Conference managers who have organized many Pan African meetings or conference calls experience this phenomenon: delegates from certain African countries arrive consistently late to sessions or meetings, while delegates from certain other African countries arrive consistently on time for the same sessions. In the interest of not starting a Pan-African war, I will not name the countries whose representatives are consistently late (you know who you are), but I will name one country whose delegates, in the past decade, show up consistently on time: Rwanda. I refer not just to Presidential delegates, but to leaders of public and private sector organizations alike. The discipline of leaders from certain countries is evident in their ability to consistently show up on time for meetings.
Ashesi University is one of the most highly rated and admired universities in Africa…a remarkable feat considering that it first opened its doors just twenty years ago (2002). Today, Ashesi graduates are some of the most sought-after graduates in Africa, and hiring one of them, according to a colleague of mine, “is like winning the lottery”. Three years ago, in a conversation with Patrick Awuah, the Founder of Ashesi, I bemoaned the lack of an Ashesi-like university in Sierra Leone (my home country) and asked Patrick to consider opening a university in Sierra Leone. He smiled at me benignly and informed me that I was not the first, second, or third non-Ghanaian to ask him to open a university in another country in Africa and his answer to me would be the same as his answer to the others: “No”. When I asked why he simply informed me that such a move was not in line with his strategic vision; he would rather show others how to open and run a university by sharing his knowledge than go out and open one (or more himself). As disappointed as I was, I admired his disciplined thought because I knew that the other offers he had received had been lucrative.
United Bank is one of the fastest-growing and profitable banks in Africa. When the bank expanded its operations into Sierra Leone (a country that is sadly renowned for a culture of indiscipline) in 2008, it offered attractive compensation packages that enticed many employees of the local banks in Sierra Leone to leave and take up employment with UBA. These employees were met with a rude shock when they were subjected to the discipline of UBA. Uniforms were to be clean, ironed, and always on. Lateness to work or unexcused absences were punished with fines or cuts in pay. It did not take long for the Sierra Leonean workers (at every level) to complain bitterly about the “poor treatment” they were receiving at the hands of the UBA leaders. Some of them adjusted to the new disciplined way of working and prospered; most of them returned to their former employers and chose to settle back into a less disciplined work culture.
Discipline is a word that many people do not like to use at work, in social settings, or in political speeches/rallies. Yet it is the common ingredient in all great companies, great organizations, and great countries. The willingness to do what needs to be done even when it does not feel good is discipline. The fortitude to stop doing something when every fiber of your being wants to do it is discipline. The ability to do what is right even when it does not feel pleasurable is discipline. In organizations and communities, discipline is the willingness to hold everyone accountable to the rules or guidelines. Discipline in companies is the willingness to say no to a profitable opportunity that does not align with the company’s vision or values; the courage to hold anyone in the organization accountable to established rules regardless of their station or history with the organization; the determination to pursue the vision despite the obstacles standing in the way. Discipline is what separates good from great organizations. While there are other characteristics that are required for an organization to be a good one, the singular quality that is common among organizations and communities, and countries that are consistently high-performing is discipline. In Europe, Germany stands out as one of the most disciplined countries and unsurprisingly has one of the most resilient economies and living standards in Europe. In Africa, Rwanda is standing out. In education, Ashesi is standing out.
How does discipline become part of an organization’s modus operandi? Is it achieved by talking about it and creating slogans, like Nigeria did in 1984 (“War Against Indiscipline” campaign)? Is it achieved by punishing the front-line workers or ordinary citizens when they act in a manner that is contrary to the organization’s rules? Both of these methods may help a little but they are far from sufficient. Discipline in organizations is created by disciplined leaders; leaders who first discipline themselves and then have the courage to discipline their executive team/Cabinet. My mother has a favorite saying, “when a fish rots it rots from the head.” So when you look for great organizations, look for disciplined organizations; when you look for disciplined organizations, look for disciplined leaders who first discipline themselves.
Look around Africa – with few exceptions, you will notice that the economic fortune of a country is inversely proportional to the body fat index of that country’s leader. Put simply, countries and organizations led by pot-bellied leaders are likely to be led by undisciplined leaders and are more likely to have a culture of indiscipline, and are more likely to not achieve their goals or organizational outcomes. In South Africa, look at the progression of the nation’s discipline and economic fortunes from its time under the leadership of Mandela (low body fat index) to Mbeki (low body fat index) to Zuma (pot-belly). A pot-belly is a reasonable and visible indicator of a lack of self-discipline in a leader (public or private sector leader) because the vast majority of those leaders are over forty years old, literate, and have been informed by a medical professional about the need to engage in proper diet and exercise to maintain good health. These leaders are all desirous of good health. They are also desirous of good health. So the gap between their current eating and exercise habits and the habits that they know they should have is called indiscipline.
Dear Leader, if you are not unwilling to do what you need to do or forgo that which is pleasurable to you, then you cannot discipline yourself and it is unlikely that you will have the courage or moral authority to discipline your executive team (or Cabinet); discipline will likely not permeate your organizational culture. Worse yet you may decide to impose discipline on lower-ranked people in your organization when you are not self-disciplined and not disciplining your executive team. This makes a mockery of your leadership and communicates loudly to stakeholders that you cannot be trusted and may lead to a culture of “every man/woman for him/herself”; in this situation, it is unlikely that your organizational goals will be achieved. If you want to achieve your organizational goals, enforce discipline in yourself. If you need help (a coach, a personal trainer, an accountability partner) to do this, get help. Your organization and the people who depend on your decision-making making for their livelihood are counting on you to be the best leader you can be.
The overwhelming majority of men and women in Africa who are above the age of 40, have earned a bachelor’s degree and attained a middle-class status (annual earnings of $2000 / year) have been to a medical doctor for a check up and been told that they need to keep their cholesterol down, watch their weight, trim the fat, exercise more regularly, in order to maintain good health.
The majority of Africans that have attained executive leadership position in public, private, or non-profit institutions in Africa are above the age of 40, have earned a bachelor’s degree, and attained middle-class status; so this message is for you.
If you are seriously overweight, you are a clear and present danger to your organization and your community.