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Two days ago, I attended the 8th graduation ceremonies of African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg. Every ALA graduation is inspiring — a smorgasbord of African revelry, filled with the spirit of the African renaissance. However, this one in particular touched me deeper than usual. The Dean of the Academy-Hatim Eltayeb — shared an inspiring message that I’d like to share with you.
He reminded us that we are all broken leaders. Wow — powerful, right? It’s worth repeating… We are all broken leaders.
In addressing the young leaders, Hatim expounded on this…
“If we are honest, portraits of leadership are almost always two-faced. Muammar Ghaddafi in one breath is called a murderous maniac and in another is called an important architect of prosperity. Gandhi is both peaceful liberator and racist misogynist. Martin Luther King is simultaneously a legend of the civil rights movement and an unfaithful husband. It would be simple hubris for us to imagine that any one of you, alone, could someday become or remain the perfect leader.”
Dean Eltayeb went on to explain that every single great leader, though strong in many regards, is simultaneously weak. We are susceptible to ‘diseases’- factors that attack our leadership ‘immune system’, so to speak. It is the diverse weaknesses and strengths of each other that makes us powerful. “As a community, we build resistance to the temptations of corruption and self-interest and we fortify one another through support and guidance. You have a unique strength and you can inoculate others with it. As a collective, there is nothing you can’t conquer”.
Mr. Hatim was encouraging the ALA graduates to lean on each other as they embark on their leadership journeys, and that they are far stronger as a collective than as individual leaders. Too often, when we look at leadership, we celebrate the hero at the front. We remember icons like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Wangari Maathai, and Bill Gates. But in my experience, no leader acts alone. Transformative leaders build movements and create teams that complement their weaknesses. Martin Luther King, for example, would have achieved far less if it wasn’t for his ‘right hand man’ — Reverend David Abernathy, who shared his dream (and jail cells), and worked tirelessly side by side with Dr. King in the US Civil Rights movement. Nelson Mandela was a servant of a much larger movement that included people like Oliver Tambo, Lilian Ngoyi, Govan Mbeki, Albertina Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Winnie Mandela, Steve Biko, and so many other stalwarts of the Apartheid Struggle.
Being at the graduation and hearing this message reminded me of my own journey in starting ALA, ALN, and ALU. As a flawed leader, I have been strengthened and ‘inoculated’ by thousands of people who have come together over the last 15 years to share in my dream to liberate Africa from the tyranny of poor leadership.
For example, without my co-founders: Chris Bradford, Acha Leke and Peter Mombaur, the vision of creating 6,000 African leaders in 50 years would still just be an idea on a piece of paper. I was ‘inoculated’ with Chris’ dedication, Acha’s intellect, and Peter’s pragmatism. Their collective unwavering energy, despite all the ups and downs, have brought us to this point. I have been blessed to collaborate with so many other remarkable people and institutions. In numbers:
• Over 20 board members over the last 15 years who have helped govern the institution
• More than 30 global advisory council members who give us wise counsel
• Over 200 current (and historic) staff and faculty who have shed blood, sweat, and tears to build the institution
• Over 5,000 donors who have contributed over 150million US dollars over the last 15 years
• Over 22,000 young people across Africa who have heeded the call for better leadership and applied for places at the Academy
• Almost 1,000 young leaders who have entered the academy and are now the living embodiment of the vision
• 5,000 feeder schools across the continent who have nominated outstanding young people to join us each year
• Almost 2,000 parents who have trusted us with their most precious ‘assets’ over the last decade
• Over 100 universities around the world who have provided scholarships for our graduates
• Over 500 companies that have given our young leaders internships and full time job offers
• And hundreds of thousands of silent supporters in so many other ways
If there is one secret to my success as a leader, it is this: I surround myself with people who are far more talented than I am, people who are more creative than I am, and people whose values are far stronger than mine are. They make up for my shortcomings, and supplement my strengths. I believe in this so much that I spend approximately 50% of my time looking for talented people to join any mission that I help to start. It’s the single most important thing I do. It is this pooled force of leadership that drives any large-scale change.
So, as you reach for greatness in your life, I urge you to seek out the strengths in those around you. Let’s remember — we are all broken leaders. We cannot achieve greatness in isolation. Take time to find those who will strengthen your leadership ‘immune system’.
“These bonds that hold you together will hold your promise together” — Dean Hatim Eltayeb of ALA
Postscript: Who in your life makes you stronger? Are you aware of your own shortcomings? Do you have the courage to surround yourself with those who are more gifted than you are?



Author: Fred Swaniker
Founder of the AL group: @ALAcademy, @Prosper4Africa, @ALU_education. Passionate about leadership, entrepreneurship & education. In love with Africa.