educational system needs to re-invent itself to produce a new kind of university graduate. One who is multi-skilled, conversant with technology and the analytical power that this brings, aware of the importance of high ethical and professional standards, bold and enterprising, confident and possessing solid communications and interpersonal skills. It is only this kind of well-rounded, well trained and talented individual that can help move our to defeat our problems of under-development, low productivity and underachievement which puts Africa unfortunately still among the ranks of the least developed and least prosperous nations of the world.

I know that your university is working towards this goal of developing a new type of university graduate through its emphasis on a well-rounded curriculum, commitment to the highest academic standards and its emphasis on ethics and original thinking and I congratulate you for showing the way. Your university also recognizes an important fact, that good education costs money and requires tremendous sacrifices from parents and the community at large. In the end however, education is the best investment that any parent or guardian can make for his children and his nation. This reminds us of the importance of financial discipline and care in the way resources for education, be they private or public must be managed.

The author Donald Horne wrote a book back in 1964 in which he ironically called Australia the “lucky country”. What he was really trying to point out was that although Australia like our own country Ghana had been blessed with natural resources, it was really in need of leadership in many spheres and one which essentially lived on other people’s ideas. Since that time, Australia went on to take remarkable steps to transform its economy and living standards into what is today one of the best in the world. How did they do it? through leadership. Often when I think of Africa’s economic difficulties I come to the simple but sad conclusion that we have been blessed with everything-abundant natural resources, thriving cultures, good weather, a young and growing population; everything but good leadership on the many key issues and areas that affect our lives, leadership capable of harnessing the Continent’s resources to produce the type of economic progress that you have so admirably achieved in Australia.

This is my reason for choosing to speak to you today about leadership because it is a subject that we all need to understand better and from a variety of perspectives; but it is often one that is also hard to grasp and full of well-worn clichés.

Ironically, our African traditions offer us some of the best answers to what truly constitutes effective leadership. Over time many of our simple traditional societies have successfully identified and cultivated strong and able leaders, creating a framework to help them succeed admirably. There are many examples of this in and yet, at a national level, many African countries have not produced strong and effective leaders. 

What then makes a good leader? What attributes and principles must he have? What elements account for success in leaders and how do we identify and nurture them? How do we address the key challenge of leadership which is the ability to come up with fresh and innovative ideas and to implement them through people? 

For a long time, the Swiss had a virtual monopoly on watch making. By the 1940’s they produced 80 % of all of the world’s watches. In the late 1960’s someone presented an innovative idea to the Swiss watch making establishment which they all rejected and so he took the idea to a company in Japan called Seiko The design of the watch was digital and today, 80 % of all watches use this design. 

As someone once said: a successful person is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks that have been thrown at him In today’s “new economy” organizations are changing; hierarchies are being flattened and the old command and control structures are no longer workable. With information technology, power and influence is shifting away from those with titles to those with access to technology and the requisite skills to apply it.

Effective leaders are those who delegate power and discretion to others, not those who feel they must hoard it. Leadership then becomes a combination of a person’s thought processes, attitudes and behavior. It manifests itself in the ability to rally people towards a shared and common purpose. In the new economy, developing effective leaders implies rewriting software that challenges some of the long-held notions about the way our societies operate, among them: 

a) That the role of leaders is to control resources, time, money, material and people.
b) Those who are in leadership positions are automatically, good leaders.
c) That leaders must necessarily possess some special gift;

I am a firm believer in the idea that many of the skills that are required for leadership can be taught or nurtured and that one of the prime responsibilities of successful leaders is to pass on their experiences and knowledge to the next generation of leaders. Very often, our schools do not devote enough resources and time to this. However, this is the key to generating the fresh ideas that define future success. The most effective way to build leadership is through a learning and teaching process where people are challenged with new responsibilities and supported with feedback and coaching, and where mistakes are treated as learning experiences.

Nevertheless, I also share the old fashioned view that some of the finest attributes of leaders often only come naturally. Three of them come to mind: Vision, Values and Vibe.

People with a vision constantly seek opportunities to change and redirect their societies before the environment changes ahead of them; they are willing to sacrifice the comfortable positions of today for the sake of a better future, to break down old structures and challenge people to rise to new levels of expectation and they often sound the alarm when others believe that all is well. John Sculley the former CEO of Pepsi and Apple Computer put it best when he said “the future belongs to those who see possibilities before they become obvious.” 

