Q & A with Maavi Norman

Leadership in Africa

Maavi Norman is currently a Ph. D. candidate at Northwestern University and a recent Leadership Fellow with Northwestern’s Center for Leadership. He is also the grandson of Liberia’s President William Tolbert, a reformist leader who was assassinated in a military coup d’état in 1980. Keenly aware of the challenges that leaders face in their quest for bringing about progressive political and economic transformations and having experienced firsthand the grievous consequences of reforms unintentionally leading to political instability, Norman’s work blends academic rigor with a commitment to develop resilient leaders of integrity.

ISOKO Institute spoke with Norman about his work on leadership, leadership development and reform in Africa.

ISOKO: Could you start by introducing yourself and the work you’re doing?

Norman: My name is Maavi Norman and I am a Ph. D. candidate in the Political Science Department at Northwestern University. My concentration is comparative politics and international relations. I’m also a Northwestern Certified Leadership Coach.

My research focuses on political leadership in Africa. I am particularly interested in reformers: leaders that have made significant strides in positively transforming their political, social and economic systems of governance. I explore their motivations and impetus for undertaking risky reforms when the short-term consequences of those reforms (political instability, military coups) may outweigh the long-term objectives (such as increased economic development or more democratic political systems). I am also interested in the decision-making processes that shape the reform process, as well as the factors that account for political stability as reforms are implemented.

Specifically, I’m looking at Liberia, Senegal and Ghana during the late 1970s and early 1980s. I’m interested in this period because during the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, there was a concerted push for democratization and good governance on the continent. There was more of a credible commitment by multinationals, organizations and western powers, including the U.S., who were really pushing for such reforms. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s there wasn’t really a serious push for good governance in Africa or other developing regions. Indeed, many “bad governments” were propped up by Western powers. Some scholars have gone as far as to label such foreign policy stances organized hypocrisy. Of course, these ideals may have existed, but during the Cold War many deemed these proclamations as mere rhetoric. They weren’t really backed up by policies and practices. So I’m interested in what motivated these African leaders during this earlier time period to really push for reforms on their own terms.

ISOKO: What are your hypotheses as to why they were able to implement those reforms despite a lack of external, credible commitments?

Norman: I attribute a leader’s inclination or proclivity to pursue risky reforms to their political orientation and worldview. While outcomes of reform efforts depend on their political management style and international engagement.

So right now, one of my hypotheses is that these reformers had some intrinsic motivation to usher in progressive change based on their unique political orientation and worldview. I believe that the reformers that I’m looking at were motivated to reform because they were personally committed to being better stewards of their country’s economic and/or political systems. And in the process they believed they could leave a legacy as well as serve as a model for future leaders. So you have these intrinsic motivations for why leaders wanted to push for reform.

Another factor is ideology. I believe that some of the ideologies that these leaders espoused were a driving force for them. For instance, in Liberia President Tolbert believed in Humanistic Capitalism. Because he was a successful entrepreneur and businessman prior to becoming president, he believed in the workings of capitalism. At the same time he was also committed to uplifting the citizenry from “mats to mattresses.” I think that that could have also been a key motivation guiding his reform efforts. As a result, economic growth, development, and a more democratic political system accrued under his leadership.

ISOKO: Who are some of the other leaders that you’re looking at?

Norman: I’m looking at Leopold Senghor of Senegal. He was the first president in Africa to actually step down from power. He introduced multiparty democracy and then relinquished power to his vice president. That, in itself, is an enigma. What motivated him to step down from power when relinquishing power seemed unfathomable to many of his contemporaries?

Might his education in France, tenure in the French National Assembly, and socialization in other democratic institutions have played a role in shaping his political orientation and worldview to be favorable to a more democratic polity? Or could it be the African Socialist Ideology Negritude that he espoused?

Another reformer is Jerry Rawlings of Ghana. After launching two military coups and killing and imprisoning scores of former political leaders, he embarked upon a reformist path. A self-proclaimed rebel, he challenged his left-wing compatriots and their leftist ideology. He was accused of “betraying the revolution” when he reversed from his socialist course and adopted IMF-friendly policies. He revived Ghana’s economy, making it one of the fastest growing economies on the continent in the 1990s. What motivated him to undertake these significant reforms, particularly when most other military rulers in Africa tended to be retrogressive? I believe it was a particular commitment to social justice inspired by his life experiences and values. Even in the face of numerous coups attempts and assassination he stayed the course.

Rawlings, Senghor, and Tolbert are very different leaders.  Assessing why their political orientation and worldview catalyzed them to undertake reform and investigating how their political management style and international engagement drove the process will be a valuable theoretical exercise with practical implications.

ISOKO: In your research on leadership, what are some of the baseline qualities you see in leaders across the board? So in other words, what are some of the non-negotiables that a leader has to have?

Norman: Well there is no cut and dry answer for that. There are no definitive characteristics or attributes that all leaders possess; however, I do believe that there are some traits, tendencies, or even practices that enhance leadership capabilities.

First would be resilience. This is the ability to transcend adversity, to be able to overcome obstacles, and to bounce back from crises or setbacks.  Being tested in such a manner strengthens one’s mettle, cultivating a spirit or mentality of perseverance.

