Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Business School Leaders for tomorrow

Blend of Western and African leadership approaches key to business success in African emerging markets – new study finds

Blend of Western and African leadership approaches key to business success in African emerging markets – new study finds

  • A study of MDs working in Sub-Saharan Africa reveals the importance of a combination of African humanism and Western pragmatism for successful leadership in emerging markets
  • NMMU Business School uses leadership study to develop a Business Leadership Framework for executive recruitment and skills development in Africa


Port Elizabeth, 10 March 2017 -- A new study by the NMMU Business School provides businesses who are keen to succeed in African and emerging markets with a leadership framework.

By examining the leadership approaches of 42 senior leaders and executives operating in multinational corporations in four Sub-Saharan African countries, the study found that despite their significant differences, Western and African business leadership styles can be blended to form an entirely new construct.

This hybrid approach, which combines Western pragmatism and African humanism, recognises the importance of fact, logic and the nature of reality, but also promotes the recognition of human-focused and collectivist forms of leadership.

While African leadership approaches have often been criticised for being poorly adaptive to increasingly complex globalised economies, empirical data in this study presents an entirely different picture – one of confident, self-assured African leaders effectively heading businesses that are part of Western multinational corporations operating in emerging markets.

“The findings of this research point to the fact that senior executives and leaders have moved towards a more humanistic culture without compromising their drive for results,” Paul Poisat, Professor and researcher at the NMMU Business School said.

Commenting on the leadership approaches of the senior executives and leaders, Professor Poisat described the new leadership style as a crossvergence of Western and African culture and as the African way of Western leadership practices.

Crossvergence refers to an individual’s ability to merge national culture with economic ideology in a way that allows for the creation of a unique value system that is based on harmonious interactions between the two, he explained.

“It requires the adoption of certain African leadership characteristics which are used together with Western leadership approaches. The Western approach informs the ‘what’ needs to be done while the African approach informs the ‘how’ to do it,” Poisat said.

Using the experiences of senior executives and leaders, the study presents a leadership framework that promotes a hybrid approach to leadership, and highlights some of the core competencies and leadership styles that are needed to facilitate effective and successful leadership in complex emerging market environments. 

“What is important about the business leadership framework is that it provides a guide to businesses which are either operating in emerging markets or are thinking about going into emerging markets, regarding the selection and or development of their senior executives,” Poisat said.

This Framework for Leading in Africa/Emerging Markets highlights several elements that businesses need to consider when recruiting candidates for leadership positions.

“Firstly, it looks at the context. This includes the risks and challenges related to the business environment that need to be considered. For example, political and economic risk, weak currencies, bureaucracy, culture and language limitations, and performance, resource and infrastructure issues. 

“The leadership profile and style also have a key role to play. Operating in the African or emerging market context requires certain biographical details, experience and cultural exposure as well as leadership style. The five leadership styles found to be particularly effective in this context included, charismatic, community centred, entrepreneurial, servant leader, and transformational styles.

“Skill sets or core competencies emerged as important factors to consider when selecting or developing leaders in these environments. In particular, competencies related to communication, commercial acumen, decision making, development, and strategic thinking, among others, were highlighted as important. 

In addition to this, the framework looks at how candidates’ attachments to Western market culture, African clan culture, and Western and African traits and characteristics can be combined to create the crossvergence approach to leadership that African markets increasingly require.

“The framework will benefit both employers and employees alike as it not only provides a profile for recruitment but also a competence model for skills development,” Poisat said.

This leadership framework is set to assist organisations who are looking to extend their reach into African and other emerging economies as well as broaden the scope of their influence in these oftentimes challenging markets.





In this study the specific ‘phenomena’ on which the researcher focused were the leadership behaviours and competences of MDs, particularly black African MDs, managing in complex and difficult African environments. The primary objective of the study was to develop a framework for African business leadership and having chosen phenomenology as the paradigm it required capturing “rich descriptions of phenomena and their settings” (Bentz and Shapiro, 1998, p. 104). For this reason the researcher decided to use a written narrative, face-to-face interview and focus group methods to gather data.  The narrative or story telling method was used in the study because it falls within the Appreciative Inquiry domain and because “humans are story-telling organisms who, individually and socially, lead storied lives. The study of narrative, therefore, is the study of the ways humans experience the world” (Connelly and Clandinin, 1990, p. 2). Each MD was contacted and asked whether they would voluntarily agree to take part in the study. Once agreement was obtained from MDs, permission was sought from the MDs to invite their direct reports to participate in focus groups. The MDs informed their directors of the study and said that they would be invited to participate but that it was not a requirement should they not wish to do so. All the directors and ex-directors contacted voluntarily agreed to participate.  Purposive sampling was applied (Miles and Huberman, 1994) as it allows to intentionally select participants according to the needs of the study, based on their particular knowledge (Bloor and Wood, 2006; Patton, 1990.), and because they can teach us a lot about the issues that are of importance to the research (Coyne, 1997). The sample size is within the requirements of qualitative research and comprises a small selective (Schatzman and Strauss, 1973) number of five Managing Directors from whom data was collected through face to face semi-structured interviews.


The validation of the data was acquired through focus groups comprising of 37 senior executives, the majority of whom were company directors reporting into the MDs. Both the MD and director samples comply with Glaser’s (1978) description of selective sampling being applied to a study when a decision is made to sample a specific location according to a preconceived but reasonable initial set of dimensions which are worked out in advance of the study. In this case the leadership behaviours of predominantly black MDs in stressful and challenging situations in Africa.

The Managing Directors chosen for this study were selected because they have each been faced with significant challenges and as the study is focusing on leadership in Africa four of the sample are black Africans:

Country 1: The introduction of a 30% alcohol levy together with tighter liquor trading regulations severely affected the company’s performance. The Managing Director (MD1) was a black expatriate.

Country 2: The newly appointed Managing Director (MD2) took over an ailing business that was losing money and clinging to a 26% market share. The Managing Director was a white expatriate relatively new to the industry.

Country 3: The business has very high shrinkage and until recently an excise rate of substantially more than the 40%, which it now enjoys. It also has three businesses, which are being integrated. The Managing Director (MD3) is a black returning Country Three national who emigrated to South Africa over 10 years ago.

Country 4: The meltdown of the economy created a catastrophic situation in which many companies (and people) did not survive. The Managing Director (MD4A) at the time said that managing the company during those turbulent times was “the business equivalent of white water rafting. The challenges have been large, varied and relentless. The demands have been many; requiring perpetual vigilance and constant adaptation” (The reference is not included to protect the anonymity of the MD) The Managing Director is a black Country Four national.

Country 4: The Managing Director (MD4B) who has replaced the previous MD and has the challenge of integrating a number of operations. He is a black Country 4 national who spent three years as MD in Country 3 prior to his return to Country 4.