‘We are the Ones we Have Been Waiting for’ – My Week on the Obama Leaders: Africa Program
Lesley Williams is the CEO of Johannesburg digital innovation hub, Tshimologong Precinct. She was selected to be part of former US President Barack Obama’s Foundation inaugural class of its Africa leadership programme. In July the foundation held its Africa gathering, a five-day convening of 200 rising leaders from 44 African countries. Below she reflects on her experience.
I am one of 200 privileged people hailing from 44 countries across Africa who are called #ObamaLeaders. The Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa Program is described as a year-long initiative to inspire, empower, and connect 200 emerging leaders from across Africa to take on the biggest challenges in our communities, countries, and continent.
Have a very specific problem you’re trying to solve; don’t be abstract. Invite others to sit at the table – Barack Obama
Reflecting on the week I spent with so many diverse perspectives where my thinking was challenged, affirmed and often provoked as I engaged with peers from civil society, business leaders, entrepreneurs and parliamentarians with the common intention of creating inclusive radical impact.
The Obama Foundation values are our container of engagement which are an aspirational way of showing up in the world: Team, Humility, Integrity, Inclusivity, Stewardship, Fearlessness, Imagination.
Each speaker took us on a journey of how they have role modelled these values – often in times of adversity – in their careers and each workshop gave us the strategic tools to apply it in our context.
Below is a summary of the lessons I’ve captured:
A leader is the last to eat, the last to sleep and the first to die
Insights from Mo Ibrahim (Sudanese-born businessman and philanthropist):
- As Africans, we are responsible for our own well-being and to liberate ourselves. Independence is taking charge of our countries and moving forward.
- A leader is the last to eat, the last to sleep and the first to die.
- Understand your limitations, have confidence, appreciate the value that each of your team members contribute.
- Democracy is not about elections, it’s about participating in the life of the country.
- In Africa, people don’t know our heroes, they know our criminals, it is our responsibility to bring our heroes out of the shadow.
When things happen to you, ask yourself if you want to be a victim or respond as a leader
Insights from Leadership in the Face of Adversity panel with Graça Michel (humanitarian), Thuli Mandonsela (former SA public protector) and Bogolo Kenewendo (Botswana cabinet minister of investment, trade and industry):
- Learn to ask the right questions.
- You won’t succeed as a lone crusader.
- The world is your oyster, regardless of where you come from.
- Even in scarcity your mind should be abundant.
- When things happen to you, ask yourself if you want to be a victim or respond as a leader.
- It’s important how you position yourself in adversity.
- A firm “no” won’t close the door for you if it’s not meant for you.
- Make sure that the people you serve become your peers.
To unlock Africa’s potential for the world and itself we need better leadership and entrepreneurship
Insights from Trends in Africa panel discussion with Fred Swaniker (Ghanaian serial entrepreneur and leadership development expert), Sangu Delle (Ghanaian entrepreneur), Maryana Iskander (CEO of the Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator):
- Tech disruption in Africa to be unprecedented.
- To unlock Africa’s potential for the world and itself we need better leadership and entrepreneurship.
- We need to get young people to feel part of the system.
- We need new ways to deploy public and private funding for better results.
- In Africa we’re used to non-linear solutions to problem solving, this is our contribution to the world.
- Education should not just be about facts and figures but include moral character.
- Nothing beats working for a higher purpose than yourself.
- Don’t put the life you want to live off to the future; live that life now!
There’s a price to pay for your dreams, it needs to be rooted in reality. Stay courageous and patient
Insights from The Future of Africa panel with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Former President of Liberia), Kofi Anan (seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations), Lakhaar Brahimi (Algerian United Nations diplomat):
- Set goals and build a team with shared values.
- Don’t be intimidated by chance, it starts with a dream.
- There’s a price to pay for your dreams, it needs to be rooted in reality. Stay courageous and patient.
- Stay the course with determination.
- Decide when you’ll put your own neck on the line. Don’t let others decide it for you.
- Change is a process, not an event.
- Have self-confidence and humility.
- Your best strength is when they underestimate you.
- Understand the environment you’re in. Build a team of value, build your network.
High tech pursuits are highly dependent on highly qualified people
Insights from Innovating for the Next Generation panel with Aliko Dangote (founder, president, and chief executive of the Dangote Group), Trevor Manuel (South African politician), John Collison (Irish entrepreneur):
- Foreign investment will not do the job, we need to grow our own industries.
- Find ways to give people voice.
- A lot of learning is attitudinal.
- Life is not about a few – the measure of what we do in life is in the people.
- Have an irrational degree of self belief.
- Pick up knowledge wherever you can get it.
- On Industry 4.0: Africa needs infrastructure, industrialization and then high tech.
- We need to stop allowing people to dump on our continent.
- If government is not smart then we will continue to leave the poor behind. Too many people are trapped in poverty.
- We need a transformational agenda for Africa.
- Your competition is global whether you want it or not.
- High tech pursuits are highly dependent on highly qualified people.
You may not have leverage now but focus on what you can do while building allies and influence
Townhall Meeting with Barack Obama
President Barack Obama was inaugurated on my birthday in 2009 on the 20thJanuary. I celebrated like no other with this historical event and it would seem too far-fetched to ever imagine the possibility of someday meeting him and engaging in conversation, albeit briefly.
I suspect that more of his gems of wisdom will land in my head and heart over the coming weeks as I am called to act. These are some initial thoughts; to see his address in our Townhall meeting, please refer to: https://www.obama.org
- Politics is unavoidable if you care about your country – when you get involved then you will be confronted by obstacles and will then need to decide how to engage without selling your soul.
- Being elected and governance is not the same thing – it requires various skills so find like-minded people with shared values and vision.
- Have a very specific problem you’re trying to solve; don’t be abstract. Invite others to sit at the table.
- Understand who has the power and influence on the issue you’re working on – do a Power Analysis asking (1) How? (2) Why?
- Do the research and shape your plan around it.
- You may not have leverage now but focus on what you can do while building allies and influence.
- Be bold and aggressive but realistic.
- Practice strategic work – it’s not a complicated as people make it out to be.
- Adopt business practice, this includes non-profit organisations.
- Worry less about what you want to be than what you want to do (what will you do once you attain your desired position of power?
- You can already start practicing what you want to do without being in a position of power. In that way, even if you don’t succeed in attaining the position, you would have made tremendous impact).
It has only been a few days since the group has departed from the first leg of our time together but I can already feel a shift within me despite not having the language to name it yet. I know that I have made lifelong friends and have a renewed thirst to study the history and condition of countries in Africa that I have not explored yet. I have always had a heart for my continent, my ability to act strategically is now being sharpened.
I am proudly and appreciatively an Obama Leader!
This article was first published on Lesley Williams blog. It is republished here with permission.