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Learning leadership development from African Cultures:
A personal perspective

PraxisNote No. 25

Chiku Malunga


September 2006

SARPN acknowledges INTRAC as a source of this document:
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Leadership development is currently a very high priority for capacity building in Africa. My experience, however, suggests that the plethora of initiatives are largely imported from the West, and tend to have only limited application to the specific African contexts and cultures in which they operate. As a consequence, they achieve only limited success in developing leaders. African culture is at best ignored and at worst viewed simply as a negative obstacle to ‘good leadership’. I believe that, to stand any chance of being effective, leadership development in Africa must be rooted in the influential cultural heritage. To promote ongoing behaviour change in leaders, it is essential to tap into the energy, commitment and authenticity that reside within the culture concerned. New ideas should be grafted onto existing indigenous cultures, rather than simply uprooting them and transplanting foreign models.

This Praxis Note is inspired by the observation that leadership development from an African cultural perspective is often conspicuous by its absence in most discourses and initiatives. Within the Note I therefore describe aspects of leadership and leadership development in precolonial Africa (though many of the practices identified are still widely followed today, particularly in rural areas). I then go on to draw lessons for leadership development in civil society organisations (CSOs).

These perspectives are based on personal experience as well as limited primary and secondary research, the former comprising interviews with twelve individuals (indigenous authorities and paramount chiefs in rural Blantyre, members of the chiefs’ council and female community elders). Special acknowledgement must go to Professor Gomo Michongwe, who freely gave his time to share with me his reflections and lecture notes from his 50 years of teaching African leadership. Using open-ended checklists, the interviews focused on the interviewees’:

  • understanding of indigenous leadership and leadership development;
  • the opportunities and challenges they see for the indigenous leadership and leadership development model in modern society and organisations;
  • how the model can be made more relevant in modern organisations.
Secondary information was collected from a number of documents mostly from the Internet. Thanks too go to Rick James for considerable editorial support.

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