Peter Wilson, African Leadership Institute


The co-founder and chief executive of the African Leadership Institute worked for Shell before finding a more philanthropic calling – nurturing future African leaders. Here he talks defying apartheid, playing septuagenarian hockey and the task of creating would-be presidents.

Obeying your parents isn’t always right. I was born and raised in Zimbabwe, where my accountant father wanted me to enter banking. When your father tells you something, you ignore it. I studied engineering in Cape Town instead.

Playing sport makes you strong in business. In the 1970s, I played international hockey for South Africa. When things aren’t going right, you don’t panic or throw your toys out of your pram. It also teaches you how to motivate. Instead of focusing on why somebody has dropped a catch or done something badly, it’s more important to bring out their strengths.

To truly understand your business, work on the shop floor. My first job was at Shell where the induction process included shift work at a refinery. Having just been an Oxford Rhodes scholar [prestigious future-leader production line], it knocked the stuffing out of me. But it was a great learning experience – you understand the people you’ll be managing. I also got to play darts well.

Working in apartheid-era South Africa taught me about not bowing to pressure. Shell was based in a verkrampte [hardline, pro-apartheid] part of Johannesburg, where racial mixing was taboo. But I was determined our Christmas party would have both white and black people. Many people put pressure on me not to do it. But I pressed ahead and it was a good party where people enjoyed themselves.

After 20 years at Shell, working in everything from setting up coal mines to strategic planning, I started my own consultancy. It was the toughest period of my life – it took six months before anything happened, and I learnt an awful lot about struggling and taking your family with you.

The African Leadership Institute [AFLI] aims to develop the next generation of African leaders. I wanted to put something back into Africa and could see leadership was a major problem. Co-founder Sean Lance [ex-Glaxo-Wellcome chief operating officer] and myself set it up in 2004 as we wanted to build a network of next-generation leaders across Africa.

Our alumni have already been successful. One chap, January Makamba, is standing for president of Tanzania this year, while another, Shane Immelman, set up Tutudesk, which provides the portable desks aimed at the 95 million African children who don’t have classroom desks.

To be a truly exceptional leader, embrace risk. Every year AFLI patron Archbishop Desmond Tutu tells our 25 Fellows that, ‘most people duck leadership because it isn’t easy. If you put your head above the parapet, somebody will take a pot shot at you, leading to personal risks, family risks… But Africa needs you – you’ve got to take on that responsibility to fight against corruption, stand up for the poor, make Africa a better place.’ We’re trying to get the same messages across.

Stick to your principles. One of the reasons that Tutu, a Christian minister, is admired across Africa – by agnostics, Nigerian Muslims, and other faiths alike – is that his values haven’t changed. He hasn’t taken on leadership to become rich – he’s done it because he believes it’s necessary to get things done. Important lessons for any leader.

British businesses could learn from the powerful African philosophy of ubuntu. It translates as ‘human kindness’ or ‘I am because of you’. It shows there’s more to business than making money.

The secret to hiring isn’t placing blanket ‘apply for this position’ adverts. Use your networks instead. At AFLI we look for Africa’s best through our connections in government and civil society.

Don’t hide your light under a bushel. That’s important, particularly when starting out on your own – you’ve got to be able to push and market yourself, even if you have a natural reticence.

I’m 70 and still playing international hockey. I coached and played for South Africa in the over-70s World Cup in Holland. It keeps you mentally strong as well as physically fit.

Doing philanthropic stuff has given me greater satisfaction than business success. It gives a very different buzz. Because it’s affecting so many different people positively, you’re seeing the joy and benefit. You’re also learning yourself. By watching people on the programme and the academics teaching it, you’re learning more about leadership. It’s like going back to university.

About author

Christian Koch

Christian Koch

Alongside his work for Director, Christian has written features for the Evening Standard, The Guardian, Sunday Times Style, The Independent, Q, Cosmopolitan, Stylist, ShortList and Glamour in an eclectic career which has seen him interview everybody from Mariah Carey to Michael Douglas through to Richard Branson with newspaper assignments including reporting on the Japanese tsunami and living with an Italian cult.

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