Teaching Students to be Authentic Leaders in a Volatile World

How will we develop leaders in a country marked by recession, bribery, and clashing generations?
Teaching Students to Be Authentic Leaders in a Volatile World

CHIKA BABAFEMI IS the founder and managing director of Unlimitedideas.com, a public relations and events management company in Lagos, Nigeria. Because his average commuting time during peak traffic periods is three hours, Babafemi leaves home by 5 a.m. and doesn't return until ll p.m. He works hard and expects his employees to be as committed as he is. While he would love to spend more time with his family, he does not believe in work-life balance. He believes that as long as workers are financially comfortable, their lives must be in balance.

Babafemi was recently a student in my class on leadership that is part of the Owner Managers Program (OMP) at Lagos Business School. Owner-managers of small to medium -sized enterprises take the class to learn how to successfully lead their businesses in Nigeria's volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous—VUCA—environment.

Doing business in Nigeria is not a tea party. The country is ranked 146th out of the 190 nations included in the World Bank's list for Ease of Doing Business. In addition, the country is just recovering from a recession it entered in 2015. According to its National Bureau of Statistics, nearly 8 million Nigerians lost their jobs between January 2016 and September 2017; between the second and third quarters of 2017, unemployment rose from 16.2 percent to 18.8 percent.

But Nigerian business leaders face many other challenges. Ethical standards are low, and CEOs often are induced to give bribes in order to get work or stay in business. Changing demographics are reshaping the workforce—infact, a January 2016 report from advertising firm GetUpInc predicts that millennials will constitute 75 percent of the Nigerian workforce in 2020. And a sharp decline in the quality of university education, particularly in public schools, means that many new graduates are ill-prepared to take on even entry-level jobs.

At Lagos Business School, we are attempting to tackle all these issues as we prepare the next generation of business leaders. For instance, we are addressing the education deficit by introducing a monthlong brush-up program for young MBA students before classes commence.

But some of the other challenges are more daunting. How do we convince Chika Babafemi that he should lose that government contract rather than give a bribe to secure it? How do we show him that his millennia! workers do not see the wisdom of three-hour traffic commutes, so he needs to implement technology that will enable flexible work hours and telecommuting options? Can we convince him that he can change his management style and still get the job done?

Teaching leadership in 21st-century Africa calls for a practical approach, so at LBS we take these three specific steps:

We instill values. The LBS MBA and executive programs focus on inculcating moral mindsets in our students by making ethics the bedrock of teaching. No program is run at LBS without including ethical content or multiple ethics sessions, and a typical MBA class has about 22 ethics sessions. We also provide students with mentors. Not only do all MBA students have individual faculty advisors, all the MBA students-including EMBA students-are put into study groups that are directed by members of the faculty or the school's executive staff. Advisors are expected to meet with each of their proteges at least seven times within the 18-month period of the MBA program. Each meeting has an agenda, and its outcome is documented and signed off on by both parties.

We explore generational differences. In my ongoing research, I have learned that more than half of older managers do not understand what motivates the millennials who make up a growing part of their workforce. Millennials are seeking work-life balance, a work culture that fits their values, and ongoing professional development. They need an environment that allows them to express themselves, learn from their mistakes, and pursue their own ideas. Baby boomers and Generation X managers care less about work-life balance and professional development, but they are interested in the right work cultureand managers need to accommodate all three demographics in their workplaces. These lessons are particularly valuable for our EMBA participants.

We help students see that emotional intelligence distinguishes the leaders from the bosses.

We emphasize emotional Intelligence. We help students see that emotional intelligence (EQ) distinguishes the leaders from the bosses. It inspires genuine followership, and not merely what Nigerians call "eye service," or grandstanding. Leaders gain trust by displaying genuine and authentic care for the people they lead, especially in tough times. Those who hug and care for their people are the leaders who will win.

The typical Nigerian CEO often has difficulty embracing these concepts, so we use a variety of approaches to bring them alive in the classroom:

Exercises. To cover the topic of emotional intelligence, for instance, we begin by taking executive students through exercises that help them identify how well they have mastered the four skills of EQ—self-awareness, self-management, relationship management, and social awareness. We also lead them through an exercise that demonstrates how their communication styles might cause people to view them differently than they would like. The results often are both startling and humbling for the participants, so this exercise disarms their resistance to developing new leadership styles.

Case studies. This method of teaching helps douse the anxieties of participants learning new concepts. In groups of eight or ten, students discuss live or fictional cases of how leaders met particular challenges or shaped sustainable futures for their organizations. Not only does the case study method make the learning more practical, it allows students to bounce their ideas off each other in smaller groups before they enter the more intimidating classroom setting. We always emphasize that students should come with open minds so they can learn from others. We also use local cases as often as we can to make the learning more relevant and real.

Strategy simulation games. These games, which have become popular among executive students at LBS, provide real excitement for participants as they solve leadership and team building challenges. One of our favorite experiential management teaching tools is the Lego Game, which focuses on teamwork, decision making, effective communication, and team leadership. 

Executive visits. There is always a buzz of excitement in the class when the protagonists of case studies are invited in to speak, or when a chief executive shares his leadership story with students. In one instance, the students and I spent about 45 minutes discussing the case of a leading Nigerian real estate company, Jide Taiwo and Partners. Unbeknownst to the students, the founder and chairman had been anonymously listening to the opinions and advice of the students who were debating his plans for expansion and leadership transition. When I invited him to come forward and speak, the students gave him a loud cheer-and when he finished, they responded with a standing ovation.

Another very compelling visitor was a successful Nigerian entrepreneur who shared his story about navigating the ethical challenges of doing business in our country. He described how he resisted the corrupt government officials who had wanted financial inducements to approve his business license and how that resistance delayed the approval of his license for years, forcing him to rely on blue-collar jobs to survive the wait. His story was almost too good to be real. What he didn't know was that one of the people listening in the classroom had been an employee of that government ministry during the time his story took place. Her validation of his situation provided a powerful ethical lesson for the students.

Through speakers, cases, games, and classroom exercises, we find that we can bring our students to an understanding of the importance of ethics, work-life balance, and authentic leadership. When the class begins, they might say, "None of this is possible in Nigeria." But by the end of class, they have become advocates of ethical, balanced leadership.

Henry Onukwuba is a senior fellow and full-time faculty member in human resource management and organizational behavior at Pan-Atlantic University's Lagos Business School in Nigeria.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's March/April 2019 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].

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