There is a sea change going on in African leadership. Over the past decade, six of the fastest growing economies in the world have been African. Since 2000, for example, Rwanda has racked up average annual GDP growth in excess of 8%-exceeding 12% during some quarters of the Great Recession. If this continues, Rwanda will become a middle-income country by 2020.
This is remarkable given that the country was devastated by genocide a decade earlier. Liberia is also a standout-averaging over 8% GDP growth in the past five years, and over 10% in the past year in spite of the crippling influence of Ebola in the region.
A story behind the story of Africa’s growth is the influence of a remarkable organization called the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), launched by former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and a small group of organizational experts who believe that influence is a learnable skill. AGI places teams of two or three advisers at the side of elected leaders in Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Malawi, and elsewhere, magnifying a president’s ability to get things done.
AGI leaders are the first to admit that nothing they do is rocket science. Great leadership rarely is. In fact, CEO Nick Thompson says,
“Our people often tell me their work is not especially intellectually challenging. It is, however, incredibly emotionally challenging.”
Leadership usually is.
Here is AGI’s prescription for leaders with huge obstacles in their path.
The first job of leadership is to focus attention. When Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was reelected as president of Liberia, she faced unemployment, health crises, social unrest, and feeble infrastructure on one side, and a historically corrupt bureaucracy, few resources, and a mandate for immediate results on the other. For a head of state, having to choose which of such acute issues to pursue can feel perilous. It’s essential to decide what to do and what not to do.
AGI has found that an effective way to force tough tradeoff decisions is to focus on an urgent and defined timeline—one that is long enough to get something meaningful done but short enough to demand disciplined attention. The AGI team focused Johnson-Sirleaf’s Cabinet on developing a 150-day plan. On the wisdom of this timeline, Thompson says,
When a new leader comes to power she must earn the trust she’ll need to produce long-term reforms by delivering meaningful short-term results.
Within days of her reelection, President Johnson-Sirleaf formed a task force of her most trusted and competent ministers. The AGI team engaged them in vigorous debate about what was necessary, but also about—equally important—what was feasible. The result was a finite set of very concrete goals. Among other things, they promised to:
- Put 6,000 young people to work on road maintenance and beach cleanup projects.
- Open 150 km of feeder roads, linking 30 communities in two counties.
- Open 150 new sanitation facilities.
- Complete 11 reinforced concrete bridges.
- Open 75 community wells in three counties.
What’s peculiar about the design of these goals is that the president made commitments that were strikingly measurable. And because they were measurable, they were influential.
In order to get things done, Johnson-Sirleaf needed to influence the behavior of thousands of civil servants in her sprawling government bureaucracy. Many of them may not even have voted for her. Quite a number might have disagreed with her priorities. And others may have become complacent with the low expectations the voting public had of their government services. Understanding this challenge, the president mobilized energy and focus by articulating goals that were easily measurable.
Having gained consensus from her Cabinet on a realistic set of measurable goals, the president’s next challenge was to influence their fulfillment. The AGI team has found that frequent-and excruciatingly public-review of progress (or the lack thereof) is a potent way to build both public trust and leadership accountability.
It’s one thing to drone on in press conferences about your general commitment to building infrastructure. It’s another to specifically declare that within 150 days you and your Cabinet will open 150 kilometers of feeder roads and identify the location of those roads—then be transparent about results. And that’s what the president did.
This transparency immediately motivated and focused her Cabinet. It created a profound and pervasive sense of a very productive emotion: accountability. Johnson-Sirleaf understood that if half the roads weren’t finished halfway through the 150 days, the lapse would be fodder for political opponents in a way that could cripple her leadership. But she concluded that leaving a real legacy to her country would not come without precisely this kind of risk.
On February 1, 2012, she issued a “Statement of Accountability” inviting all Liberians to hold her and her government’s feet to the fire to deliver. It was an instance of remarkable integrity and transparency that showed Liberians they had a new kind of leader.
When leaders try to get things done, some do a good job of focusing on meaningful and measurable goals, and a few even declare their commitments publicly. But then they fail to build a culture of accountability that values results over harmony. The most crucial moment of truth for leaders is what they do when—not if—people fail to deliver. Liberia’s troubled history was an almost uninterrupted chain of broken promises. The culture was one where others would ignore your failures if you covered for theirs. AGI helped Johnson-Sirleaf’s staffers to develop rigorous, consistent measures of progress that provoked countless salubriously awkward moments.
The president’s task force met regularly and ruthlessly to compare progress to commitments. Some weeks, things looked good. Other weeks, not so much. But Johnson-Sirleaf was unflinching in holding leaders to account, creating both a new culture of productivity and impressive results. At the same time, she was generous in sharing the spotlight with others for early wins, staging photo opportunities and arranging media profiles for ministers who produced results.
74% of the objectives in the 150-day plan were achieved. And even more importantly, Liberian leaders developed a capacity for achievement that continues to inspire.
Simple principles appropriately applied can restore trust, create hope, and improve results. Even in the most complex political environments one can act with independence and integrity to do great things. And when leaders do the work required to mobilize effective behavior, remarkable things can be accomplished.
This article originally appeared here.
The work described here was carried out by the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative, it is now being continued by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.