Linked to resilience is the ability to take risks. A lot of leaders are expected to take on challenges, to really step outside the box and to try something new. I find that most great leaders are risk-takers. And as they encounter failure or are severely tested along the way, they learn from these experiences to become more effective leaders.

Self-awareness is another trait that I find valuable for effective leadership. A great leader is aware of their strengths and weaknesses while also being socially aware. They are able to see the proverbial trees and forest simultaneously, and have a knack for putting situations into perspective. Empathy is also important. Being able to connect, relate, and understand the predicament and perspectives of others. A leader’s ability to thrive in diverse settings, collaborative and hierarchical, is very powerful too.

Finally, I would say that leaders ask powerful questions, those that others overlook but gets to the root of the problem or situation at hand. In many instances, it is powerful questions that bring about change.

ISOKO: Can you give me a particular example of a leader that’s asked questions like that?

Norman: Liberia’s President and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is an example of a leader who has asked a powerful question to affect change.  A few years ago, Dambisa Moyo wrote a book called Dead Aid in which she raised the issue of international aid not being used effectively in Africa. In response, President Sirleaf asked a powerful question: How can aid be used more effectively and efficiently in Africa?  She created the Liberian Philanthropic Secretariat. Its aim is to facilitate efficient sharing of information and collaboration between the government, civil society, and foundations doing work in Liberia. It is the first of its kind in the world. It is a testament of an African leader’s ability to recognize a problem and create an innovative solution for it.

ISOKO: So how do you go about developing leaders and especially the qualities that you mentioned?

Norman: Leadership is not something that you can learn simply by sitting in a classroom, taking a workshop or reading a leadership book. There are certainly theories that will help, but leadership has to be practiced. It is something that you learn as you get your feet wet, your hands dirty, and bumped upside the head a few times. This is acquired through experiences. Experience alone, however, does not create leaders. Two people may have the exact same experience with two drastically different reactions – one may grow and thrive while the other is left unchanged or negatively impacted. It’s about how you process the experience, what you make of it and the valuable insights you extract from it.

Thus, effective leadership development programs provide an environment where participants can engage in activities that simulate aspects of leadership in practice. Leading a team, collaborating on projects, dealing with or managing crises and conflict, problem solving, practicing persuasion or influence are all effective exercises. These activities push participants to really learn about themselves through critical self- reflection either individually, in a group or with a coach. Tools such as strengths assessments, 360-degree feedback, reflective journaling and leadership coaching are all effective for leadership development.

ISOKO: There are a lot of similarities between the common qualities of entrepreneurs and leaders. What do you see as the differences between these two?

Norman: The differences are a matter of degree and type. Entrepreneurs at the core are revolutionary. They revolutionize products, services and industries. All leaders however, are not revolutionary. Some are more interested in maintaining the status quo than anything else. Although you do have transformational leaders or political entrepreneurs, all leaders are not change agents. Entrepreneurship is also about risk-taking while many leaders are risk averse and extremely conservative. Progressive or reformist leaders on the other hand tend to take risk to bring about change. Leaders also rely on influence and power in a way that entrepreneurs might not have to.

ISOKO: Shifting gears a little bit. What is the relationship you see between leadership and good governance?

Norman: This is also a matter of degree and type. Good governance, as it relates to national leadership, is the manner in which a national leader manages the social, political, and economic affairs of a country. It is a style of leadership characterized by a decision-making process that is consensus-oriented, inclusive, transparent, rule-based, accountable, efficient, and the like. Good governance is a form of leadership but it’s not the only kind. In my opinion, it is a more democratic form of leadership, more participatory form of leadership, and I would even consider it to be a more transformational form of leadership.


ISOKO: What do you mean by transformational form of leadership?

Norman: Transformational leadership involves having a clear vision for where you want to lead a group, team, or country, and also getting buy-in from followers or the citizenry. The leader creates a sense of ownership or collective destiny. So for example in some African countries right now they have what they call visioning processes. This is where the leadership might say, “By 2020 I would like to have this level of development in my country.” But it goes beyond mere projection. It also involves a consultative process with the citizenry to figure out what they would like the priority of the government to be, how would they like to go about pursuing those goals, and what role they can actually play in the process. It really creates a sense of collective ownership of the long-term objectives at hand.

Transformational leadership is unlike authoritarian leadership, which does not involve the people and their input. There is a personal commitment involved and a high level of buy-in from the population. You take their needs and their desires into consideration as policies are formed. And you are accountable to them as well.

ISOKO: Can you give me an example of transformational leadership that you’ve seen in African government?

Norman: The recent winners of Mo Ibrahim’s Good Governance Awards are certainly all transformational leaders: President Mogae of Botswana, President Pires of Cape Verde, President Mandela of South Africa, and President Chisanno of Mozambique. In addition to fostering economic growth, and introducing progressive reforms, they all stepped down from power peacefully when their terms were up, resisting the urge to extend their term limits.  This will undoubtedly have positive implications for the political culture in their respective countries.

