Starting Right in Africa Tip #3

After sharing 2 personal start-up experiences in the last few weeks- choosing the right business, and writing your business concept and plan, I’d like to share an observation which in my opinion may be an obstacle for  some start-ups in Africa:
The thin line between African pride and arrogance.

The African Pride

I feel it so strongly many times, and each time, it makes me feel ten times taller than my 5 feet 3 inches frame.
My African pride takes over me when I read African history; of the reign of Mansa Musa of Mali (1280-1337) who was considered the richest man in Africa at the time due to the unprecedented growth of trans-Saharan trade which he established by developing diplomatic ties between his country and North Africa, resulting in a boost of agriculture and internal commerce.

In reading about the Queen of Sheba whom I want to believe comes from Ethiopia (according to the Kebra Nagast- the Ethiopian Holy book) and about her visit to King Solomon in her pursuit of greater knowledge and understanding of leadership. History has it that he was so impressed by her as a woman, a leader and an industrialist, that he gave her everything she asked of him on her visit.

I stood ten times taller when I watched on television, Mr Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela swear the oath of office to become the first black president of South Africa’s new multiracial democracy; of Ethiopia’s pioneering stance to build the second largest dam in Africa (the Gilgel Gibe III dam) without international financial aid and their mission to become the regional hydro-power hub.

And then of course, I was bursting with pride when my country Nigeria successfully ousted a government we were completely tired of and how  many voter’s used social media to highlight and promote transparency at each voting booth to ensure the rightful candidate won; of how our past president Dr Goodluck Ebele Johnathan peacefully conceded defeat as the first incumbent president of Nigeria to lose to the opposition and embrace his successor wholeheartedly, stating categorically that our country’s peace and stability was much more important to him than greed or power- something most would consider rare in our part of the world.

It goes without saying that Africans are prideful people. We are born with a high sense of dignity and self worth. When proportionate, this virtue can be seen in the way we operate our businesses.

With our employees and clients, we recognize this self worth and treat them with utmost respect while motivating them to perform to their best potential.
With our products and services, we are overjoyed by its contribution to our continent (and beyond) and are propelled to work with such gusto.
But most times our pride and confidence can be paradoxical and turn into arrogance which brings with it a whole lot of baggage.

The ugly face of Arrogance

I’ve heard people say that arrogance is the darkest side of confidence. It is undoubtedly a vice that can result in the fall of many a man and corporations.
If I were to be asked about arrogance in the African work place, I would most definitely say that I see it in Leadership positions, especially in the public sector, where positions of public service become a platform for self aggrandizing, not taking into perspective that the positions occupied have been loaned to them by the people they represent using the currency of trust. I’ve seen leaders feel so entitled to these positions that they turn their tenures into subtle tyranny all in a bid to mask this ugly face of arrogance and sugarcoat it with inauthentic devoutness to their people.

I would say it is also in the private sector, where some CEOs disrespect and belittle their employees, suppliers, and customers in front of other people.
They never acknowledge their mistakes, rather than learn from them, they rationalize and revel in other’s blunders.
They make themselves unapproachable to employees and clients, they avoid and are uncomfortable with anyone who stands in their own truth and speaks their own mind without fear of intimidation. It’s also amazing to see how sometimes an entire organization’s culture is a reflection of the CEO’s attitude and beliefs.

In most countries in Africa, this is not accepted but tolerated because, in my opinion, we are a society that upholds the values of kinship, a society where strangers turn into brothers by mere mention of common friends, villages,towns and countries. I believe those that abuse this are the arrogant ones, the ones that feel better, more entitled and falsely powerful than everyone else.
This of course is enabled because our accountability structure is not yet as strong as it should be.  

I’m of the strong opinion that the Entrepreneurship sector must not take this for granted. If anything, we should strengthen our familial bond and serve each other extraordinarily well because as Alaina Love put it:

Corporate arrogance can lead to company failure,economic decline,a burgeoning deficit and an exponential growth in joblessness. It robs future generations of the financial stability they deserve and burdens them with a mountain of debt.

Crossing the line

I’ve always been paranoid about crossing the line between pride/confidence and arrogance. In addition to asking my friends and family to police any unwarranted behavior, I  often research on ways to check myself.  
I’ve come across some advice from Sean M. LadenCarmine GalloRiley Hilton, and Alaina Love on some qualities to look out for. Here are few of my favourites –  When:
– you avoid people who think differently than you
– you are obsessed with how others perceive you.
– you belittle the competition, and find yourself
  bad mouthing their successes.
– other people’s ideas are never good enough, especially     
  members of your staff.
– you always arrive late for meetings and never apologize, interrupt others frequently and talk condescendingly to others
– you hire and develop great people but then fail to listen to their input if it is nonconformist thinking.
– your company focuses almost exclusively on financial success with little regard for legacy and social impact.

So how do we keep from crossing the line?
Here are some pointers:

Learn proper Corporate etiquette

Avoid name-dropping, bragging, and trying to be one-up over people. Confident people don’t need to do these because their accomplishments do it for them. Avoid interrupting other’s conversations and wait your turn.

Create the perfect perception

Some times, perception can be stronger than truth. As Carmine said,

Perception is reality. No matter how good your intentions are, what matters is how you are perceived.

Before acting or speaking, think!

Surround yourself with Excellent people

Employ the best that you can, let them buy into the vision. As Steve Jobs once said,

It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.

Listen to others

Pay attention to what others, especially your employees and current clients have to say. Show interest in their lives if only on a mild level. When your business is on a high roll, resist the urge to brag about it, instead, let others talk about themselves – when they do, they in turn become receptive to what you have to say.

Listen to criticism, and put your ego aside while doing so. Criticism, whether from people you like or from competitors have elements of truth. Dig them out and channel them towards growth.

Bear the weight

Bear the responsibility when things go wrong. A great leader takes responsibility for the whole team when there are failures and shares the spotlight when there is success. Be a leader people choose to follow not avoid.

Never stop studying

Never ever ever ever stop studying.Study your customers,your competition and ways to improve yourself and organization. Complacency should be out of the question.

And Finally

From an African perspective – Give respect to everyone you interact with regardless of age. We tend to feel entitled to respect or have the right to disregard just because we are older. In truth? respect is earned and has everything to do with reciprocity – age should be irrelevant.

Live long and prosper !!

 
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