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Realities of change
Understanding how African NGO leaders develop


Rick James with Julius Oladipo, Moses Isooba, Betsy Mboizi and Ida Kusiima

INTRAC (Malawi), CDRN (Uganda) and CORAT (Kenya)

July 2005

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Executive summary

The context in which most civil society organisations (CSOs) work is constantly evolving, often rapidly. In response, leaders of CSOs must therefore be leaders of change in their own organisations. In order for organisations to develop and change, practical capacity building experiences are revealing that leaders themselves have to develop and change. Leadership development is therefore being prioritised as a crucial capacity building intervention, both by leaders of African CSOs themselves as well as by donors and other stakeholders.

Libraries overflow with material about leadership in a Western commercial context, but there is very little published information about the particular realities that civil society leaders face in Africa, and even less about the factors which influence those individuals to change their leadership behaviour. To address this knowledge gap, three capacity building organisations in Africa undertook a joint research programme. CORAT Africa in Kenya, INTRAC in Malawi and the Community Development Resource Network (CDRN) in Uganda interviewed 45 non-governmental organisation (NGO) leaders to find out their perspectives on leadership; the nature of the leadership change processes they had experienced; and the factors that had promoted and constrained change in their leadership behaviour in the past.

The main findings are that:
  • Leaders do not have a coherent and consistent underlying understanding of leadership. Their perspectives on leadership are hybrids, influenced by traditional cultural expectations of (male) leadership, a political ‘neo-patrimonial’ role model and Western management theory. Leadership behaviour tended to oscillate between these models depending on convenience and circumstance rather than conscious choice.


  • NGO leaders have very congested lives as they simultaneously inhabit three different worlds – the international aid system with its accountability and information demands; the urban organisational world of staff/board expectations; and the rural context of extended families. Keeping such diverse demands satisfied leaves leaders with little time to reflect and learn.


  • Women leaders face tougher realities, confronting cultural expectations of women being followers, not leaders, and facing even greater demands from their families. HIV/AIDS is exacerbating this situation through its destructive impact on organisations and families – though the extent of the impact is not fully appreciated.
In terms of the process of leadership change, research respondents identified moving towards a more empowering style of leadership as one of the most common changes. The process seemed to be a gradual evolutionary one rather than a great revolutionary leap forward. It was not a linear or planned, but rather it was a cascade of events. While the process of change that individuals went through was complex and unique to each person, a number of elements in leaders’ change processes were common:

  • Leaders were stuck in congested lives with conflicting models of leadership
  • External events ‘catalysed’ a process of change
  • Leaders internalised these events and gave them meaning
  • Leaders implemented changed behaviour and followers and others responded, reinforcing or undermining the change
The research studies identified a number of external events that played a role in encouraging leaders to behave differently: a change in leadership role; an organisational crisis; negative feedback from staff, board, peers or mentors; positive role models; or new knowledge (e.g. from training). However, while these events acted as catalysts of change, what seemed to make the difference was how they were interpreted by the leaders themselves, based on their: beliefs and values; sense of self; openness to change; aspirations and determination. Because leadership is fundamentally a relationship, the extent to which a leader’s decision to change was supported or resisted by staff, the board, family, friends and peers also had a considerable impact on the degree of change.

These research findings indicate that leadership development could be more effective if it:
  • is personalised, allowing leaders to internalise the need for change;
  • assists leaders to develop their own coherent guiding theory of leadership;
  • recognises the congestion in leaders’ lives and helps them think through their different roles in life, and in particular look at gender implications.
  • actively reinforces the identified catalysts for change;
  • ensures that workshops and training create space for reflection and peer feedback, take an experiential learning approach, provide new knowledge and use role models;
  • uses mentoring and peer learning as follow-through and as stand-alone leadership development inputs in their own right;
  • is rooted within the organisation, so that ‘followers’ and board members can be supportive of change processes.
For capacity building providers this would mean:
  • adjusting both the content and process of their leadership development programmes to reflect the factors that inhibit and promote change;
  • developing the skills to deliver these different services, such as being able to provide counselling and coaching support to leaders;
  • challenging donors on the type of leadership development programmes they support and effective roles and boundaries in stimulating and reinforcing leadership change;
  • practising what they preach by having constructive feedback, time for reflection, and placing values at the heart of their own capacity building practice.




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