Effective leaders should be unreasonable

OSISA and the African Leadership Centre have just run a course in Lusaka on Leadership and Society. We asked the participants to send us their thoughts

November 14th, 2013

“You say that you want to be an effective leader and that being unreasonable is your strength?” asked my dismayed facilitator. I answered, “I thought you asked me for one of my strengths as a leader and I am saying I am unreasonable.”

Welcome to the Leadership and Society Course that was held in Zambia in October and attended by 31 (16 male and 15 female) Africans drawn from Angola, Botswana, Ghana, Lesotho, Madagascar, Nigeria, Namibia, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The major purpose of the course was to train a new breed of effective leaders, who are able to build and maintain good institutions for the broader development of the African continent.

Effective leadership was defined as the process of influencing others to strive for a defined goal and achieve it. In short, the course moved away from a focus on the traditional great traits of leaders towards what was termed the ‘wisdom of the multitudes’.

As one of the participants, I made my seemingly startling response about being unreasonable as part of the Emotional Intelligence session. Of course none of the people in the room initially realised that I had said this with all my heart because the course had made it clear to me how often I had been unreasonable in real life with considerable success.

But my fellow participants interpreted being unreasonable to mean that one was delusional, selfish, intolerant and many such other words. The reality of the matter is I adapted this trait to my journey through life when I stumbled upon George Bernard Shaw’s (1856-1950) quotation, “There are two kinds of men in the world, the reasonable man and the unreasonable man. ” I concluded that being unreasonable involves refusing to simply accept negative situations that one faces as a leader but resolving to stand and push one’s point-of-view until you have influenced others to follow your path and achieve the desired results.

It also struck me then that my life from an early age has been a gradual movement from negatives to positives. I vividly remember that at the age of 10 when we would run from MED Farm in Zimbabwe’s Shamva District to the Wadzanai Primary school, which was over 20 kilometers away, I was part of the unreasonable cadre of teenagers who refused to be swayed by the paid work on the farms since this would have denied us our education. Of course looking back, I can only conclude that all my life I had refused to be subdued by the environment of poverty and have fought to get to where I am today – where I am able to look poverty in the face.

Unreasonableness in the leadership context and its practical application to development work

The Leadership and Society Course being run by the African Leadership Centre is undergird by the key construct that an effective leader is one who delivers results. This views leadership as a process that takes place at all levels of society and champions any one as capable of being a leader regardless of their background and gender. The focus is on the reality that – faced with different contexts and circumstances of poverty, peace, disease etc. – a leader must not employ a ‘one size fits all’ approach but must process and respond according to the context.

In my crudest interpretation, this model encourages leaders to have a ‘flexible rigidity’ so as to remain focused on the goal even if strategies and tactics may have to change with the circumstances.

Changing HIV and AIDS funding in Zimbabwe and how I pioneered unreasonableness for continued programming

I work as the Programmes Coordinator for Ntengwe for Community Development, an NGO in the Binga and Hwange districts of Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland North Province. Ntengwe for Community Development was founded in 1999 primarily as an HIV and AIDS organisation and as the Programmes Coordinator I am responsible for project cycle management, which includes the development of proposals, negotiation with funding partners, planning, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation. I am also responsible for report writing as well as the coordination of district and national stakeholders. So my responsibilities give me an assigned leadership role, in particular in working with communities, key stakeholders and members of staff.

It is within this framework that – like many other organisations in Zimbabwe – we discovered in 2011 that the Global Fund was cutting funding to HIV and AIDS programmes because many of their donors had slashed their support for HIV and AIDS interventions. In reality this translated into reduced funding for local NGOs, the collapse of many community and home-based care activities and the closure of many NGOs. It goes without saying that this was another case of the operating environment imposing its reality on NGO leaders, most of whom had to either disband their organisations or scale back on their programmes.

However, this gave me time to reflect on how we could remain visible and effective in the community albeit with reduced funding. In simple terms I refused to reason with the changing operational environment. Within the auspices of one of our volunteer programmes – the International Citizen Service programme – I pioneered the One Love One Enemy concept in Binga district. This concept is literally a zero budget concept in which One Love stands for the idea of bringing diverse development actors and community members together for the love of a soccer match or talent show or quiz competition etc. to fight One Enemy – HIV and AIDS.  The basic idea is therefore to seek to work with other partners such as businesses and government in implementing events such as HIV testing.

What is interesting is the traditional perception among communities and businesses that NGOs have money and are self-sufficient. Considering the fact that businesses thrive on the profit motive, the idea was viewed from the onset as a wild card. However, I started with verbal discussions with business people explaining why it was important for all of us to fight for a healthy community. This was followed by individual letters asking for donations towards our first One Love One Enemy soccer tournament. And I’m proud to say that since December 2012 and throughout all of the One Love One Enemy events, the business sector in Binga has assisted with funding and material support. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health has supported us as an implementing partner by providing testing kits and facilitating the Voluntary Counseling and Testing of community members during the events.

It is an innovative approach because businesses are able to undertake some much-needed Corporate Social Responsibility in partnership with an NGO, while the Binga Rural District Hospital also takes advantage of available resources and organised communities to pursue their mandate of providing Voluntary and Counseling Testing services to communities. In short, this is a smart partnership that indicates how it is possible for distinct community actors – driven by different motives – to use their comparative advantages and competences to pull together and mitigate some of the challenges facing communities. To date we have held three successful HIV testing campaigns in rural Binga in March, June and August 2013, which resulted in 268 community members and volunteers being tested for HIV.

What is very encouraging about this approach is that in rural communities in Binga people have begun to accept the need to get tested, know their status and take charge of their lives. In addition, as a result of the success of this approach, we have been provided with a small amount of ad hoc funds by the National Aids Council through its district office to undertake advocacy with the aim of increasing youth participation in HIV and AIDS programmes.

There is no doubt that the African Leadership Centre model needs to be fast tracked among the young generation in Africa. This is because rarely do leadership courses impart such practical skills that can help leaders to make a real difference in their lives, organisations and communities.

However, it needs to take into account the importance of being unreasonable – as my career has shown – since this trait must be incorporated within the framework of effective leadership in the 21st Century.

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