Ethical Leadership in Africa- Lessons From African Americans

Dr. Martin Luther King
Dr. Martin Luther King

If Africa’s greatest deficit is its dearth of moral leadership for social transformation, it is fitting to ask how such an enormous challenge might be taken up in small steps. Which hero’s and role models can we hold forward to inspire ethical conduct amongst our leadership? Can Africa learn something from the example of African Americans?

Firstly there should be a global consciousness about the project of ethical leadership itself, something so aptly done by someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. in his later years.

In deliberating about the prospects for a new cadre of ethical leaders to emerge in American society, Walter Fluker (2009), who once headed the Leadership Centre at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, says that, ‘the issue at stake is how we might learn from traditions that have provided hope and a sense of community in the past in order to refashion and inspire a vision for the future.’

He proceeds to develop a model for integrity development based on the use of narrative, or story. If we accept that a good case study should read like a good story, it can be a most useful medium or tool for teaching ethics.

One example would be the current President of the United States, who has openly acknowledged his debt to the black church tradition and the influence of Martin Luther King, Jr. on his own life. Excitement and controversy is unavoidable when the name Barack Obama arises, but he is still a good subject of discussion for leaders-in-training.

Women, children and other disadvantaged groups in society have traditionally been excluded from power structures and have not been valued for contributing to knowledge production. Unequal power relations will continue to dominate university establishments until it becomes clear that epistemology is political in nature and is not about facts and figures for their own sake.

Focused study and reflection on ethical leadership should involve teachers ‘bending over backwards’ to ensure that all marginalised voices and relevant interests are taken into consideration. This presupposes a democratic principle where the values of tolerance, respect and mutuality are promoted through ‘social negotiations’ among participants

If one studied the Civil Rights movement, particular attention will have to be paid to the role of patriarchal hierarchies where women were mainly confined to secondary roles and where those with differing opinions were often strictly sanctioned. An exception might have been the case of Rosa Parks who became known as the ‘the first lady of civil rights’ or the ‘mother of the freedom movement’ when she triggered the fight against race discrimination.

The challenge posed by someone like Marable Manning (1998) will also be critical, as for him, it might involve African Americans being able ‘to move away from the charismatic, authoritarian leadership style and paternalistic organisations toward the goal of “group-centred leaders” and grassroots empowerment.’ There is also the question of the extent to which ethical leadership demands placed on Black leaders usually include political compromises with the expectations and hopes cherished by others (Whites).

In Martin Luther King’s case, there seems to have been deliberate pressures to foreground the influence of Western philosophical influences in his thinking to the detriment of African American scholars and preachers, and this extended to his initially muted criticism of American involvement in the Vietnam War.

This dilemma seems to have been revisited upon Obama in his efforts to secure the Presidential nomination at the Democratic Party National Convention when he was accused by Jesse Jackson, a Civil Rights leader, of ‘talking down’ to African Americans.

The adoption of a power tactic or peaceful means in confronting manifestations of evil in the world is associated most prominently with a trio of ethical leaders: Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Marcus Garvey, who each constituted a movement of liberation in his respective time.

There were remarkable differences between the famous trio, but they share the same method of confronting systemic injustice, and the underlying moral structure of their universe is worth understanding. Teaching leadership on the African continent can become an exercise of hope when we learn from those who inspire us and if we direct ourselves towards those who have shown us the way of how to get to the top. It will also teach us to do our best when we are in leadership positions, and know when it’s time to walk away from power when our time is up.

Daryl Balia, Division Head, Governance and Corruption Division, ISS Cape Town.