TSiBA’s Leadership Development Perspectives: Fred Swaniker, CEO African Leadership Academy

By Karen Le Roux, based on an interview by Janet Jobson.

Diverse, talented and brimming with potential, African youth essentially holds the key to performance-driven leadership that is carefully underpinned by integrity, humility, compassion and excellence, maintains entrepreneur, practical educationalist and CEO of the African Leadership Academy (ALA), Fred Swaniker.

Rather than simply focusing on the theories behind leadership development, the Johannesburg-based Academy is intent on creating formidable African leaders in government, business and science & technology through practical means, supplemented by an extensive network of mentors, funders and like-minded individuals. The Academy’s overriding vision is to produce a self-sustaining leadership model that generates not one or two outstanding role models, but literally generations of astute, caring and mindful leaders who, together, can transform the entire continent.

“What we are doing at ALA is a fifty year project. You do not develop a leader through one seminar. It is a life-long process. You’ve got to start with the youth and build it up over a lifetime,” explains Swaniker, who based his big Pan-African dream on his own experiences as a headmaster of a small school in Botswana at the tender age of eighteen! “In fifty years’ time we will have created this network of six thousand leaders – six thousand leaders who we will have known from the age of sixteen and will have worked and engaged with as they passed through different stages of their lives – in their twenties, thirties, forties and fifties. The importance of intergenerational development and networking to the success of the programme’s long-term vision cannot be understated. “In time, forty-year old leaders in the network will be giving twenty-one year old leaders in the network internships in their companies. They will be coming back to be speakers on campus. They will be mentoring the young leaders still on our campus and through all this we will have this self-reinforcing mechanism, where the network develops itself and replenishes itself,” explains Swaniker. “That is how you create the system of change we need in Africa.”

Swaniker’s progression from continental child to notable leader, facilitator and visionary, is deeply entrenched in his overwhelming passion for the continent at large. “Underlying a lot of what I do is a passion for Africa and the feeling that I would like to have an impact on this continent I love so much, a love that came about from a very early age when I started moving around Africa.” Swaniker was born in Ghana and has lived in The Gambia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. After a period of study in the United States, he now lives in South Africa. He has also worked in Tanzania and Nigeria.

What really motivated him to pursue the dream of long-term leadership development, however, was the lack of sound, moral, accountable leaders. “I saw this tremendous potential on the continent, but everywhere I went I saw the potential being blocked by leaders. “We were spending a lot of money on treating the symptoms of this bad leadership, and I am talking about leadership across the board: leadership in government, leadership in business, and leadership in science and technology. We simply did not have the people who would use their talents and their skills to help solve our problems in Africa.”

His attraction to the edifying power of education as a tool to greatness is firmly in the blood. A generational mix of grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts forged a path before him, establishing quality educational institutions in the country of his birth. Prompted by the residents of a small town in Botswana to open an affordable alternative to the expensive private schools in the town, Swaniker’s mother started a study group at a local church. It wasn’t too long before the student body had grown from five children to twenty-five children, enabling Swaniker to make a decision that would effectively guide him to his pre-ordained destiny, that of co-founder of the African Leadership Academy. “When I finished high school, I had a year to wait before I went to university. During that gap year my mother made me the headmaster of the school. I taught, I managed the teachers, and I dealt with the parents. When I went to college I kept working with my mother, helping and advising her as one of her board members and so on.” What started as a small study group, confined to a tiny building and with only one teacher, has today grown into one of the top performing schools in Botswana, with over three hundred children enrolled at a time. “It is called Mount Pleasant Primary School. Every year when they write the national primary school exam in Botswana, it is either number one or two in the country,” says Swaniker with evident pride.

