I can only answer the question “What am I to do?” if I can answer the prior question “Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?” [Philosopher Alasdair McIntryre]…The questions “What am I to do?” and “Of what story am I a part?” capture the essence of leadership—to take action, which may exceed one’s authority, in the face of doubt. However, these questions miss the essence of leadership because they focus on the individual. Leaders ask and answer, “What are we to do?” Effective leadership asks implicitly or explicitly, “Of what story are we a part?”
Richard Couto, 2004, Encyclopedia of leadership
Richard Couto’s words struck a chord with me. On the day I first read these words I was researching and writing a conference paper on African Leadership Narratives. When the call for abstract submissions for the said conference had floated into my inbox, I’d read it with some interest and then filed it to come back to. I promptly forgot about it and when I recalled that I might have been interested in making a submission, I had missed the deadline. Suddenly, I realized I really, actually, wanted to submit an abstract. It was the 3rd bi-annual Kwame Nkrumah Conference, which happened to be taking place in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, just about an hour from where I live. There was a long list of topics for possible submissions centred in and around issues of African development, including our resource abundance and development scarcity, the colonial history, the state of pan-Africanism, the question of our failed leadership, roles of the Diasporas, Brain Drain and Gain …This list felt like every dinner conversation, every newscast and every “why Africa’s situation is hopeless” interaction I’d been in. It was the necessary, guttural, painfully raw story, documenting why we, Africa and Africans, are in the more difficult situations we find ourselves today. It is a Lament Narrative, needed to grieve losses and facilitate healing. But Lament Narratives to the exclusive of hope and action stifles and suffocates progress and inadvertently reinforcing a narrative that we are powerless against the ocean of despair we face, filled with all these strenuous factors. We were telling and retelling the story we are a part of without asking: What are we to do? As I looked at the list I realized I had something to say and contribute. It was not on the list and I was late, but I took a chance and sent in my abstract for a paper and presentation titled African Leadership: Now and for the Future, to be in the Conference Track: African development: Resource curse or leadership curse?
This conference submission was one event in the storyline that has brought me to We Will Lead Africa. At the time I’d been carrying the vague uneasiness that precedes the possibility for change, the choice to just do something different but I was not sure what my unease was about and what the something I needed to do was. I had studied and worked in the field of leadership and organization development/change for a while and thoroughly enjoyed my work but craved more intellectual stimulus. To gain that, I went back to graduate school fully intending to do a ‘usual’ leadership and organization development doctorate dissertation and degree. The kink in my plan was going to a school renowned for its commitment to social justice and change and for preparing passionate scholar-practitioners to not only lead organizational change and development but lead and make social impact using our systems change skillsets (What was thinking?!). So in following my passion for how to shift African Development and immigrant/refugee narratives, I ended up researching transformational African leaders, living and working in the UK, US and Canada, while being world changers in their communities locally and/or back in their African ‘homes.’ This, in spite of every real and stereotypical hardship that came with the significant war traumas they had experienced in Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo-Brazzavile and Ethiopia. These, my sheros and heros were everyday leaders, a community worker, a student, a software engineer, an environmental specialist etc., contributing whatever skillsets they had, with a whole dose of passion, and making significant changes in narratives that seemed otherwise bleak. These, were answering the questions for themselves: What are we to do? What part can I play? They were writing new narratives of leadership in and for Africa that are hard to find at the dinner table, on newscasts or on that conference abstract list. I wanted to share African leadership narratives like theirs – transformational, yet marginalized. Because I also know from my leadership and systems change scholarship and work that albeit a slow process, shifting narratives, will shift beliefs, will shift individual and collective action and will lead to change and transformation…and I KNOW this is already true across the African continent. I know this, because by the end of researching and writing that conference paper, and subsequent research and work I’ve done, it is clear that the alternative narrative of everyday leaders making a difference is already happening.
My research showed that where this leadership change is happening, it’s based on
We Collective accountable leaders, taking unified action
Will The leadership WILL, grit and courage to do something, anything, now and for the future i.e. action-oriented and aspirational leadership
Lead Everyday leaders, motivated by collective service, in every sector, including emerging leaders from marginalized groups
Africa A focus on a prosperous continent, where divides are bridged and leaders work across boundaries and borders to achieve a broader success.
And for those of you thinking it, yes, these rumblings, these isolated narratives feel like drops in the vast oceans of our needs right now. But that is exactly why we must hear them some more, share them some more and disrupt the status quo narratives some more. Remember that saying? Little drops of water, make a mighty ocean. We Will Lead Africa is one way to start collecting the drops, to build networks, to share ideas and to further precipitate the en-mass leadership change already happening for Africa.
For me, in the ongoing storyline of my life – in which I attempt to practice what I preach – this work, this space, this place, is also about being true to the leadership and change work I teach and do every day. It is about taking action to do my part in the WE. Confession – the gremlin on my shoulder often says, but what are you actually doing? What difference will telling a bunch of stories make? After I lick my self-deprecating wounds, I say back to the gremlin: Stories matter. Our collective story matters. And if all we accomplish with We Will Lead Africa is unifying African Leadership narratives of hope and change and transformation that inspire more collective action, I/we’d have done something! Inaction is no longer a choice simply because mine isn’t to build something, or invest in something. In the words of one of my favorite leadership writers Parker Palmer,
Everyone who draws breath “takes the lead” many times a day. We lead with actions that range from a smile to a frown; with words that range from blessings to curse; with decisions that range from faithful to fearful…when I resist thinking of myself as a leader, it is neither because of the modesty nor a clear-eyed look at the reality of my life…I am responsible for my impact on the world whether I acknowledge it or not.
So what does it take to qualify as a leader? Being human and being here. As long as I am here, doing whatever I am doing, I am leading, for better or for worse. And, if I may say so, so are you.
Parker Palmer in the introduction to “Leading from within: Poetry that sustains the courage to lead
Spread the word, Share/encourage others to share stories of work making a difference in/for Africa
Stay tuned for more from our Editorial team on Why We Will Lead Africa. Judith’s Story, coming next