Leadership in Africa: Bridging the Generation Gap

19/01/2019 The quality of development in Africa now depends on a key resource: business leaders capable of working beyond the local market, in other countries, other regions, and different cultures. The continent has a unique asset – the youngest population in the world, which constitutes an unparalleled reservoir of high potential.
We’re now at the dawn of their ascent to responsibility.

IN MARCH 2016, the 4th edition of the Africa CEO Forum(1) was held in Abidjan, bringing together economic and political leaders from more than 40 African countries. During the event, ‘The Making of Leaders: An African Outlook’ was unveiled, a study conducted by Mazars and Morgan Phillips(2). This unprecedented study highlighted the key success factors of African leaders of today, asking a number of questions: what are the leadership qualities that inspire future generations? How can the energy and ambitions of ‘Millennials’ be channelled to enable the development of future leaders in the service of common goals? Is there a specificity linked to the African context that breaks away from traditional principles of leadership?

MILLENNIALS ARE ALSO CONVINCED that they could attain their professional objectives within their current workplace. 54% of them believe they have the power to access a management position in the company in which they work. The fact that the majority of Millennials consider it possible to reach the highest positions in their work creates an important expectation that businesses need to consider, and for which they need to provide answers, lest a strong sense of frustration be created.

EVEN IF KEY SUCCESS FACTORS identified by the surveyed CEOs are precisely those that Millennials recognise in the leaders who inspire them, the representatives of younger generations do not envision the same pathway for their ascension to leadership. They also demonstrate great ambition, with 70 percent aspiring to take leadership positions during their career.

ANOTHER REVELATION IS THAT THE FAMED ‘brain drain’ is no longer relevant – Gen Y is willing to construct the new Africa. African Millennials do not consider expatriation to be a major priority and seem convinced that opportunities are flourishing locally. Fewer than 10 percent of them want to spend their entire career outside of Africa, but 30 percent want to create their own business. To put the results of this study in perspective, we interviewed a group of three people from different generations who are close to this subject: Ghita Lahlou (Special Adviser to the President of Saham Group and Director of the Ecole Centrale in Casablanca); Ikram Adnani (Senior Consultant, Financial Services, at Mazars in Morocco, now Manager at BP Shore Consulting); and Ali Bensouda (Co-founder of Omniup).


Senior Consultant, Financial Services, at Mazars in Morocco, now Manager at BP Shore Consulting



A leader is a person who is capable of extracting themselves from their everyday experience and their environment in order to think about the future. They must have the tools, the know-how, the experience, the fundamental desire to seek out disruptive topics and also must tend to seek out innovation.

They need to have great interpersonal skills, to be able to convey key messages, rally the troops, and find funding. They need to be able to put themselves in danger, see the things that others don’t see, defend projects, to sometimes be a bit of a ‘daredevil’, but all for a cause that they believe in. They must be both a visionary and be able to break out of their comfort zone, whether they are 20, 30 or 50 years-old.

Leaders must also know how to seek out employees with different talents, and to set their creativity free. A truly efficient team needs to be made up of people who are complementary yet fundamentally different. These colleagues can go faster or slower than the leader, and don’t have to think like them… this may be frustrating but the leader must not inhibit the spirit and the creativity of their teams.

For me, leadership cannot be taught, but it is not inherent either. It necessitates the qualities that we acquire by ourselves through self-teaching.

There’s also the personal journey that shapes a capacity for leadership. Was I born into a good environment? Did I benefit from a good education, did I meet people who allowed me to develop this courage, this aptitude to listen to my intuition while being supported by reason? It’s a kind of alchemy…


A leader must not only be visionary and innovative, but also support their team, to bring the best out of them. It is not so important for a leader to know it all, as long as they can motivate, influence, and involve others, so as to spark their enthusiasm for shared success. The leader must be able to identify themselves to each one of their team members, so that they can in turn identify themselves to the leader. In my opinion, diplomas are important but are not enough to prepare tomorrow’s leaders. You can certainly acquire technical skills, but this acquisition remains theoretical. Leaders owe their success to their charisma and their human qualities more than to technical knowledge.


Leaders are those who have empathy, a unique sensitivity and aptitude to understand what the needs of others are. They are sort of magicians who help reveal someone’s inner talent to themselves, and to society(3).

Overseas, we are used to legitimacy stemming from technical skills – it’s a meritocracy. Sometimes, when we return to our home countries, we’re confronted by other forms of legitimacy such as family, heritage, or power…

We are faced with people who have a certain type of power but are not necessarily leaders, people who have authority that has not necessarily been given to them by the organisation.

We are all in agreement on the criteria that define leadership, but in the case of Africa, other questions may arise.


In Africa, leadership status is covered both by one’s skills and by other factors such as age, experience, social standing within a family, a clan or an ethnic group. Someone arriving in a new environment must have a good level of knowledge and good connections. A young person often needs to prove themselves to people who have been in a position for 20 years and who therefore have a certain legitimacy.


Co-founder of Omniup


Until today, the replacement of leaders took place very slowly, in Maghreb as well as in West Africa. Systems of families, corporations, clans, and regions all found it difficult to accept this changing of the guard, regardless of whether you stayed in your region, or came from abroad. The new generation of leaders tend to overcome these limitations. They have a capacity to acquire new skills very quickly and often demonstrate a high level of flexibility and courage(4).

