How do African women leaders compare to Western definitions of leadership?
I have been studying leadership paradigms from around the world, and recently became intrigued by Women’s Spiritual Leadership in Africa: Tempered Radicals and Critical Servant Leaders by Faith Wambura Ngunjiri.
Ngunjiri has thoughtfully and insightfully presented her portraits of 16 African women in leadership positions (7 of them are in-depth accounts).
From her introduction on the general status of women in Africa to her qualitative research on these Kenyan women in leadership, Ngunjiri shows us how many of these women have endured significant abuse and gender discrimination on the way to being appointed to their respective leadership roles and in the fulfilment of those responsibilities. They have overcome repressive beliefs and attitudes about the role of women deeply ingrained in their culture that has fuelled limited access to resources, education and professional opportunities.
From the portraits provided by Ngunjiri, one cannot help but admire these women. They represent women who have had to endure more than we can imagine and in the process become incredibly resourceful problem solvers –
- Forced early marriages and female circumcision
- Constant discrimination and physical abuse by men angered by women pursuing an education with the goal of seeing a more socially and economically just society emerge
- Hunger, disease, wars, rape, corruption, divorce, dislocation, and trauma. The list goes on
While we may not question commonly held definitions of leadership in the West, we cannot help but come away with a sense that when compared to the journeys of these African women in leadership, our Western definitions come across rather sterile and innocuous.
Leading by example is important, as is inspiring a shared vision, challenging antiquated and redundant processes, and encouraging others to act. But leadership is more than this.
Ngunjiri defines it as “a process of involving intentional influence upon people to guide and facilitate their activities and relationships in a group or an organization.” It is also “a process of meaning making among people to engender commitment to common goals, expressed in a community of practice.” It is “more than a position rather, it is the ability of one person to respond to a call to her or his life that necessitates action…”
It is from these characteristics that she asks what does it mean to be a woman leader in an African context? Her framework consists of three elements: Africana spirituality, tempered radicalism, and servant leadership.
The first one, Africana spirituality refers more to ubiquitous nature of religious consciousness. African people share a spirituality, not a religion that is distinctively African where its understanding of God is as the definitive source and sustainer of life. This perspective reinforces a spirit of humility and an understanding that a great responsibility has been entrusted to the leader.
The second element of her framework pertains to Tempered Radicalism. This describes leaders who did not fit the “majority mold” or status quo. According to Meyerson (2001), they are men and women who find themselves as poor fits with the dominant culture of their organizations.” They are people who want to fit in while at the same time retain what makes them different. As Ngunjiri discovered, for women in Kenya, leadership often meant refusing to act like men in a male-dominated institution within a predominantly patriarchal culture.
Tempered radicals reflect important aspects of leadership that are absent in the more traditional portraits. It is leadership that tends to be less visible, lesscoordinated, and less vested with formal authority; it is also more local, more diffuse, more opportunistic, and more humble than the activity attributed to the modern-day here. This version of leadership depends not on charismatic flair, instant success, or inspirational visions, but on qualities such as patience, self-knowledge, humility, flexibility, idealism, vigilance and commitment.
For Ngunjiri, the third element of African spiritual leadership is servant leadership. This concept stems from the work of Robert K. Greenleaf (1977) and it essentially runs counter to the dominant leadership theories that espouse traditional uses of power, authority and hierarchy to tell people what to do. Servant leadership is less coercive and more collaborative. The leader is servant first, and leader second. It is a paradigm that seeks to develop and invest in the people they are leading.
I need to read this book again. There’s great wisdom and inspiration to be found.