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Leadership lessons from the wisdom of old African sayings


Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

African culture and African approaches are an important source of inspiration for leadership. Indeed, there are lessons to be learnt from African idiomatic expressions, which we often repeat to ourselves and put into practice without realising it.

The former president of Ghana, John Mahoma, once declared that Africa needs a “fair chance”. In the aftermath of the pandemic, Africa is again scrambling for solutions to some of the most pressing questions of our time.

In recent history, substantial setbacks have occurred: the pandemic, global upheaval, warring factions and external shocks. A recent African Development Bank report on the continent’s macroeconomic outlook suggests room for cautious optimism. As African Union Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat said in response to the report, “knowledge is power”.

As we rebuild our economies, structures and systems, there is an argument to be made that our approach should be uniquely and distinctly African.

One might ask: what is the source of inspiration for leadership? I would argue that African culture and African approaches are an important facet. Indeed, there are lessons to be learnt from African idiomatic expressions – phrases we often repeat to ourselves and put into practice without realising it.

As Achille Mbembe reminds us: “Africans have an authentic culture that confers on them a peculiar self irreducible to that of any other group.” If this source of knowledge is indeed an authentically African approach to leadership, what lessons can be learnt?

In recent years, I have spent much time sourcing, translating and grouping these expressions. These uniquely African expressions have been a constant source of referral for me in my own leadership journey. There are 10 leadership lessons we can consider that provide a framework for the emergence of strong but authentically African leaders.

Many hands…

First, leadership is not a solitary undertaking. It is important to emphasise teamwork. The concept of letsema, for instance, is a culturally embedded practice used to pool resources and share common risks or perform a particular task. It represents people coming together to tackle challenges.

As the saying goes, “tsie e senya ka bontsi” – more hands make the job easier. This sentiment finds parallels in Afrikaans – “baie hande maak ligte werk”’ and in English, “many hands make light work”. Leadership requires this fundamental ability to work cooperatively with others to achieve objectives. This is how leaders make strides – acknowledging that we should not and cannot work in silos.


Second, we must be mindful of the power bestowed on leaders and how we positively harness this. “Bogosi boa toga” – kingship is often intoxicating. In post-colonial Africa, the emergence of despots and the infiltration of corruption have been apparent.

In South Africa, State Capture still starkly presents itself as we grapple with structural and systemic deficits and the syphoning of resources. Al Jazeera once referred to corruption in Africa as the continent’s undeclared pandemic. As Voltaire said, “with great power comes great responsibility”. As leaders step into positions of power, with the accompanied influence, they must do so honestly and ethically. We must not be distracted by the lure of these “intoxicating” forces. This leads me to my next point.


Third, leaders have to demonstrate honesty and integrity. “Kgomo a tshwarwa ka dinaka. Motho o tshwarwa ka leleme” – when you want to catch an ox, you catch it by the horns. But you catch a person by his sayings.

Lefoko ga le boe go boa monwana – it is not the what, but the how that can make or break you.

This is how leaders garner trust and deliver on their promises. Leaders have to be transparent and honest. We cannot simply make promises, we have to be held accountable to ensure that we are working towards realising these promises.


Fourth, we must never forget that we are leading for others. At the University of Johannesburg (UJ), for instance, an important exercise in preparation for taking up my role as vice-chancellor has been understanding the demographics and the needs of our staff and students. “Kgosi ke kgosi ka setshaba” – a king is a king through the will of the people.

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As leaders, our responsibility is always to our contingent, which must guide our approach, understanding and decision-making. In the past week I have hosted vice-chancellor engagements on our various campuses. This has allowed me to introduce myself to our staff and students, provide an overview of the way forward and allow the UJ community to give the leadership feedback, voice their concerns and ask questions. It was a stark reminder of who we serve as leaders.


Fifth, it is imperative to lead from a place of wisdom. “Bothale ga bona ntlo ya jone” – wisdom has no boundaries. The African proverb, “wisdom is like a baobab tree, you cannot embrace it alone”, is a reminder that teamwork and wisdom are indispensable in leadership.

Leadership requires a culture of continuous learning. This is how we create better and stronger leaders. As I stepped into my role as deputy vice-chancellor in 2021, I was encouraged to do a management course through the Saïd Business School at Oxford University.

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Additionally, in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), we must ensure that we have a diverse range of skills to adapt to the future world of work. This allows us to remain relevant and emerge as stronger and better leaders.

The right approach

Sixth, leadership approaches are essential. “Lefoko ga le boe go boa monwana” – it is not the what, but the how that can make or break you. This sentiment can be applied to nations, organisations, departments and even individual relationships. The approach to implementing plans, motivating people and providing direction determines what will be achieved.

This process is integral and determines what kind of leader you will be. Our achievements would not be worthy of celebration if we did not ensure that our approach was honest, ethical and true to our ethos.


Seventh, leaders should be mentors. “Rutang bana ditaola le seye le tšona badimong” – the elders should not die with their skills or knowledge. At UJ, we have a unique approach to the transition and handover process. In the months since the announcement of my appointment, I stepped into the role of vice-chancellor designate, where I spent a great deal of time learning from my predecessor, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala. This is quite a remarkable process that UJ has implemented.

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During this time I began to get a real sense of the foundations and structures that make up the institution. In fact, studies have found that leadership mentoring improves retention rates and job satisfaction. Throughout my career, I have learnt a great deal from mentors who have informed my leadership approach. This is a practice we should instil in the leadership process.


Eighth, leaders must lead from a place of courage and bravery. “Pelo tshweu e ntsha lobelo” – there is satisfaction with bravery. Importantly, leaders must not lead from a place of fear. They must have conviction and be prepared to make difficult decisions that will produce better outcomes. Courage and bravery are preconditions for taking risks and achieving greatness.

Desire to try

Ninth, leaders must demonstrate a willingness to try new things. “Phokoje go tishela yo o dithetsenyana” – victors are those who show a desire to try. At UJ, for instance, many have dismissed our 4IR rhetoric in recent years. Yet, our rise through the rankings and research metrics indicates that this willingness to adopt a new approach has paid off.

As the pandemic hit South Africa and our way of living, working and learning had to go online, this approach to the 4IR informed our response. Our willingness to try new things ensured that we were the first higher education institution to complete the academic year on time in 2020.

Lesson from a mosquito

Finally, leaders should not be hamstrung by an inferiority complex. As the African proverb goes, “if you think you are too small to make a difference, you haven’t spent a night with a mosquito”.

Leadership is defined by the traits one demonstrates. One is never too small or young to emerge as a strong leader. UJ, for instance, is a relatively young university. Although it is made up of historical institutions, it was only formed in 2005. UJ came into being as part of the massive restructuring of the higher education landscape initiated by the Department of Education.

We have not let our emergence as a young institution define our trajectory. We have risen in the rankings and demonstrated our strength and commitment to innovation through our research metrics. Importantly, we have broken barriers through our belief and conviction in ourselves.

As we emerge as African leaders, we must ensure that we do so with an African approach. We no longer have to impose structures, systems and approaches that do not work or make sense in our own context. We can instil many leadership practices from African idiomatic expressions, proverbs and fables. There are lessons to be learnt from the very sayings and stories we grew up with.

This has informed much of my own leadership journey and is a source of continuous referral and inspiration. As Rwandan President Paul Kagame reminds us: “Africa’s story has been written by others; we need to own our problems and solutions and write our story.” DM


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