I would add that cultural management is key. Many multinational entities have also understood this and send their leaders to their African subsidiaries?that are located in their home countries. So, I think that leadership is changing. While leaders are trained locally, they’re also able to gain experience abroad.

They’re multicultural and thus able to work in the most difficult environments. And, above all, they’re much more innovative.


African leaders, like their Latin American or European counterparts, undertake similar studies in major business schools, consume the same products, travel to and find themselves in the same places. When they return to their home countries, their origins give them an advantage.

Then, when they realise there is a gap between what they are living and what they have learned or lived abroad, they sometimes choose to re-enter the ranks and continue to do what their fathers or grandfathers have done – not rush things, not create change – in order to access responsibility more quickly. At the end of the day, they become themselves the barriers to change when they could become the torchbearers of a new way of seeing things, in order to better develop Africa.


There’s a revolution in leadership, notably in Morocco. I undertook my studies and started my career in the United States but I always wanted to return to Morocco to contribute to the construction of something in my country. I dreaded my return a little, as I was somewhat expecting the stereotypes of leaders that do not necessarily allow people to evolve within a meritocracy… However, regarding our clients or at Mazars, I’ve never actually felt such a thing.

Many things are changing with the new generations. Today’s leaders are starting to adapt.


Special Advisor to the President of Saham Group and Director of the Ecole Centrale in Casablanca



Not everyone can become a leader, but we can nevertheless discover potential leaders at a young age. When recruiting someone who is 25, we can perceive whether they have the capacity to become a leader or not. The goal for businesses is to create a pool of potential leaders during the very recruitment stage(5). I receive many spontaneous applications. Some catch my attention by their bold style or by the way they are presented.

To be the right person for the job, they need to be passionate – I need to feel their qualities such as their entrepreneurial spirit, their patriotism…Once those with high potential have been identified, they need to be coached, trained, and pushed to challenge themselves by giving them the right level of responsibility, but also the freedom to fail, to some extent.


Businesses should not only detect profiles that have a good potential for leadership, but also invest in these people by providing them with training and challenging assignments. They must also allow them to express themselves and use their creativity so as to develop and innovate, which according to me is key in order to foster development in Africa.

I also think that our generation is trying to break down hierarchical barriers in favour of collaborative models. Millennials are very connected, able to multitask, and are capable of teaching themselves through digital tools. By adapting to these new models, employers will be able to propose successful career paths for tomorrow’s leaders.



The heart of a new economic and societal model is the younger generation that both embodies and fosters new models of technology, connectivity, collaboration and mediation. Some current jobs will not exist anymore in 20 years. In Africa, we will need to employ the 1.3 billion people that will arrive on the job market in 2050. Companies as they exist today will certainly not be the ones to employ them, nor will governments. The solution must come from the future leaders themselves, who will have to open up new spaces for work and services.


This is just as important as the disruptions that have already happened, and those that are going to occur over the next 5 to 10 years will challenge all our value creation and value distribution models. Today, WhatsApp is run with a 50 people- strong staff. What will happen to the billions of other people? We may well have the leaders, but what will they do?


In the concept of leadership, there is thankfully a sense of progress, of creation, and the idea to inspire and lead teams. The billions of people we’re talking about will have to take advantage of their own leadership potential in order to be able to live comfortably. I believe that for a long time, Africa has offered great career opportunities to younger generations, an evolution faster than what was possible in other regions. But African countries still lack specific skills such as engineers, for example. When considering a family business, a multinational entity or a major national company, the development of human resources and the use of Gen Y are different. Family organisations, may be out of step in terms of skills, organisation, and structure. They have a tendency to be reluctant to change. In the most organised groups, there’s an obligation to adapt for pragmatic reasons.


Those in our generation don’t hesitate to make it known when they’re not happy. Members of this generation are not afraid of losing their job, they are not afraid of change, not afraid of the system. This generation forges ahead. This strength we possess sometimes leads managers to review their management model. The whole business model can thus be disrupted to adapt to these cultural changes.


What we are going to need is stewardship. It is necessary that Gen X trusts and gives a bigger chance to Gen Y, whose style is different.


Global challenges are about progress or development – this is a widely shared aspiration. The challenge now facing Africa is the hardest of them all – it’s almost a matter of survival. The leadership model that Africans will develop will probably be one that is largely reproductible for other systems as it will be more agile and efficient. This generation and the next in line will have to use their talents and ingenuity, the capabilities that those who have come before were not able to develop due to difficult social, political and economic conditions. They will eventually deconstruct and reconstruct that which the previous generations have built. And this leadership will be absolutely crucial to accelerate the growth of our continent.

(1) http://www.theafricaceoforum.com
(2) The Making of Leaders: An African Outlook. http://www.mazars.com/africa-leadership-2016
(3) As a complement, the answers provided by 50 CEOs and 760 Millenials in the Mazars / Morgan Phillips study highlighted a striking divergence between generations. Today’s CEOs believe their success stems fro their personality and experience, while most Millennials think of education as the first success factor. ‘The Making of Leaders: an African Outlook’, op. cit. http://www.mazars.com/africa-leadership-2016
(4) 30 percent of Millennials think about creating their own start-up. ‘The Making of Leaders: an African Outlook’, op. cit.
(5) More than 70 percent of CEOs take into account school and higher education in their talent recruitment and development policy. Beyond diplomas, CEOs are looking for ethical behaviour, integrity, creativity and a capacity for teamwork. ‘The Making of Leaders: an African Outlook’, op. cit.