Transformational Leadership: Cases from Africa and beyond

Dudziro Nhengu
Posted February 17, 2015 from Zimbabwe

“Transformational leadership is defined as a leadership approach that causeschangein individuals and social systems.”

This write-up is adapted from a presentation by Elijah Wachira at a workshop on Transformational Leadership held at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe for women parliamentarians, women from the security sector, women from the academy and women from civil society from 24 to 30 November 2014. In the presentation, Wachira showcases case studies on Transformational Leadership from different countries on the globe.

Understanding Transformational Leadership in traditional African Societies

Transformational Leadership in traditional African societies is provided in the traditional African philosophy of ubuntu (Zulu) or botho (Sotho) or unhu (Shona). In these and other languages the philosophy says "A person is a person on account of other people (or because of other people"). Applied to the province of leadership, the philosophy is best exemplified by the Southern Sotho maxim: Morena ke morena ka batho, meaning that “A king is a king on account of the people". Clearly this is a philosophy that emphasises the principle of interdependence in human interaction: "I am because you are. You are because we are." No human being is self-sufficient. We all become fully human in relation to one another.

For a leader who understands and believes in this philosophy, there is no king without the people. In other words kingship or leadership cannot be exercised in an ivory tower. The king depends on the people just as much as the people depend on the king. By accepting the principle of interdependence, the leader or king realizes that leadership involves interaction with the people. It entails consultation with and listening to the people or the people's representatives. The actual interaction with the people may be direct (in terms of, say, face to face interaction) or indirect (through the people's representatives or by means of policies or actions that have a positive impact on the people). By interacting with the people, the leader is given a platform on which to engage, challenge and inspire the people. The extent to which these principles are applied in the actual exercise of power will naturally depend on the character, disposition and abilities of each individual leader.

The Mutapa Empire from Zimbabwe As written by a Zimbabwean historian Emmanuel Ngara, the Mutapa Empire was founded in 1430 by Nyatsimba Mutota and lasted for over 500 years. It was built up through commerce more than conquest, and its builders connected to those of the Great Zimbabwe.

There are four outstanding and easily identifiable lessons drawn from the Mutapa Kingdom that can help us understand transformational leadership better, and these are:

Relations between the King and provincial leaders

The King had a soft way of engaging and influencing followers, gaining loyalty not through brutal force but by inspiration, and showing trust and mutual respect to the provincial leaders and the general populace.

Creating a stable state by managing the economy

Wisdom of the Mutapas extended to the management of the economy thus the empire enjoyed a thriving diversified economy for centuries.

Involvement in the affairs of the people

The Mutapa (King) did not live on an Ivory tower. He was interested in the affairs of his people and was personally involved in interacting with them and listening to them. The King was a King on account of the people. A servant of the people.

Relationship with foreign powers (Diplomacy)

It is clear from history that the Mutapa dealt with foreign powers. Most important was Portugal which was a big power then. He signed treaty with Portugal, a marriage of convenience demonstrating use of diplomacy to keep all ‘enemies’ at bay.

The second case study involves Honourable Reginald Wanyonyi (PHD) Member of Parliament (MP), Bungoma County, Kenya. Bungoma County is in the Western part of Kenya. It has a total Population is 1,375,063, while covering an area of 3, 032.2 square kilometers. The population density in her County is 453.5 people per square kilometer, and 53% of the population there live below the poverty line.

Honourable Wanyonyi’s main role is legislation, oversight and representation as a member of the National Assembly. Her transformational leadership journey started at the African Centre for Transformational Leadership (ACTIL), a training centre established in 2012 through a coalition between UN Women Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Office in Kenya and Kenyatta University. One of ACTIL’s overarching goals is to build the capacity of African leaders, especially women leaders for transformational leadership in line with the goal of the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

After receiving cumulative mentorship at ACTIL, she was heled to create a success plan at 3 levels, at personal, institutional and community levels. At personal level she focused on personal grooming, on balancing family obligations with her parliamentary job, and on learning as much as she can on personal development from her chosen mentor.

It institutional level she focused on improving her knowledge levels as a member of parliament, and ensured that she sat at the front bench in parliament for visibility, for maximum attention and also for grabbing every slightest opportunity to let her views heard. At Community Level she was struck by the lack of savings and credit opportunities for the Bungoma County Women, and she worked hard to start up the Savings and Credit Co-operative Society (BUCOWO). She worked very hard to support women in Bungoma to develop a culture of saving and to create wealth through table-banking concept and support women to raise collateral and asset base. They together set a target for a 1 billion Shillings saving in order to establish a local community bank.

Honourbale Wanyonyi’s successes are counted in the hope she created among the poor, and the overarching belief amongst the grassroots women there is that “Yes we can” transform our lives and society on our own as women. With the initial success all women in this scheme are dreaming big – they can see themselves running estates, buying buses and shuttles. A pool of community volunteers working at the grassroots mobilizing and educating women with passion has been established, and this drives them to work even harder, sacrificing to walking long distances to mobilise support. Connecting the dots, their efforts created 10,000 members as well as over 400 women group members in the first 8 months. Together they raised over 10 million Shillings (US$115,000) and gave over 70% of that given out in loans to grassroots women, and this includes business loans and short term school fees loans. The loans were given at 1% interest. Loans disbursement goes hand in hand with entrepreneurship and business training. She has also influenced transformation and expansion of businesses and agricultural activities. Women who used to sell tins of grains or beans are now selling in bags, and she has built capacity for women and youth groups to take advantage of procurement opportunities in the County. Agriculture in the county has been improved and commercialized, with corporate marketing of produce. A successful heifer project has been initiated with the aim of having one cow for every woman in the county in the next 5 years to create employment and change lives. The governor of the County has in turn donated 10 acres of land to BUCOWO for establishment of BUCOWO Transformative Leadership Institute (to be linked to ACTIL). Honorable Wanyonyi’s successes were not without setbacks. As the only woman MP in the county, some men felt threatened, ranging from the Governor to Members of County Assemblies (MCAs).

They started skipping her community meeting, and actively campaigned for people not to attend and join BUCOWO, bad mouthing her and spreading falsehoods. They initiated rival organisations, and many stories of witchcraft against her were told. Honourable Wanyonyi grounded herself and her vision in prayer and good works, and nothing was going to stop her. People baptized her the County Mama, and male leaders realized they were fast losing favor and popularity amongst the people. They started acknowledging her and recognizing her in meetings otherwise they would be booed, ensuring they seek her advice and involvement in their individual projects. BUCOWO has been institutionalized and can now run even in her absence, while she does her MP job. The entity has employed a CEO and Head of Departments (Finance, HR, Credit, ICT and Registry, Marketing, Public Relations), supported by a pool of volunteer field staff for community training and mobilization. It has 74 members of staff who are working hard to track for changes in people’s lives through projecting lessons learnt, sharing stories of significant change and good practice. BUCOWO’s website: is under construction and computerization is ongoing to help manage over 10,000 individual members and 400 group members. The entity’s core values, policies and procedures have also been developed.

Another transformational leader is Wangari Mathai, who demonstrated her vvigilance against destruction of the environment. Mathai single handedly tackled corporate and political greed to stop construction of villas in Karura forest and a 60 storey building in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. She also fought strongly against encroachment by powerful land grabbers into the Nairobi National Park, leading to iinstitutionalization of tree planting of trees and re-forestation activities. She established the “Freedom Corner” to concretize issues of rights, liberties and resistance to oppression. She helped debunk the myth female equals weakness and subjugation of women based on gender and sexuality.

Another figure women can learn from in terms of transformational leadership is Margaret Thatcher. Though she never at any one time appointed a women to her cabinet, thereby failing to alter the perception of society and state regarding other women’s capabilities, her trade Union reforms and privatization schemes reversed the collectivist trend in British politics and helped restructure state and society. Because of her leadership style, in the 80’s her presence at 10 Downing street became the norm, to the extent that when they wanted to oust her, a boy was heard asking, “but dad, can a man be Prime Minister”. Thatcher always defined her position precisely and stuck to it to the end (sometimes the bitter end). She spoke brilliantly and extemporaneously, criticisms never bothered her, she loved a good fight and never lost her control. The ironies in her life can only serve to teach women the difference between strong qualities in leadership and conservatism. Although she sometimes worked 19 hours a day and seven days a week, while many leaders of her time seemed to age, Thatcher seemed to look better each year. Through her hard work she left the country stronger than when she entered office.

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