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West Africa Civil Society Institute Strengthening Civil Society


President Barack Obama walking with mentees on the South Lawn of the White House. (photo: Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama walking with mentees on the South Lawn of the White House.

Inter-generational Leadership

Over the past five years, I have had the opportunity to experience the responsibility of a parent and the leadership of my children. With guidance from us, as parents, they develop capabilities shaping their own lives, indicating their preferences and asserting their personalities. Overtime, as parents, we adjust to their growth, their strength, until they take their first wobbly step, a sign of greater independence and shared responsibility. In sharing the design of our lives, being attentive to their early steps while reprioritising, parents need to respond to cues, signs and other elements that we discover. This mutual exchange is often about preserving and safeguarding without restricting them from opportunities to learn, fall, recover, and most importantly allow them to be comfortable in their own new world. 

When children are born, they are fragile. Thus, patience is a key ingredient in developing the premise of our shared vision. Until they reach a certain level, they remain vulnerable but are sponges that absorb the emotions, knowledge and guidance of the children and adults around them. Parents and children share responsibility for leading and following, and trade roles often. Their ongoing engagement and interaction determines when each has a responsibility to lead or to follow. As adults and parents, we can shape our own lives, but we must recognize and embrace the fact that our children have the same capabilities.

These leadership lessons gleaned from the home can be applied to the public sphere to develop the inter-generational leadership model required to move Africa forward. We need to create pathways that take homegrown leadership to solve inter-generational challenges. Compassion, honesty, curiosity, commitment and confidence must guide our leadership to foster the same characteristics in those we lead. Early years matter in providing a framework to understand the world we live in and how to re-imagine it. A leader’s greatest achievement is remaining steady during the predicted turbulence in the relationship with those they lead. Life or leadership transitions go through turbulences which serve as the mechanism to reinforce or redefine the early years.

In reinforcing the leadership creed fostered in early years, one needs to clear the path for independence in the context of a mature relationship. Turbulence tests this and offers an opportunity for growth and for learning. The key success in this period is fostering growth and independence in the period of transition while keeping the shared goal of progress in mind. The marriage of conservative wisdom and liberal effervescence breeds the innovation needed to reimagine the Africa we want.

There is an inherent tension between changing and preserving while delivering on the shared goal: human progress. I would argue that trust built during turbulent times is one of the key ingredients in charting a path to transformation. In its absence, human progress takes a winner-takes-all approach to growth; bound to fail because of the contribution deficit engendered by our inability to define human progress as a shared value.

It could also be, the leadership deficit that is often referred to in Africa, stems from the inability of leaders and followers to adopt a common creed that views human progress as the shared goal while adapting to evolving contexts. Fear often grips both, in the uncertainly of the outcome of turbulent periods. The real challenge for leaders and followers, just like parents and children, is constantly redefining how to achieve human progress whilst negotiating the ever-changing dynamics of their relationship.   

Ultimately, the role of the leader is to prepare those who follow to be ready for the time when they take responsibility for the lives of a few or a nation. It is not an easy process with textbook recipes, but grounded in principles such as respect, patience and trust. These are the ingredients that build an individual’s character to believe in the reimagined future and stokes their desire to lead in its attainment.

Like being a parent, leadership is messy and frustrating. But one sees through the fog because leaders believe their children can go farther than they have ever been. A leader’s role is not to define the purpose of their followers. Their responsibility is to sketch in pencil the outline of what they could become. Their greatest gift to them is knowing when to retire from the front, allowing them the responsibility for determining how they contribute to the shared goal: human progress.

Carl Manlan is the Chief Operation Officer for Ecobank Foundation, an economist, a 2014 Mo Ibrahim Foundation Fellow and 2016 ASPEN New Voices Fellow. He writes this editorial for WACSI in a personal capacity. 

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