A Tale Of Two Cities: The Leadership Question

by Michael Ikpoki | November 30th, 2018

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity … we were all going direct to Heaven, we were going direct the other way …” A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

Words so profound ring true across generations. This was an unlikely opening statement by South Africa’s Minister of Finance, Tito Mboweni, in his recent medium term budget policy statement to Parliament subtitled: the Economy at a crossroad. We are all aware that the South African economy has slid into a technical economic recession. The Minister likened the quote from Charles Dickens’ book to the state of South Africa at this present time, that South Africa had a choice to a choose a path of hope, redemption or a path of despair. The Minister highlighted the difficulties of the time: “unacceptably high” unemployment, poor services, corruption, among others. The punchline for me was the admission that the performance of the Government should be measured by the quality of life of the people more than “sets of numbers, realms of data, charts, graphs or words”.

The medium term budget policy statement firmly linked economic recovery to private business investment and public-private partnerships. He insisted that driving growth-enhancing economic reforms will require rebuilding confidence to unlock private sector investment. He stated that investors are in it for the long run, they want to know that the policies in South Africa are clear and consistent. In his words “We must stop talking in contradictory terms”. South Africa has been reported to have embarked on some actions to renew investments into its economy including the appointment of a team of private sector investment envoys to assist the country attract an audacious $100B foreign direct investment (FDI) within five (5) years.

This writer is not an expert in economics or South African politics so the focus here is on extracting the key leadership principles rather than the political issues. It is very unusual to hear such brutally candid speeches of deep introspection and objective self-appraisal by leaders in positions of authority especially in African Governments. This is a refreshing difference from what is more prevalent: self-glorification, deploying inappropriate twisted data all designed to paint a false picture of eldorado in sharp contrast to the reality on the ground. This trend is not by any means limited to the public sector. Leaderships in businesses, both big and small, are sometimes so preoccupied with painting a positive picture to their stakeholders that they lose touch with the real questions critical for the long term growth of the business. It comes in different forms like spin-doctoring, story-telling or recasting of business results to project the preferred narrative.

The starting point for any real Leader is the truth, dealing with the hard facts. The candour of leadership is exemplified in this speech: It starts with the truth, no political talk, no platitudes, no excuses, just facts, logic and consequential clear actions. The principle in Tito Mboweni’s speech should challenge the leadership spirit in all of us. When leadership is faced with the real questions which will define the long term future of the organization or country, do we confront the issues with candour and rigour or do we find middle grounds that in some circumstances, literally do not exist?. Do we start with the truth or with convenient truths? Do our decisions suggest that we are kicking the can down the road to when we physically get off the bus or we commit to sustenability?. Is there a “conspiracy of silence” on the real issues?. Leadership is about grappling not politicking with the real issues or blaming others (especially predecessors), reveling only in positives and self-glorification at the expense of reality. Leadership is a call to harnessing resources, both human and material, to solve real problems and make things better for society. Problems not addressed do not disappear, they grow, much like a small pot hole unattended to can become a death trap on a major road.

The Ibrahim Index of African Governance recently released by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation reveals that even though Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has grown by 40% in the last ten (10) years, there has been a decline in the business environment in 39 out of the 54 countries in the African continent, equivalent to 80% of the population. In other words, Africa has not generally done well in producing environments that enable their citizens to pursue and realize their economic goals. Governments in Africa should be challenged to improve the business environment in their respective countries. This is the path to real hope and progress. The Ibrahim Index indicates that some countries are already threading that path. The Ibrahim Index reports that Rwanda has overtaken Mauritius to become the most business-friendly economy. Cote D’Ivoire was the only country to record improvements in all 14 categories ranging from human rights to access to basic services. Kenya and Morocco were also strong performers.

We do sincerely hope that the terse speech by Tito Mboweni will be translated to real results from which the rest of Africa can draw some hope and encouragement. It was also very uplifting to listen to President Nana Dankwa Akuffo-Addo of Ghana at the Tony Elumelu Foundation 2018 Forum in Lagos. He said words to the effect that it was the responsibility of the political leaders to provide good governance and improve their economies to enable entrepreneurs thrive in African markets.

Leadership is a lot about Courage. Let’s start with the truth, confront the real issues, match words with real action. Africa needs to improve its business environments to unleash real economic growth and prosperity for its people.