Panelists at the Youth Alliance for Leadership in Africa (YALDA) Conference in Lagos, Nigeria.African Leadership

I had the pleasure of being on the International Executive Planning Committee for the Youth Alliance for Leadership Development in Africa (YALDA) International Conference held in Lagos, Nigeria from October 4-7th 2012. YALDA was started by a group of students at Harvard University in 2004, and has already enjoyed three successful conferences in Egypt in 2006, Uganda in 2008, and Botswana in 2011. This 4th biennial international conference was themed “Innovation and Creativity for a Better Africa: Implementing Your Dreams.” At the “Government, Politics and Civil Services” panel, Professor Patrick Utomi, a political economist and former 2011 Nigerian Presidential Candidate, contextualized the challenge of African leadership.

Professor Utomi noted that while the 20th century promoted an egocentric notion of African leadership, African leaders in this century must be self-sacrificing people that give up their own good for the sake of others:

The big challenge in Africa has been the challenge of leadership. Leadership is unselfish behavior. If you are obsessed with self, then you are not a leader. Knowledge and a sense of service – a sense of sacrificially giving up yourself for the sake of others is leadership.

While there are great examples of current African leadership at political, entrepreneurial, women, and youth levels, the question of what is good African leadership and its manifestation has been on my mind since the YALDA conference. From my personal experience in Africa of almost ten years, I have identified two major challenges to African leadership, one external and the other internal. Externally, those interested in promoting the well being of Africans must recognize when a leader no longer shares that same goal. Internally, one must guard against poor leadership qualities, and examine the principles that provide for their own code of ethics as African leaders.

In 2005, I interned with an international non-profit in Accra, Ghana. In 2012, I had a fellowship with an international non-profit in Lusaka, Zambia. In both instances, I arrived just as the organization was removing the figurehead leader. In both instances, the figurehead engaged in unethical and selfish behavior, which ultimately led to their dismissals. Following the separation, these former leaders attempted to maintain organizational relationships as private ones and tried their best to disrupt the day-to-day activities of the organizations, including exerting control over the organization’s finances.

But how does one recognize deficient leadership or establish a foundation in leadership? Sometimes it is easy to identify an insufficient African leader on a case-by-case basis. I consult Matthew 7:20, “Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” Ineffective leaders leave a trail of unfruitful activity and destruction behind them. They fail to meet promises, have self-centered goals, and ultimately have an adverse effect on the very constituents that they were supposed to represent or protect.

It is in Africa’s best interest to develop permanent record systems or credit rating system that transcends geo-political boundaries. Currently, reputations fail to cross geo-political lines, making it easy for poor leaders to continue their corrupt and exploitative trends in other communities. It is up to these harmed constituents to make sure their leaders are committed to service, and if these leaders fail, to inform others.

Internally, budding African leaders must meet the challenge of leadership by adopting a code of ethics and morals that will hold them accountable. How does one establish this code of ethics? It varies from different walks of life. As a baseline, I can give you the defining principles, which define my sense of good leadership. I’ve been fortunate to attend leading institutions in my academic life, which all groomed me to have a code of ethics that would challenge me to be a good leader. Call me a nerd, but I truly believe in and strive to attain the principles that my academic institutions, from middle school through to graduate school, have as school mottos.

My middle school academic program has the motto of Commitment, Courage, Excellence, and Integrity. I attended an all-girl preparatory high school, which has as its motto Veritas (Truth), Amicitia (Friendship), Fides (Honesty). My college cut through to the heart of leadership and has as its motto Veritas. During college I joined a sorority which motto is Sisterhood, Scholarship, Service. My graduate school has the motto of Perstare et Praestare (To Persevere and Excel). These are the principles that I strive to maintain as I continue my life and serve as a leader on the African continent.

During Black History Month, particularly after the 2nd Inaugural and State of the Union address of President Obama, in order to meet the challenge of leadership, I encourage you to start this year by identifying poor leadership in your own communities and recommitting yourself to those principles that inspired you to be an African leader.