In my opinion, President Sirleaf also exemplifies transformational leadership. Liberia has experienced significant growth and development in recent years under her leadership. Apart from the Liberian Philanthropy Secretariat, she has also signed numerous progressive legislation, including the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and the Freedom of Information Act. She has also been a fervent supporter of civil liberties, political rights and press freedom.

Another is Babatunde Fashola, Governor of Lagos State.  He is transforming Lagos into a megacity. He has significantly increased tax revenue by overhauling the tax collection service, allowing him to finance more reform projects.  He has also cleaned up the city and brought a high degree of order and security in a previously chaotic environment.  He seems to be committed to fighting corruption. Lagos has experienced unprecedented growth under his leadership.

ISOKO: The macroeconomic situation in Africa as a whole has been improving steadily since the mid-1990s. How do you see good governance, and likewise, good leadership playing a part in that turnaround?

Norman: There was a pretty interesting quote that I read a few months ago by Jackson and Rosberg that said: “Governance in Africa is more a matter of seamanship and one less of navigation—that is, staying afloat rather than going somewhere.” This quote really captured the prevailing attitudes of leaders on the continent up until the early 1990s. The short-term goal of political survival or personal enrichment was privileged over long term development objectives. I think the economic development that we see now comes from the commitment and ability of leaders to focus on long-term development goals.

Between 1968 and about 2000 there were roughly 108 successful and attempted military coups in Africa, which really characterizes the instability that has been so characteristic of African politics. In recent years, there has been more stability on the continent allowing leaders to focus on longer-term objectives as opposed to short-term personal survival. There are more and more leaders who are actually stepping down from power. Military coups and the civil wars are no longer the only ways that power is being exchanged. Most of these developments can be attributed to improved governance.  Because of better governance there is more of a focus on long-term economic goals and hence the better outlook for the economic prospects in Africa. Good governance, economic growth and stability are all reinforcing.

ISOKO: Focusing in on Liberia, what are some of the challenges to leadership development there?

Norman: I would say there are four main challenges. The first would be changing the mindset of what constitutes leadership. I recently had a conversation with a faculty at the University of Liberia about plans to launch a leadership development program there, and she made a comment that really stuck with me. She said that the most popular student leaders on campus are the one that are the most confrontational. They are generally those students who are the most outspoken, the ones who push for more drastic action, and the ones who are antagonistic towards the faculty.

I found that both curious and disheartening. But I think it really gets to the point that leadership takes different forms in different contexts. Leadership is situational and in their point of view the only way to bring about change is through really drastic, aggressive means.  Highly centralized, hierarchical, authoritarian leadership has been so ingrained in the political culture that a more collaborative/consensus style of leadership may be viewed as weak leadership.  It’s obviously not something that can happen overnight, but I think there has to be a change in mindset and political culture.

A second challenge is poverty. If you have a survival mentality, you really can’t focus on higher-level goals or aspirations. Just as with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, when low-level needs are not met it’s very hard to focus on ethics, values, accommodation and things like that.

Traditions can also be a challenge. I think sometimes certain traditions might constrain the development of leaders. For example, in most African cultures there is an emphasis on age and respect for your elders, but the most effective leaders are not always the oldest person in the room. There are people in their twenties running multi-million dollar enterprises here in the U.S. and elsewhere. Hence, the older generation and the younger generations should be able to work together to effect change, with the tacit understanding that the oldest person in the room may not always have the best ideas on how to move things forward.

I think sexism is a challenge. In too many instances, women are not afforded the opportunity to lead because of their gender. Strides are being made across Africa with the gender parity bills mentioned earlier, two current female heads of state, and the new head of the African Union being a women.

So while these are challenges they are not insurmountable and they can be overcome in time.

ISOKO: How would you approach leadership development given those attitudes and approaches?

Norman: I’m big a big proponent of looking at best practices in other regions, so I think that case studies, for one, would be valuable. Students could learn valuable lessons from considering alternative ways of bringing about change that does not involve violence as well as novel ways of addressing societal challenges. The non-violence movement in India, for instance, was used as a model for the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.  Gaining insights and strategies from effective leadership in different contexts can be invaluable.

Furthermore, I think it’s easier to be critical and antagonize administrations when you don’t have a more nuanced understanding of the challenges they face. So giving students the opportunity to understand the challenges that leaders face by allowing them to serve in positions and to lead a team or to lead a group. Simulations can really get them in the position to understand some of the paradoxes that upper levels of leadership deal with and give them a better sense of what it takes to be a leader.

ISOKO: For the Africa’s emerging leaders, what are the three most important things they need to keep in mind?

Norman: Take risks. Step outside your of your comfort zone. Secondly, don’t be disappointed by failure. Failure provides a great opportunity to really learn about yourself, the world and about institutions. It allows you to set yourself up for a comeback. Failure, though painful, is a great teacher and moving forward from it will make you stronger and more effective.

Thirdly, I would say look forward as you look backwards. It’s important to reconnect with your history and your heritage even as you look forward and chart a new course. We all are part of a larger narrative as individuals or as leaders. Get an understanding about where you fit in your family’s trajectory, your organization’s trajectory, and your nation’s trajectory.

ISOKO: Thanks for taking the time.

Norman: My pleasure.

Stay Connected