Authentic African Leadership – The leadership legacy of Nelson Mandela

There exists an alternative practice to global leadership outside the widely accepted Western US-centric leadership methodologies. In Turnbull’s Worldly Leadership – Alternative Wisdoms he suggests that “an alternative view to global leadership is needed owing to four limitations (1) global leadership is often shorthand for the applications of Western management practices in non-western contexts; (2) defining a set of universal traits for leadership is impossible; (3) leadership is contextually driven and (4) leadership can be seen as a dynamic social process.

Authentic African Leadership in its purest sense will reflect African leaders’ unique indigenous culture, values, norms, beliefs, historical underpinnings and traditions.

  • Studies indicate cultural differences influence leadership behavior and management philosophies
  • SA is a complex amalgam of several cultures; dominant management practices are for historical reasons Anglo American
  • Business success requires integration of opposites; critical opposites must be embraced and managed
  • Call for synergy, a hybrid between Euro. & Afro. Leadership approaches = pragmatic humanism – trust & respect for different values and common learning & advantage.
  • Differences of the two cultural groups could be valuable assets & strengths in a diverse workforce – lead to higher levels of competitive advantage. However, if not correctly managed could lead to major conflict and failure.

(As this excerpt has been extracted from the SA Institute for Management Sciences research paper on Afro-centric versus Euro-centric leadership 2000 – shifts have occurred since this empirical research was conducted)

Strengths of authentic African leadership are entrenched in the following constructs:

Humanistic – a strength of Nelson Mandela

Human orientation reflects the degree to which society encourages individuals to be fair and rewards them for being altruistic, generous, gentle and kind to others.

  • Black managers scored above average, ranked second place – share responsibility in order to protect the non-performer.
  • White Managers scored below average, ranked seventh place – are less accommodating than black managers and are more task focused than people oriented.

Collectivism – a strength of Nelson Mandela

Collectivism is reflected in team work, lack of competition among individuals, encouragement of conformity, consensus decision making, cooperation, collaboration and interdependence of activities.

At organisation level, individualism is reflected in the encouragement of workers to work independently, competition among employees for recognition and rewards, lack of social relationships among employees and tolerance for individuality. The individual is more important than that of the group.

For individualist culture support might be valued when needed but unwelcome when not needed or perceived not to be needed. Achievement oriented and directive leadership would be the key leader behaviors; incentives and recognition should be given to individuals.

Tolerating Ambiguity – A strength of Nelson Mandela

Uncertainty avoidance pertains to the degree to which society reduces uncertainty by the use of social interventions rather than tolerating and coping with uncertainty – can also be seen as the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by uncertainty or unknown situations.

Cultures that score low on uncertainty avoidance, accept uncertainty and do not find it upsetting and therefore readily take risks.

Cultures that score high on uncertainty avoidance favour structured organisations, rules and promote security – are characterised by higher levels of stress and anxiety because individuals are uncomfortable in unstructured situations and therefore focus on planning to ensure stability to deal with life’s uncertainties.

Constructs for growth include:

  • Power Distance

Power distance represents the degree to which a society maintains inequality among its members by stratifying individuals and groups with respect to power, authority, prestige, status, wealth and material possessions.

Cultures that score high on this dimension will be characterised by greater acceptance of inequalities, more autocratic leadership and greater centralisation of authority.

  • The data that both the white and the black managers display an above-average degree of power distance.
  • In both the white and black African cultures superiors and subordinates consider each other as unequal and superiors are entitled to privileges.

Although white managers achieved higher scores than black managers on power distance, this is the only dimension on which there is no significant difference between the scores of the black and white groups.

Both black and white managers consider each other as unequal and superiors are entitled to privileges. Even though interdependency and the good of the group are important to blacks they also show a high level of gender differentiation and patriarchy and respect for elders and people in authority and this implies that there will be power distance between genders, age groups and people with and without authority.

This suggests that collectivism should not be seen so much as benign, and a source of support for other people, but rather as interdependence related to a demand for conformity and compliance with group norms and regulations and the acceptance of power structures.

  • Gender Egalitarianism

At the organisational level masculinity by aggressive competition, the selection and encouragement of strong-willed and determined management, the pursuit if growth in markets and profits, lean organisational function, austere surroundings and sex role discrimination with respect being accorded to higher level positions.

  • Black managers scored higher than their white managers on gender egalitarianism. Blacks do not want female managers.
  • White managers scored lower than black managers on gender egalitarianism – are in favour of promoting and working with and for females.


  • Assertiveness – a strength of Nelson Mandela


At the organisational level assertiveness is reflected in the way in which individual opinions are projected without fear and in a constructive and non-destructive way.

  • White managers measured higher than black Managers on assertiveness. Whites are autocratic and aggressive.
  • Black managers scored below average and ranked assertiveness in sixth place.
  • White managers significantly higher than black managers on uncertainty avoidance. Whites are more businesslike, formal, non-flexible and restrictive ranking this second, while blacks ranked it fourth.
  • Black managers have a significantly higher tolerance for uncertainty than whites. Blacks are rebellious, want flexibility and freedom.
  • Both groups scored above average on this dimension.


  • Future Orientation a strength of Nelson Mandela


Future orientation reflects the degrees to which cultures encourage and reward future-oriented behaviors such as planning, preparing for future events, investing in the future and delay of gratification.

In contrast a present orientation encourages spontaneity, immediate action and gratification and does not place much emphasis on planning.

White managers take time commitments seriously. Time is seen as a narrow line of discrete, consecutive points (mono-chronic). Planning and control once made are important. Future planning is important. It is also clear that different perceptions of time have implications for organisational practices for running meetings with culturally diverse groups.

Sequential cultures like the white group in SA are likely to upset synchronic cultures (polychromic) like the black African group in South Africa when running meeting agendas like clockwork.

Black managers tend to have a preference for the past and present orientation and do not necessarily focus on planning future events. Black managers are regarded as synchronic, cyclical or polychronic people who will frustrate sequential people who seem unable to stay focused on specific issues and when relations are seen as more important than time.

White are linear, sequential or monochronic time oriented. Time is linear and is more event-related than continuum related. Time is tangible and divisible in this view.


  • Performance Orientation – Another skill of Nelson Mandela


High performance orientation societies emphasise education, moderate risk taking and the rewarding of outstanding scientific achievements and entrepreneurial behavior as opposed to: tradition, convention, saving of face, social reciprocation and encouragement and the rewarding of aesthetic and artistic achievement.

It is interesting to note that in highly individualistic societies like South Africa white society, performance orientation manifests on the individual level – individuals strive for their own achievement in life.

In collectivistic societies like SA black society, performance orientation is more evident at the group level. At the organisational level, performance orientation is manifested by incentives for performance excellence, challenging assignments, the use of performance appraisals, provision for performance feedback, selection of high achievers and recognition and rewards for high performance.

Whites are performance-oriented with the focus on profit margin and are bottom-line driven – if you do not perform you are out

Cultural dimensions based on research by the SA Institute of Management Scientists 12th annual conference 2000

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