Guest post by Robtel Neajai Pailey
Robtel is the 2017 Ibrahim Fellow at the African Development Bank (AfDB).
Dance When the Spirit Moves You, and four other lessons in effective leadership for development
Reflections on my first 100 days as an Ibrahim Leadership Fellow at the African Development Bank
I applied for an Ibrahim Leadership Fellowship, not because of some blind faith in the international development industry, but because I’d acquired a healthy skepticism of it.
Having analysed and obsessed over the pitfalls of post-war recovery in my country Liberia and in other contexts in West, Central and North Africa, I’d been itching to put my policy-oriented development research expertise to practice. I wanted to escape the ivory tower of academia in Europe and work in a regional institution based in an African metropolis.
The African Development Bank ticked all of those boxes. That the Bank credits its very existence to Dr Romeo Horton – a Liberian central bank governor who believed strongly that Africa needed its own development finance institution – made my appointment here even more symbolic.
I spent the initial few months trying to understand the inner workings of the bank, including the institution’s new Development & Business Delivery Model (DBDM), and tailoring a terms of reference that would enable me to add value. I read everything I possibly could about the bank’s ambitious development agenda, called the High 5s, which aims to power & light up Africa, feed Africa, industrialise Africa, integrate Africa and improve the quality of life of Africans. Nothing short of lofty, the five-pronged priorities, if implemented fully, would achieve 80% or more of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Africa by 2030, according to an independent assessment by the United Nations Development Programme.
During this period, I also held one-on-one meetings with bank president Dr Akinwumi Adesina and his senior managers, including vice presidents, directors and policy specialists working on my core areas of expertise and interest, including the political economy of migration, transition states/crisis situations, youth skills development & capacity building, gender equity, and public sector governance.
I discovered that the Bank is in the midst of a restructuring exercise intended to streamline internal processes while bringing the institution closer to its primary client, the people of Africa. Doing development well is taxing, so having a visionary reformer like President Adesina at the mantle of leadership is a necessary condition for success. So far, I’ve contributed to speechwriting for the president, prepared briefing notes for some of his key meetings, and staffed him on mission trips aligned with my expertise. In the months to come, I intend to help develop a bank-wide, pan-African agenda for migration – given the president’s position as a member of the newly formed High Level Panel on International Migration in Africa – and establish a network of African scholars conducting cutting-edge research related to the High 5s.
Although President Adesina and I have had limited one-on-one exchanges, I’ve learned enormously by watching him from the sidelines. Here are five lessons I picked up about effective leadership for development:
Use your personal journey to showcase the poor as capable and agentic
Development should be about preserving human dignity, but quite often it is not. Poverty porn is rife in the media and charity appeals. And Africa gets its fair share of pity parties from those who believe the continent and its people need saving from the outside world. President Adesina reminds all of us that poor people have the capacity to transform their own lives. He often talks publicly about his humble beginnings as the son of a poor Nigerian farmer. Although nudged by his father to become a medical doctor, the president studied agricultural economics instead, which set him on a course to work with farmers across the globe to improve their conditions through advanced technologies.
Acknowledge employees by name – from the cleaner to the senior vice president
There is something edifying about a development finance leader who gives people their flowers when they are alive. At the bank’s September 2017 Town Hall Meeting, President Adesina acknowledged publicly by name a range of employees – from those who clean his office to those who represent him at Board committee meetings. He even shouted me out, and as someone who had only just joined the team, I felt instantaneously welcomed and validated. The president was reminding us, through his naming and faming exercise, that although we may work in hierarchies of power each of us is important to the bank’s functioning.
Assemble a dream team and hold them accountable
If development is about enhancing people’s capabilities, then effective industry leaders must bring together high-level implementers and push them to succeed. As the first bank president with expertise in agriculture, President Adesina believes that Africa could feed itself and the rest of the world if it invested in the right technologies. This bold vision of transformation – which the president articulated fully when he received the World Food Prize in October 2017 – demands a sense of urgency. To that end, he holds weekly meetings with his vice presidents to keep everyone on track for accelerated delivery of the High 5s. President Adesina expects everyone in his ambit to roll up their sleeves and get to work or move out of the way of progress. According to him, “my job is not to make everyone comfortable, it is to make everyone accountable.”
Cultivate a style uniquely your own
Leaders in development should have a personal brand that simultaneously complements and elevates the institutions for which they work. The African Development Bank is a pan-African institution with global tentacles and its current leader is Africa’s optimist-in-chief. In a world where the ‘woe is Africa’ narrative reigns supreme, President Adesina acknowledges the continent’s manifold challenges but prefers to dwell on solutions, like the High 5s. Charismatic and genuinely affable, he has a flair for poignant, off-script phrases like “we always talk about sovereign wealth funds, but I can’t think of anything more sovereign in wealth than the youth [of Africa]”, or “Africa has so many pilots, but we don’t have enough planes taking off.” The President also has an eclectic collection of colourful bow-ties, which he wears daily. Who wouldn’t want to work with this guy?
Dance when the spirit moves you
President Adesina enjoys dancing. I’ve seen him in action a couple of times, but the most memorable was at the World Food Prize ceremony in Des Moines, Iowa, USA, when he stood up spontaneously to dance with his wife, Grace, during a performance by Nigerian singer Omawumi. The ceremony was the epitome of officialdom, so it was delightful to see the 2017 laureate corral those in his immediate vicinity – John Mahama, former president of Ghana, and Olusegun Obasanjo, former president of Nigeria – to enjoy music that had been carefully curated for an African-inspired evening. His lack of inhibition humanised President Adesina in a way that is profoundly important to the world of development financing, which can often be about measuring quantifiable results and not enough about improving quality of life.