By : Ralf Sibande with Steve & Eugenie Banhegyi
Note: this article is written using the perspective of Zulu leadership and knowledge systems.
The western business leadership education model provides comprehensive and detailed information in myriad specialist fields but fails to emphasise a holistic and integrative approach to human development in the context of working life. This lack of a holistic approach causes a problematic discontinuity between the experience of home/community life and the world of work where the all-important ‘soft skills’ of interpersonal behaviour are rarely reflected upon.
The mountain metaphor offers the opportunity of looking at leadership from a uniquely African perspective. The experience of a rite of passage underlines the idea of on-going change and movement away from an old role and into a new one. In the rite of passage, the initiate experiences a new, expansive and different world; one where they are expected to be and do more. The rite also helps them release the ‘old self’ - the set of old role expectations, attitudes and behaviours.
In sub-saharan African cultures, the social process of leading young adults into adulthood is known as going to the mountain. It is done for both young men and women. Going to the mountain is a prerequisite rite of passage before taking one’s place as an adult in a community of peers. The initiates are not only introduced to the secrets of the tribe and clan, but are guided to assume proactive leadership roles in their communities. They are helped to undergo accelerated physical, mental and attitudinal changes that have profound implications for the individual and the culture’s continuity. The most important lessons taught at the mountain are:
The leaders on the mountain peak earn their status through a proven practical record of successes. Not only do they embody their culture and mythology, they are actively engaged in an on-going interpretation and creation of reality and ‘telling the living story’ to the levels of leadership below them.
The formulation of a global vision is influenced by the spiritual roots of the mountain peak leaders. Values such as loyalty, selfless and inspired dedication and personal sacrifice are impossible without the belief in shared spiritual myths. In a secular and hedonistic modern world, there is a need to revisit the African leadership model because it has so much that is original to teach us and offers another fresh perspective to look at leadership issues.
Mountain peak leadership has the task of creating a unifying culture. In Africa, there is often a tremendous sense of community and the real and metaphorical spaces between people are much narrower and closer than in the West. In the pre-colonial past, a circular geometry in the construction of private dwellings, eating from the same dishes, communal washing in the river, shared parenthood of children, membership in age-group cadres, and the inculcation of the values today described as representing ‘ubuntu’ were all symbols of interdependence.
The Zulu word umholi has the root stem hola which stands for the verb to receive one’s reward and indeed leadership is perceived as a rewarding experience. In the modern capitalist society umholo is one’s salary or stipend. A leader within this context is the one who receives not only the material reward but the more important intrinsic reward of self-esteem and self-actualisation by virtue of his/her selfless dedication to the task and well-being of his/her followers. The leader also receives the revelation from the mountain top. African leaders deserve their reward because they earn it through the general good that they share with the rest of the community. This is in contrast with many western corporate leaders who maximise personal gain regardless of the surrounding sea of material poverty in their midst. Without a solid base, the apex of the mountain is inconceivable. Hence the African expression “umuntu ngabanye abantu” (One’s humanity is impossible without acknowledging the humanity of others.)
In contrast to the western hierarchical-military-pyramid chain of command, mountain peak leadership describes an interdependent system in which everything – no matter how insignificant - is seen as a vitally important part of the whole. An African leader who loses sight of this fact is generally referred to as “akanabuntu”’ (“He/she is devoid of human content.”) He/she is perceived as being alienated from the balance of the mountain, becoming a self-destructive force until acted upon by equal and countervailing forces of restoration. Another African proverb underlines the idea of unbalanced leadership; ‘if you are not living the dream, then you are living the nightmare’ shows how the way the leader thinks can move the organisations.
Within this context, the African mountain peak leader is not judged by status or knowledge but rather by humanity or human content. In the African workplace, you don’t just work with people in order to achieve deadlines and goals; you are in a relationship with them and the larger whole/enterprise. And until you acknowledge their humanity – by acknowledging and revealing your own - you cannot inspire them to do their best. Acknowledging their humanity means showing genuine interest in them, sharing experiences and wisdom, participating in mundane matters such as common meals, bereavement, or joys and sorrows. Sharing a meal in the staff canteen does not subtract from an African leader but inspires respect, loyalty and love. Many of the most powerful stories about Nelson Mandela, for example, are never reported in the media but instead do their rounds as urban legends in Johannesburg households. For instance, his recent personal, private and unannounced visit to a community hall in Alexandra, Johannesburg to take part in a community meeting was widely spoken about.
In Africa people do not respect trappings of power such as cell phones, expensive cars, bigger homes, slender girl friends, imported designer Italian suits and perfumes. Whilst these might be envied, they are not respected. Rather, people respect the emotional intelligence to transcend these artificial badges of distinction and empathetically connect with the other, thus creating the possibility of mutual trust and the conditions necessary for collective synergy.
In Africa age is respected. The mountain peak leader may be young but must respect those older than him/herself. In the age of first names, casual open necked shirts and performance bonuses, it is easy to lose sight of this important aspect. The greatest social blunder in Africa is to ignore the humanity of the other person.
In this context, oppression and inhumanity to others become symptoms that suggest the dysfunctional performance of a leadership role. Crime is perceived not only as a personal transgression, but as a symptom of a community out of balance. The role of the Sangoma is then to restore community balance and harmony. Apart from punishing the offender, restoration involves healing the entire community. A communal feast is a spiritual experience in which everyone participates in an act of fellowship and unity. Participation demonstrates freedom from prejudice, animosity or any other personal impediment whereas non-participation may brand one as a ‘witch’ not because people believe in witches but because it strikes a dissonant chord to the melody and spiritual unity of the community.
The concepts of Mountain Peak Leadership are useful in designing future models of people-centred organisations and cultures. In these cultures, technology serves as an enabler of relationships and a mechanism to effectively store and transmit useful knowledge across generations. Technology, symbols and rituals are also consciously designed to create and support an environment necessary for peaceful coexistence, mutual love and empathy, community belongingness and the survival of the extended family of which the workplace is seen an integral part.
The persistent and endemic problems of fraud and corruption in the corporate and public sectors in South Africa may be worsened by lack of Leadership commitment and by the neglect of core leadership values. The leaders on the mountain peak have a wider, far-sighted, longer term and prophetic view of what they are doing. This view makes it vital for them to ‘tell the story’ of the future and foresee the consequences of their actions. They also know that they are role models whose every word and deed undergo minute analysis and reflection by their followers – the leader becomes increasingly aware because what the leader says and does becomes a precedent.