Business in Africa

View the collection

Understanding the Roots of African Leadership

Bella Galperin, co-author of LEAD: Leadership Effectiveness in Africa and the African Diaspora, explores leadership as a vehicle for economic development in Africa.

I was less than ten years old when Roots, a mini-series based on Alex Haley’s award winning book, originally aired across North America in 1977. Too young to understand what others have called the “landmark piece of television” that was watched by more than 50 percent of all American homes with TVs in 1977, according to Nielsen. Roots is about the story of Kunta Kinte, an 18th-century African, captured as an adolescent and sold into slavery in the United States. In an interview about the mini-series, LeVar Burton (who starred as Kinte in the original) claimed that more people wanted to research Kinte’s origins and learn about the Mandinka culture, Kinte’s culture. In essence, the miniseries revealed another layer of a complex cultural, political, and economic history, and its connection to a large, and largely misunderstood, continent called Africa.

Fast forward to today, the world has begun to see Africa through the lens of business, recognizing its huge yet untapped potential. 

There are increasing claims that Africa is the new frontier for growth—news headings describe Africa as, “the hopeful continent”, “Africa rising”, “the hottest frontier”. Data from the World Bank further supports that Africa is becoming an important partner in the global economy. The region’s average gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to rise between 4% to 5% in 2016 and 2017. Similarly, Africa is surpassing other regions with respect to foreign direct investment (FDI)[1].

Driving its potential, Africa covers 30 million square kilometers and includes more than a billion people. The continent is incredibly diverse, with more than 50 countries, 3000 different ethnicities, and 2,000 languages. It is also rich in resources. According to the African Development Bank Group, Africa’s natural resources have been the basis of the continent’s economy and continue to represent a significant development opportunity[2]. Also, the number of youthful working-age population is growing rapidly in Africa. In 2015, 226 million youth aged 15-24 lived in Africa, representing 19% of the global youth population. It is expected that the number of youth will increase by 42% in 2030.[3]

Africa definitely is “open for business,” but risks remain. 

Like other nations, African countries continue to be dependent on commodities, making them vulnerable to global market declines. There are also risks of political instability, conflict, and disease, and the underlying challenge of corruption. At the same time, Africa’s untapped reserves of natural resources attracts interest from investors looking to fuel hungry economic engines and also invites the possibility of exploitation. Despite its favorable working-age demographics, there are critical shortages of technical and managerial talent due to poor educational institutions and the brain-drain, especially to countries such as Brazil and the United States, the two largest for the African diaspora.

It is this unique combination of enormous potential, incredible risk, and vulnerability to exploitation that makes understanding African leadership particularly important today. 

Without effective leadership, Africa will never be able to overcome its challenges, achieve its full potential, and protect itself from environmental and human exploitation.

Leadership, however, cannot be understood independent of context. African countries are rich in tribal tradition and culture and businesses often display hierarchical tendencies. The combination of past linkages, traditions, and indigenous habits creates unique leadership styles that are distinctly African.

My co-authors, Terri Lituchy and Betty Jane Punnett, and I captured many of these influences in our new book, LEAD: Leadership Effectiveness in Africa and the African Diaspora. It is, to our knowledge, the most ambitious attempt to explore leadership across the continent. The book’s main purpose is to provide research-based, yet practical insights into the way African managers lead and highlight and explain leadership styles and practices that are likely to be the most effective in the African context. The insights contained in the book will be valuable for African leaders in Africa and for African managers interfacing with non-African counterparts, as well as for foreigners going to Africa.

While others have examined African leadership through a Western lens, we have done so through an Afro-centric perspective and by working closely with many African colleagues. We tried to answers questions such as: 

  1. What are the components of leadership from an African perspective? 
  2. How does culture impact leadership in Africa and the African diaspora? 
  3. What are the similarities and differences between leadership in Africa and the African Diaspora? 

Given its scale and diversity, we provide both a broad picture of Africa, as well as a more detailed look at the diversity of specific countries. This approach not only provides a richer, more useful view of leadership, it also enable us to show how tradition mixes with and possibly clashes with the modernization and globalization.

The roots of leadership are long. They are deeply embedded in the experiences accumulated over generations. They explain who we are as individuals and, more importantly, how we work together. Understanding these roots—the roots of leadership—has never been more important, as progress depends on trade and mobility, and as diversity drives innovation.

Bella L. Galperin, co-author of LEAD: Leadership Effectiveness in Africa and the African Diaspora, is Professor in Management at the University of Tampa and Senior Associate Director at TECO Energy Center for Leadership.


[1] Fingar, C. (2015, May 19). Foreign direct investment in Africa surges. Financial Times. Retrieved from

[2] African Development Bank Group.  African Natural Resources Center. Retrieved from:

[3] United Nations, 2015. Population Facts. Department of Economic and Social Affairs. May 2015. Retrieved from: