Irwin van Stavel

Africa is in a leadership crisis. It is a continent of contradictions.

It is at once the geography with the highest rate of investment and the lowest employment rates; while it is the destination for global business investment, it is also one of the most corrupt continents in the world. The countries with the largest GDPs in Africa are also at the top of the list of most corrupt countries in the world; and while it is the continent everyone wants to do business with, Africa’s countries are nowhere to be found on the list of countries that are easiest to do business with.

“Africa’s crisis is not a function of the economic climate, the recession or the Rand-Dollar exchange rate. It is mainly a function of poor leadership. And this poor leadership can be seen not only at the highest levels of government, but at the highest levels of business across the continent,” argues Managing Director of LRMG’s Africa business, Irwin van Stavel. Van Stavel heads up LRMG Africa’s five business units in Kenya, Mauritius, Ghana, Zambia and SADC with his 20 years of experience in the arena of developing people to achieve benchmark organisational performance. He analyses Africa’s leadership crisis and looks at providing long-term, sustainable solutions.

Human capital trends and the call for transformation

“The first thing that needs to happen in a country, a company or a team that is in crisis, is change,” says van Stavel. The proof of great leadership is in a country, a company or a team that is high-performing: “The question is then – how do you need to change as a leadership team, an organisation, a management capability and as a culture to enable high and benchmark performance?” asks van Stavel.

According to the Human Capital Trends 2015 Report, for organisations to achieve high performance through their people (human capital), leadership needs to transform. This transformation needs to happen through three key challenges facing leaders today in Africa and the World:

  1. Establishing an environment or culture for engagement and collaboration
  2. Developing the leadership capability in an organisation such that there are bench strength and individuals that can grow into leadership roles. “The latest statistics show that in the next seven years, we will see a leadership transition through Baby Boomers retiring. This, effectively, means that we’ll have to replace the majority of our leaders within the next decade. Are we ready for this?”
  3. The ability for organisations to transform through accelerating the Learning and Development (L&D) capability in the organisation.

The three biggest take-outs in the context of transformation from the Human Capital Trends Report are creating: clarity through a culture of leadership; an environment for agility through a culture of learning; and sustainability through a culture of performance and building bench strength. “The focus, then, needs to be on how we create these competency sets within leadership transformation to create performance and a benchmark business,” says van Stavel.

Culture and leadership transformation

Whereas the knee-jerk reaction to underperformance is to change the strategy or the operational structure and functioning, the answer is always culture, argues van Stavel. As Peter Drucker, says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, operational excellence for lunch and everything else for dinner.” And culture is, first and foremost, leadership’s remit and not a Human Resources (HR) function.

“The buck stops with leaders as far as transformation is concerned. HR and L&D functions are the scapegoats for poor performance and are often asked to train and develop people more to improve the performance. This is a lost cause because L&D and HR do not own performance. They own the responsibility of getting people ready to perform.”

“Performance is owned by line managers and the leadership team, underpinned by leaders with a strong sense of ownership to create an environment conducive to people performing, i.e. the culture.” This leadership shift needs to be practical, with a shift from transactional leadership styles to inspirational leadership styles.

This shift within practical leadership style can only come from a shift within the leaders themselves, which begins with owning the responsibility for performance and culture: “As a performance agency engaging with hundreds of organisations across Africa, LRMG has realised that the first step to transforming an organisation and delivering on the expectations of the shareholders and promises made, is that leadership needs to accept their responsibility, that they find personal alignment to the value systems that exist within their organisations, teams and countries and that they become more consistent about the way they manage and lead people.”

The leadership mindset, therefore, has to undergo a significant shift – a leadershift: “What we’ve recognised at LRMG is that there is a very clear leadership-performance equation, which consists of the three component parts of head, heart and hand, which have been around for years, but have changed fundamentally in meaning:

  • Head – the aspirational leadership style, which calls on leaders to look at the best practice thought leadership that they require to develop themselves as leaders, both inwardly, and outwardly, and as role models and mentors for their teams and organisations.
  • Heart – represents inspirational leadership qualities like authenticity, integrity, trust, and really connecting with people as human beings. Most organisations today lack heart and soul, and are, therefore, unable to transform from a good company to a great company and more importantly, are unable to motivate their teams to remain focused during the difficult times.
  • Hand – this is the element that has received the most focus and zoned in on functional leadership attributes and competencies but hasn’t zoomed in on why you do your job as a leader, and what you need to be and do to get others to follow you,” argues van Stavel.

Leadershift – beginning with the why

“The go-to answers to changing organisational culture are too often a new vision, a new strategy and rebranding the organisation, changing the values, and communicating these down to the teams to create buy-in. But the fundamental takeout of Simon Sinek’s work on why great leaders inspire others is based on one fundamental premise: that leadership themselves understand the why and begin with the why, as an individual and as an organisation,” says van Stavel.

“My experience over the last two decades has shown me that less than 20 percent of organisations understand why they do what they do, and those that do understand their why outperform their peers and competitors by a large margin.” Transformation, building a culture of performance and the LeaderShift have to begin with the why, because without vision, there is no central point holding transformation on its intended course, argues van Stavel.

Employee transformation and the voice-finding journey

“Finally, it is our belief, and, in our 18 years of experience as a performance agency in an experience-based environment, that, as Stephen Covey says in the Eighth Habit, the fundamental principle for leadership and transformation in organisations is going to be driven by leaders being focused on helping and developing individuals to find their voice.”

The voice-finding journey, as well as the recognition that people develop at different speeds and levels, is an integral issue for leaders and organisations to recognise so that they can adequately develop the individual through their personal and performance journey. The voice-finding journey must enable the head (more disciplined thinking), the heart (the engagement with people) and the hand (coaching and mentoring opportunities).

“If organisations and leaders of organisations, teams and countries do not recognise and appreciate the personal transformation that they and their people need to go through to transform organisations to becoming high-performing and benchmark, they will, in the 21st Century, become less competitive and potentially irrelevant, and will most likely lose their key talent to organisations who are driven by this consciousness,” says van Stavel.

In conclusion, Africa is not a country, as is often believed, but the solution to the leadership woes of this continent of contradictions, 55 countries and over 2 000 official languages, is without contradiction: without leadership taking ownership for the culture of performance, their own personal transformation, and the elements of the head, the heart, the hand and the voice-finding journey of their people, any business, team or African leadership will fail to perform.



  1. Top 20 Largest Economies in Africa
  2. Corruption Perceptions Index 2014: Results
  3. Rankings & Ease of Doing Business Score
  4. Deloitte Human Capital Trends 2015 Report