Leadership Development: One Size Does Not Fit All Growing Leaders in Africa and Across the World

By Dr Vanessa Iwowo

Despite the diversity of business and social cultures around the world, we continue to teach and take part in a “one size fits all” approach to leadership development. The author here discusses why this approach is fundamentally flawed, arguing that leadership is socially constructed, contextual, and culturally contingent.

Within the domain of executive education, the concept of leadership development is an increasingly romanticised one. When we say ‘leadership development,’ more often than not, images of executive travel, luxury retreats, world class ‘experts’ delivering ‘high-end management interventions’ spring to mind, with management gurus flown across the globe to impart knowledge on organisational transformation.

But the accepted approach taught in the majority of these standardised executive leadership development programmes across the globe fails to address one important issue: business and social culture around the world is diverse, and therefore a universal ‘one size fits all’ approach is flawed as it ignores two fundamental truths which empirical research brings to light.

Firstly, a universal approach glosses over the fact that leadership is first and foremost a social construct rather than a purely scientific phenomenon. Leadership ‘knowledge’ is constructed in the context of human interactions – leadership is, after all, about ‘leading people.’ Human beings are not static or isolated, but rather they can be seen as social actors, entrenched in a dynamic and interwoven social reality within which they base their perceptions, actions, interactions, and sense of meaning. Therefore whatever knowledge we might have about leadership has been developed within a wider framework of human interaction, which will be diverse across different cultures around the world.

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Secondly, not only is leadership socially constructed, it is also contextual. We know that human interactions, thoughts, dynamic exchanges and shared understandings of things occur in the context of the society and the socially-bounded space in which people find themselves. This social context itself is governed by cultural forces, meaning that leadership knowledge developed by practitioners around the world will be developed within a culturally-influenced context.

With these two insights in mind, it is clear that knowledge about leadership is not absolute, objective and universal, but rather more subjective and culturally contingent than we might think. Fundamentally, leadership is socially constructed, contextual and culturally contingent.

My research at the London School of Economics focuses on leadership development, in particular within Africa. This rich and diverse continent gives a real example of the need for a contextually sensitive and culturally aware approach to leadership development programmes. Building leadership capacity is an important need in the region as economies struggle to develop and grow, however so far contemporary practice has in many cases continued to use a ‘one size fits all’ approach. It is sadly not far from the truth that many African societies have continued to flounder in leadership mediocrity.

Knowledge about leadership is not absolute, objective and universal, but rather more subjective and culturally contingent than we might think.

Management educators will agree that most of the voices that presently shape the literature and accepted approaches to management and leadership arise from the Anglo-American scholarship belt. For example these are some widely used current leadership theories, which all originate from Western, Anglophone cultures: transformational leadership (Burns, 1978; Bass 1985), situational/contingency models (Hersey & Blanchard, 1969, 1977, 1988; Fiedler, 1987; Adair, 1983), Servant leadership (Greenleaf, 1970), and more recently, distributed leadership (Bennett et al, 2003).

Indeed, not only has much of the modern published discourse on leadership originated primarily from the West, but to date, contemporary management education and leadership development – even in African Business Schools – has remained predominantly structured around this. Western thought-leadership has become more or less the canon for the cultivation of global business leaders, regardless of which part of the world in which those learning interventions actually occur.

While the reasons for this might be a matter of intense speculation, I believe it is necessary that we begin to critically address this issue. Leadership is contextual and culturally contingent, and this means that leadership practice cannot be divorced from the specific socio-cultural context within which it occurs. Leadership development must begin to make contextual sense to its recipients, and to the social contexts in which they will be practicing as leaders.

This is a very significant issue for the development of would-be management and leadership practitioners in Africa. Within this culturally heterogeneous continent, global leadership development programmes targeted at leadership capacity building cannot fundamentally ignore the cultural terrain, and must be held rigorously to account for the local cultural frameworks within which they are applied. I believe that this is essential, if not urgently critical, to effective capacity building in Africa.

Across the diversity of cultures worldwide, it is unwise to continue to import value laden pre-packaged learning interventions in a bid to super-impose these on local societies. Instead, contemporary leadership development in diverse regions such as Africa must begin to embrace and embody the key cultural elements of that society, in order to be truly effective.

Leadership development must begin to make contextual sense to its recipients, and to the social contexts in which they will be practicing as leaders.

Contextual learning content can begin to incorporate its own conversations, cultural symbolisms, identities, and most importantly, its expectations and experiences. All of these are important elements that resonate with would-be participants in the local society, who will need to return to that society in order to practice their development learning.

The notion of ‘development’ itself implies that something is already there to be developed, and leadership development can work to enhance the pre-existing, contextual characteristics and talents of the managers and leaders it is teaching. Rather than relying on traditionally accepted abstract learning, taking a new approach that is culturally-recognisable can provide solutions to avoid condemning leaders to mediocrity, and enable the development of real cutting-edge global talent in Africa and across the world.

About the Author

VIwowoDr Iwowo is a Fellow in the Department of Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is a management scholar whose research interests focus on the critical study of processes, interactions and relationships through which knowledge is generated and applied, particularly in the fields of leadership and management development.





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