Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 22 July 2013

An ‘African MBA’ would be a mistake

The real value of an MBA is now being re-examined very carefully. Business schools are under pressure and the benefit of what they are teaching is increasingly in question. Observers say that not only is the MBA becoming devalued because there are now so many, often suspect institutions awarding the degree; they are also questioning whether MBA graduates are still meeting the needs of business. Is the mainstream MBA in its present, mainly Eurocentric format, the right model for Africa?

Does the MBA as taught in the leading South African business schools sufficiently acknowledge the realities of African leadership or does it simply do a cut-and-paste of what is taught at Harvard or Insead or any of the other major international business schools?

Passionate supporters of African culture like the US academic Mark Rittenberg say that leadership training in South Africa should take account of the “natural warmth and generosity of the African spirit”. Rittenberg talks at length about the need for “servant leaders” who are selfless and “put the needs of others first”. He contrasts this with what he describes as a “hard-nosed British command and control” style of leadership which he says is not “authentically African”.

There are also complaints that the textbooks used are often inappropriate. There is a lack of Africa-centric textbooks and business case histories.

Dr Rittenberg has a distinguished academic and leadership consulting career. He is a renowned expert in the field of leadership development. Among his achievements he has been a consultant working with the Palestinians and Israelis trying to resolve their leadership issues. Now he has been invited to coach Africans in the post-Apartheid era in the process of “regaining their confidence” and learning to express themselves as leaders. But lumping all business education which is not “authentically African” into a category characterised as “command and control” suggests a somewhat fraught observation of what happens at business schools.

Reuel Khoza, in his book Attuned Leadership: African Humanism as Compass, refers to the “connectedness, compassion, empathy, integrity, humility and reasonableness” required of good African leaders.

We may wonder how all this high-ground stuff is seen to be particularly African when we are faced with so much of the opposite in the leadership of the continent. Put that aside for the moment and let’s focus on whether African leadership needs to be identified as substantially different from other sorts of leadership. Is there a distinctly African way of leading, and is there a sufficiently strong mandate for it to be taught at business schools; in fact to develop an “African MBA”?

Ram Charan, internationally respected governance and leadership advisor in his newly published book Global Tilt, supports the thought that there is a move away from first-world northern-hemisphere thinking and that it is the rising economies of the south that will be setting the pace in future. While he advocates a strong need to understand this phenomenon, he does not suggest that a different leadership style is required.

Also recognised as a guru in the business school space, Andy Andrews, former dean of the Wits Business School, is reported as saying something quite different; that to close the gap between what business schools provide and what the market needs, the first objective must be to provide a “global perspective”. He emphasises that every country faces globalisation, and that students must be exposed to more global content supported by international exchange programs.

The concern about a black-consciousness driven need for a uniquely African style of management education is that it flies in the face of an increasingly international world where we have to compete with our products and services in a globalised world economy. It is on that playing field that we must, in the first place, understand our clients and the needs of the international marketplace. To develop our business and exercise our marketing capabilities we must not be pleading for them to understand us or to make a thing of our African culture and its way of doing business.

In our increasingly ‘flat’ world there is an overriding movement of business leadership toward ‘global best practice’.  Whether we operate in the northern hemisphere of America, Europe China and Japan, or in the southern hemisphere of Brazil, India and Africa, it is this global standard which is now accepted as the way to do business.

Ask successful international companies like General Electric or McKinsey, or HSBC, or Microsoft or BMW or any of the others. They do business in the same way all over the world. Their business practices are generally standardised on what was originally the American multinational model. All of it, from the way in which they conduct board meetings to the procedures of their executive committees and the disciplines of budgeting or strategic planning and beyond, are processes and business habits which are now pretty much standardised world-wide. Of course there is acknowledgement of a context in which all of it operates, and there is respect for local culture. It is the special way the Japanese hand over their business cards, or the way the Chinese expect you to drink and hold your liquor, or the American habit of first-names from the beginning and the Germans who don’t like it, to any one of the many subtle niceties of the world’s cultures infused into the interactions of their business practices. Each country or continent like Africa would want to have these recognised. But it would seem wholly unnecessary to develop and build a different leadership style for each region when we are all eventually subscribing to the same ‘gold standard’ of global best practice.

Giving in to African chauvinism and trying to craft some kind of ‘authentically’ African leadership is time and effort wasted. The sharp business leaders of Africa are already deeply committed to the accepted international way of engaging with the rest of the world. Yes, that way is Eurocentric and quite American but it has the implicit approval of the international business world. Observing the delegations from various African countries at the World Economic Forum shows how clearly Africans who are making it in the wider world of business adopt the styles and manners of the so-called ‘colonial’ regimes. And for a caricature watch the aging Robert Mugabe being driven to the opening of the Zimbabwe parliament in an open Daimler with flag bearing cavalry outriders to know that ‘authentically African’ has less appeal for some than British colonial.

If the national character of different nations is commonly associated with different skills like the Germans and their engineering, the French and their cuisine, and the Kenyans with their long-distance running, why would we not let the Americans take credit for being the original founders of business schools? Why would the Harvard case history method, exported and copied world-wide not be a satisfactory way of approaching the global business education? Trying to give a narrow national character to the products of our business schools seems to be unduly parochial and inward focussing.

With its rising confidence and impressive growth rates Africa can be forgiven for wanting to show its independence and flying the pan-African flag. But making an effort to throw out that which is perceived to be un-African and making “Eurocentric” into a pejorative is an exercise in futility. DM

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