This early life experience taught him the immeasurable benefit of beginning the leadership journey at a youthful age. “What I believe is that a lot of outstanding leaders begin their journey of leadership at a very young age. Experiences they have in their formative years – when they are emerging from the influence of their parents and forming their own, unique views of the world – define their leadership path. “Like Nelson Mandela at the age of twenty-one getting involved in the ANC Youth League; Thabo Mbeki at fourteen joining the ANC Youth League; Richard Branson selling magazines at the age of sixteen – an experience that gave him the confidence, self-belief and practice to eventually launch Virgin; and like Michael Dell selling computers in his dorm room at nineteen – a move that excited and motivated him to build Dell Computer one day.” Swaniker is firmly of the view that although the initial projects may be small, they are crucial learning curves, enabling youngsters to practice and experience the indomitable art of leadership and then inspiring and prompting them to take on even bigger challenges. “If I had not had that experience setting up a small school with my mother when I was eighteen, I do not think that at twentysix, when I saw the need and was inspired to start this African Leadership Academy, I would have done so,” reflects Swaniker. “I probably would have shied away from the idea, thinking, ‘This is too big, I cannot do it.’ If I had not had that positive experience at the age of eighteen, I would not have had the confidence to say, ‘I think I can do this.’ “Very often we are simply limited by the size of our dreams, our confidence and what we can achieve,” claims Swaniker incisively.

Swaniker adopted his early, life-affirming leadership experience as the paradigm for the African Leadership Academy; ‘We find promising young people in their formative years and take them through a defining leadership experience where they get hands-on leadership practice.’ “I believe that developing leaders cannot be done through theory. It is a practical thing. You learn how to lead by leading. That is the only way you can learn to lead,” he maintains. “You can take students through all the readings and case studies, but they will never quite get what it means to be a leader until they are faced with a real, hands-on leadership situation. “They have to engage with communities, with real people and the issues they face, as they try to make change in the community. It is those experiences, and the lessons they learn from them, that enable them to grow as leaders,” adds Swaniker.

The Academy discernibly differs from most other leadership development models in that it constantly develops and sustains each student throughout his or her lifetime. “What we are doing at ALA is not a two-year programme. It is a life-long programme,” reiterates Swaniker. “We are finding students from all over Africa, people that have demonstrated some of the attributes of leadership, and bringing them into the institution for an initial two-year period. We see this initial two-year period simply as the foundation or beginning of their leadership development. It is not the end. “We then concentrate on working with them throughout their lifetime. When they are in college, we need to have programmes that continue giving them practice in leadership – such as internships and short leadership programmes during their holidays. When they graduate from university, we want to be there to facilitate their early careers, and when they are in their thirties to fifties, we want to bring them back to the Academy every year for short programmes to continue to help develop them as leaders.”

An aspect vital to the continuing success and self-sustaining growth of the project is that of networks. “Your effectiveness as a leader is only partly a function of your skills. It is also hugely a function of the networks you have,” asserts Swaniker. “I would guess about fifty percent of my effectiveness as a leader comes from the networks I am able to tap into. “I define the word ‘leader’ as an agent for positive change, someone who uses his or her skills, networks and talents to change society for the better, in whatever way they are passionate about. “In order to bring about change, you need to co-ordinate a whole series of actors. You need to find others who believe in your vision, who can come on board as employees, as partners, as funders, who can open doors for your first clients, open doors in government and so much more. “Whatever you are inspired to do, you simply cannot act as an individual. You need to create a team, a whole movement around you that can help you bring about the change you envisage. All of that comes through relationships. That is why a network is essential to your success as a leader,” stresses Swaniker. “Thus, in forming the Academy, not only are we developing the individuals’ leadership skills through giving them practice in leadership, but, as importantly, we are plugging them into the right networks. So we do not see ourselves as a high school. It is a life-long ecosystem we are building. “We are creating a network of mentors, potential funders and links to other leaders who can help them take their ideas and scale them up. We are creating all these avenues so they can eventually get the resources they need, and connecting them to partners who can eventually get them into the positions they need to be in to be able to really create change on a massive scale in Africa.”

Swaniker strongly believes there is an architectural framework or blueprint for leadership development that comprises raw material, perseverance, passion, values, practice, experience and opportunity. “I see a simple formula for becoming a leader,” claims Swaniker. “I actually think you can engineer leaders by taking them through this formula. The formula is a mix of three things. First is talent. By talent I am not talking about academic talent. I am not talking about people who are geniuses. Maybe talent is not even the right word. It is more like raw material. “In that raw material we are looking at a few personal attributes that people have, which are needed to be effective as leaders. Attributes like courage. Every leader is going to go through a frightening process, and they need courage to veer away from the status quo. They need to stand up for what they believe in because there is always a lot of resistance to change. So, you need courage. “You need perseverance because it is going to be a long journey. You need people who do not give up easily when the inevitable obstacles arrive. “You need passion, to be obsessed with something. You simply want to go in deeper. “The final or fourth ingredient is values, good values. “If you look for people who have those four elements, that is the first part of the formula. Then you add some practice and experience by giving people opportunities to practice leadership,” claims Swaniker.

Practical leadership experience at the Academy is genuine, real time hands-on leadership experience, where the students are not only encouraged to launch a business or community project but are, in reality, running the entire show. “If a team of our young leaders wants to start a business, for example, they come up with a venture, pitch the idea to a panel of venture capitalists we assemble, and then the best ones get funded. “Over the two years at the Academy they have to run these projects. There is a CEO, a CFO, a Marketing Director and a board of directors of real business people they have to report to. “They get audited by Ernest & Young, and a corporate lawyer on their board helps them to address the legal issues. In short, they go through a real experience of running a business or social venture with real money, involving real people. “Over the past three years we have launched about thirty-five different ventures on our campus,” adds Swaniker. “What we are trying to do is simulate the experience Michael Dell had when he was selling computers in his dorm room at the age of nineteen. “Let’s find a way of simulating that experience. It is not so much whether it succeeds or fails. It is the experience of going through the process, gaining experience of how to lead, and giving them the confidence to go out and jump into bigger things later on in life.”

The final part of the leadership formula is creating opportunity. “That is where the whole network part comes in,” remarks Swaniker. “It is about proactively facilitating networks which open the doors the leaders need opened in order to take their ideas to scale. “I think the raw material for great leadership exists in Africa,” affirms Swaniker with confidence. “The problem is the channels for getting them into the positions where they can actually exert the great leadership skills they exhibit, are blocked. So you have the wrong people getting into positions instead of the right people who could actually create the fundamental changes we so desperately need in Africa. “They are simply not getting access to the networks they need to bring their ideas to fruition,” argues Swaniker.

One of the major stumbling blocks in Africa, and the world at large, is the resounding lack of accountability, a deficit Swaniker is adamant will be addressed by this very same network of facilitators, mentors and leaders. “We want to get everyone working together around a common vision about what good society in Africa should look like,” remarks Swaniker. “Due to the personal relationships that exist between these leaders, they will hold each other accountable,” he asserts. “If someone gets into a position and becomes corrupt, a fellow leader in the network will say, ‘This is not what we were taught at the ALA,’ or, ‘These are not the good values we know.’ “I have a lot of belief that it will be a self-enforcing mechanism of accountability because they have certain standards they expect from their peers.”

Swaniker is also dismayed at the inherent skepticism of Africans towards this new, innovative paradigm of leadership in Africa. “When we first started the Academy in 2008, a lot of people thought we were crazy. Africans would simply not support us. Even today we struggle to get funding from African institutions, companies and individuals while America champions us in realising our big dream. “We, in Africa, do not have enough confidence in ourselves to think that we can actually solve our own problems, and are always looking for the outside world to solve them for us. We will come up with all the reasons why something will not work, instead of actually figuring out how it can work. “We need to stop waiting for the rest of the world to solve our problems. We need to do it ourselves. That is what these leaders are here for. They need to solve problems for Africa. It is not about enriching themselves or becoming powerful. It is about solving problems for the common person on the ground in Africa.”

Notwithstanding this singular lack of belief in Africa by Africans, Swaniker has been blown away by the talent and calibre of aspirant leaders identified by the Academy. “I had high expectations, but the four hundred leaders we have found so far across Africa – selected from over nine thousand five hundred applicants and brought into our network – have exceeded my expectations. I have never seen anything like it – I had a dream but what we are witnessing exceeds even my wildest dreams! “The people who can solve our problems in Africa do exist. It is simply a matter of finding them and getting them into the right place,” remarks Swaniker with unrestrained enthusiasm.

For a full transcript of this interview please visit 

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