In his book (“The GIMPA Story”) about the transformation of GIMPA (Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration), Professor Stephen Adei describes the sweeping changes that occurred during his tenure as leader of the institution from 2000 to 2009. It is an impressive story; during this period, GIMPA experienced meteoric growth in revenue, weaned itself off Government subvention while managing to triple the salaries of staff and faculty, and enhanced the brand of GIMPA from a brand that public sector leaders had abandoned to a desired brand that became a requisite for promotion in the civil service. What struck me the most about the story, however, is the fact that as Director-General of the institution, Professor Adei attended to the furniture of his office or his own salaries last. He focused on capital expenditure in areas of the institute that were far from his office and even eschewed a $70,000 vehicle purchase approved for the office of the D-G in favor of a $50,000 purchase of a less luxurious vehicle. Is it any wonder, then, that in 2022, more than a decade after he vacated his office, the Professor is still greeted like a rock star by the staff of GIMPA whenever he visits the campus? His demonstration of the principle that leaders should eat last, set almost twenty years ago, still reverberates in the memories of the employees who worked at GIMPA and benefitted from his servant leadership. 

On the anniversary of Ghana’s independence day this year (6th March), Bishop Samuel N. Mensah challenged the President of Ghana to set a good example by cutting down his expenses and those of his cabinet in order to inspire the citizens of Ghana to “tighten their belts”. He illustrated the point that he was making by stating that “children do not do what parents tell them, they do what they see their parents do.” He drew loud roars of applause and agreement from his audience when he urged the President to eschew traveling by chartered jet at a cost of $14,000 per hour and recommended that H.E. President Akuffo-Addo, in light of the current economic hardship, should ask his Ministers of Government to fly economy class instead of business class.  While it may seem like a drastic notion, Ghana has a neighbor who had a leader that once did something similar to Bishop Mensah’s recommendations and ended up turning around his country’s fortunes in a relatively short time: Captain Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso. Sadly, the policies of Sankara, while good for the country of Burkina Faso during his time in leadership, led his closest friend to become disgruntled and murder him in cold blood. I will share more about the lessons to be learned from this situation in a different article. Suffice it to say that the belt-tightening that Sankara demonstrated by his own personal example inspired his people to give their time, talents and treasure sacrificially for the good of the nation and Burkina Faso prospered during his reign. Sankara espoused the value that leaders should eat last.

The irony of challenging African leaders to learn that good leaders eat last is that the justification for this hypothesis is hiding in plain sight for all of us to see. Who do most African adults admire, love, cherish, celebrate, sacrifice for, revere, and serenade the most? Their mothers! Why do most African adults celebrate and sacrifice for their mothers more than their fathers? Because African mothers practice sacrificial leadership in the home. African mothers eat last. In many African homes, the father gets the choice morsels of food and eats first, followed by the children, and then the mother will eat whatever is left. Even though the percentage of African families in which this scenario exists is less than what it was fifty years ago due to an increased emancipation of African women and greater international exposure of Africans, there are still a significant (if not majority) percentage of African families in which the father eats first and gets to eat the best piece of the dinner portions and the children then get the second-best pieces, and the mother gets whatever is left. African mothers demonstrate sacrificial and servant leadership from the conception of the child in the womb and continue to demonstrate it even when the child becomes an adult and has her/his own children. These mothers put their desires, comfort, career aspirations, and even their health aside in favor of the well-being of their children. This is why, in airplanes, the flight attendants have to inform the passengers that in the event of a loss of cabin pressure, passengers with infants should fix their mask first before fixing the mask of their infant. This is because the mother’s first instinct will be to secure the health of her child and ignore her own. Sadly, this willingness to sacrifice self-comforts for the well-being of the family is not as prevalent with African fathers as it is with African mothers. Some African fathers would rather spend their money on girlfriends, booze, narcotics, cars, watches, or entertainment at the expense of the welfare of their children. While some of these afore-mentioned items are not vices when consumed in moderate amounts, the consumption of them for one’s own pleasure and comfort at the expense of the welfare of the child is a demonstration of poor leadership. As children grow into adolescence and young adulthood, they perceive which parent demonstrates sacrificial love towards them – if they are lucky it is both parents, but all too often it is only one of them. They may respect both parents, but their allegiance and love is usually directed more towards their mother because they understand that their mother willingly gave up her own pleasure and comfort for their wellbeing, and they are thus inspired to do the same for their mother whenever they can. This concept of sacrificial leadership is known in academic circles as servant leadership and it inspires the followers to make sacrifices themselves to support the leader. Therefore, when the leader communicates a vision to the followers and engenders their trust in her/him by demonstrating to the followers that s/he is willing to eat last (ie, eschew personal comfort and pleasure for their welfare), the followers invest their discretional time, talents and treasure in the accomplishment of the leader’s vision. 

Dear African leader, please remember that leadership is a service that you provide to your followers. Whether your followers are your wife and children (or husband and children), your school teachers and schoolchildren, your employees, your constituency, or your citizens, you are expected to deliver a service to them. That service is what is called leadership; your responsibility is to lead them from where they are today to a better place. Your role is not simply to “do no harm” or to leave them where they have always been…that is the role of a caretaker, not a leader. Your role as a leader is to move them collectively from point A (where they are today) to point B (a better place).. That point B is articulated in your vision. You must have a vision and communicate your vision early and often to your followers and never tire of communicating that vision to them. The accomplishment of the vision requires that your followers invest their time, talents and treasure into the vision, and they can choose to invest only a minimal amount of these three assets to the vision, or they can invest their discretionary (ie, their maximum) time, talents and treasure. For you to earn their discretionary time, talents and treasure, you must learn to eat last.  You must discipline yourself to prioritize the welfare of your followers over your comfort and pleasure. You must ensure that your people know that you are so committed to the vision and to their welfare that you will make visible sacrifices to ensure that they are secured. When you do that, like Prof Adei, you will earn their trust, and you will earn their maximum time, talent and treasure. When African leaders adopt the policy to EAT LAST African organizations and countries will be positively the way that GIMPA was transformed from 2000 to 2009…from a donor-recipient organization dependent on the largesse of external parties to a financially-independent organization that became the envy of other institutions.