I am attending a leadership symposium titled, Indigenous Knowledge and Leadership in Africa Colloquium: Leading in Africa hosted by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Leadership Centre and Africa Ignite. Gathered here are some of the Continent’s most impressive minds when it comes to the subject of African leadership. Academics are a strange lot. They are a unique species with their own norms and ways of interacting and engagement. They have a hard language to understand, one they use effortlessly but one that can be somewhat exclusive and act as an intimidating ‘barrier to entry’. If you want to enter, to engage…you best learn the language. Speaking simply comes a distant second to complex terminology. Perhaps this is true of all knowledge enclaves be that accountants, lawyers, the medical fraternity and yes, consultants.
The challenge is that theory needs to inform practice and one without the other creates problems. As I listen to what can only be described as ‘deep knowledge’ I am challenged by how best to ensure this is translated, applied and expressed in ‘mainline’ leadership streams. This wisdom seldom impacts the corporate reality where it is so needed. Responsibility for this failure rests with both ‘sides’ and this ‘failure’ creates a new opportunity.
On the side of academia, there is the need to work harder to connect their knowledge by way of application to ‘the real world’ from which they extract their knowledge in the first place. They need to find ways to invite greater diversity into their discourses and deliberations. They need to open the greenhouse door to others who would benefit from witnessing firsthand the growth in knowledge as it occurs. They need to work harder at the ‘so what?’ question and look to connect their deep knowledge to a pragmatic context. They need to ‘interrogate’ (a popular academic word) the process whereby their own insights and understanding finds practical expressions. And just to answer the anticipated answer already forming on the lips of academics: Publishing journals isn’t the answer. Such publications serve to fuel internal debate and form part of the peer review knowledge process but, for the most part, remain secret code hidden and inaccessible to those who need it most.
On the other side, executive leaders need to do more to become learners and to engage in a learning process through which current assumptions and paradigms can be challenged and informed. All too often corporate leaders are seduced by the operational demands they face and so choose what they know (and the area in which they feel competent) over the opportunity to learn and explore unknown terrain. The learning journey is all too threatening to many senior leaders who for the most part give lip service to the need to learn.
And so the gulf widens. The two sides view each other with suspicion and an initial sense of helplessness as to how to embrace the value and lessons embedded within each reality, gives way to a denial that one has anything worthwhile to learn from the other.
This gives rise to the ‘opportunity’ that this divide creates. The opportunity is for bridge-builders, for interpreters to step into the gap: Those capable of translating the best of both sides for the benefit of both sides. Who are these people? I am not sure but one challenge they will face is how to develop and maintain credibility with both sides. Some attempts at translation have met with distain by academia, viewed as a type of ‘commercial sell-out’. ‘ In the same way, anything ‘theoretical’ carries little weighting in the fast paced and measured pragmatic world of the corporate.
So, fancy yourself as a ‘bridge-builder’? A start might be to attend some relevant symposium should you have a large desk and corner office; on the other hand, if your office is filled with strange trinkets and ‘stuff’ – as well as piles of papers, journals and books, best try to get into a board room sometime soo