But vision implies much more than just being able to see ahead; it also means knowing precisely what you want to achieve, taking the risks required to achieve it, anticipating the problems that will inevitably occur, refusing to give up, keeping your eye on the big picture and most important, effectively communicating your vision and game plan to others. The vision in effect, leads the leader and it starts from his inner strengths, often developed from past experiences and the influences of the people around him. When a leader’s vision is clear, strong and properly communicated, it pulls others like a magnet towards him, unites them and challenges them to achieve. John F. Kennedy did that so when in 1960 he told NASA about one singular goal: putting a man on the moon. In attracting others to his vision, a leader must constantly look for good ideas and in that process; he also develops the leadership potential in others.

Having a vision is however not enough to be a successful leader; not only must that vision be based on a strong set of enduring values, it must also be accompanied by a clear idea of how that vision will ultimately become reality. This is where many leaders fail. Ghana’s experience immediately after independence illustrates this point. The first black African country to achieve independence (in 1957) Ghana distinguished itself with its political maturity and the desire of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah to bring freedom to other countries in Africa. He recognized quite rightly that the independence of Ghana was meaningless unless it was tied up with the liberation of the continent from the shackles of colonialism and he worked tirelessly to achieve this noble goal. Many people were helped and encouraged to follow Ghana, people like Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe found support from Ghana. What Nkrumah failed to realize however, was that such a noble objective required a significant amount of resources, human and financial, which the young nation did not have the capacity to provide. Therefore, as his efforts to support African liberation movements used up increasing portions of the national budget the gold-rich Ghanaian economy began to falter, ultimately leading to Nkrumah’s overthrow by the military in 1966. It took another 20 years for Ghana to return to true political stability and multi-party democracy. The ability to implement the vision is therefore almost as important as the vision itself. 

Leaders constantly assess their visions against the values that they hold. Values therefore anchor the visions of successful leaders. This in my view explains the success of many of our traditional political and social systems. A typical paramount chief for example, operates within a well-defined set of values that guide his actions. In a sense, his major role as king is to manage and strengthen the values of his people. These values center around the art of listening carefully to others, seeking wise counsel before key decisions are made, demonstrating courage, commitment, compassion and humility where necessary and upholding essential principles of justice. These may all not be relevant to the new economy in which we live but all successful organizations must have entrenched values that support the organization’s goals. Values are often similar and obvious; the most admired ones in leaders are their honesty, focus, competence and ability to inspire and encourage. What really counts is the commitment of people to implement and live by them. Values define the “rules of engagement” or the culture of an society and help people to live and work together. They however, lose their vitality and need to be constantly re-examined and adapted to changing circumstances.

Finally, let me talk about “vibe”. There is an old proverb that says that if you think you are leading and no one is following you, then you are only taking a walk. Vibe is the ability to generate energy and commitment in people. All societies’ organizations have energy because they are made up of people, and people have energy. Effective leaders capture and direct that energy through their character, charisma, competence, confidence, courage and compassion. All of these attributes revolve around the ability of the leader to understand how people feel and think and how to respond to people. John Maxwell in his book on leadership describes the best way to achieve vibe when he says:

People like to feel special, so sincerely compliment them;

People want a better tomorrow, so give them hope; 

They desire direction, so navigate for them;

They are selfish, so speak to their needs first;

People get low emotionally, so encourage them; 

They want success, so help them win.

In conclusion, let me say that there are many ways to approach the subject of leadership. Some for example, chose to concentrate on the personal qualities and comportment of good leaders such as service to others, confidence, the ability to come to terms with one’s own inadequacies and the capacity to make difficult decisions. Often, we can also draw a distinction between two levels of leadership-the leadership that is required to manage day to day situations in order to make our organizations work effectively, and path finding leadership, the leadership skills that are needed to create the paradigm shifts required at some point by all successful organizations. 

Whatever approach we adopt, the key issue to retain is that many aspects of leadership can be taught and transferred to the next generation of leaders and this should always be a central theme in all of your academic programmes. I hope to Ashesi University mature and grow over the coming years despite all of the challenges that I know you are facing and that you become the premier institution in Ghana for developing leadership talent. 

Let me end with an observation of Dr. W.E.B. Dubois which is as true to day as it was when he made it several decades ago. He said:

“We live in swift, flying, transient years. We hold the possible future in our hands but not by wish and will, only by thought, plan, knowledge and organization.”

It is the leadership that comes from planned knowledge and organization which when supported by the strong traditional values that have served us well in the past can help Africa to also enter its golden age. 

Thank You