“A West Point Military Academy Cadet” with Dr. Modupe Taylor-Pearce in Sierra Leone

Exercising leadership begins with self. If you don’t lead and master yourself well, you don’t gain and earn the right to lead others. Daily self-discipline (atomic habits) and exercising leadership go hand-in-hand. When aspiring bold leaders learn this, they enhance their capacity to lead themselves and others. Dr. Modupe Taylor-Pearce of Sierra Leone learned this vital principle during his West Point military academy training and his years of experience during war and peace times in his home country. In today’s episode, he joins Anne Pratt in a wide-ranging conversation about how to lead and stay alive, leadership as service, the future of Africa and humanity, and the importance of self-disciplined habits in war, peace, leadership, and life. Tune in for more!

Listen to the podcast here.

“A West Point Military Academy Cadet” with Dr. Modupe Taylor-Pearce in Sierra Leone

Daily Self-Disciplines and Military Drills to Stay Alive in War, Leadership, and Life

Today, our thoughtful BOLD leader joins us from the West African country officially known as the Republic of Sierra Leone. He has traveled a unique journey from the battlefield to the classroom and the boardroom. He is the founding Dean of the African Leadership University Business School. He is a member of the Thinkers 50 Radar Class of 2022 and the American Mensa Society. He is also a seasoned scholar who graduated from the US Military Academy West Point and the Universities of Columbia and Capello in the United States of America.

He is a TEDx speaker, an author, and a practitioner in leadership management and organizational development. As the CEO and founder of BCA Leadership, he is also a catalyst for change. He has touched the lives of around 2,000 aspiring leaders across Africa and crafted the ‘Made in Africa’ Leadership Conference.

Stay with us as he shares more about leadership in and out of his military uniform, how he got shot up in war, how to lead and stay alive, and, thirdly, being summoned by the President of Sierra Leone. We warmly welcome my dear colleague and friend, Dr. Modupe Taylor-Pearce, and welcome to Leading Boldly into the Future.

Leading Boldly into the Future: What the World Needs Now | Dr. Modupe Taylor-Pearce | Self Discipline

Modupe, having you join us in this conversation is a great honor. I cannot wait to hear more, learn more, and share your excellent insights. Thank you. Merci beaucoup, monsieur.

Thank you, Anne. It’s a pleasure to be here.

You have had a remarkable life. Reading a little about you and your background, I learned you’ve lived in multicultural environments. Born and raised in Sierra Leone, you spent some time in Ghana and Kenya and then came to the USA later in life. What was that early childhood experience like in terms of growing up in these different countries and, of course, in Sierra Leone, going through its challenges? How has this multicultural, multi-international experience shaped you?

Indeed, it helped me understand the similarities in various African cultures and some of the differences. I was blessed to have grown up in Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Kenya. I also grew up when each of those countries went through certain levels of upheaval. I still remember, as a child, being quickly bundled by my mother away from school because there were some school demonstrations and it was election time. We were not allowed to go out because there was a fear that they were kidnapping children and performing ritual sacrifices with them as a means to get positions of power.

I also remember, as a teenager in Ghana, being frog-marched up and down the Kotoka International Airport by a drunken soldier at gunpoint because I had made the mistake of running up the grass where we were not supposed to run. Still, no sign said, “Don’t run up the grass.” This was during the early days of the Rawlings military junta. The soldiers were frankly drunk with power, both metaphorically and also physically they were drunk. (Editor’s note: Jerry John Rawlings was a Ghanaian military coup leader, aviator, and politician who led the country briefly from 1979 and then from 1981 to 2001. He led a military junta, a government led by a committee of military leaders, until 1992 and then served two terms as the democratically elected president of Ghana. He overthrew the democratically elected government in a military coup d’état on 31 December 1981)  

I remember times in Kenya when Robert Ouko was assassinated and murdered. (Editor’s note: John Robert Ouko was a Kenyan politician who served two terms as Foreign Minister of Kenya: from 1979 to 1983 and from 1988 to 1990. He also served in the colonial period through the presidencies of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi. he was brutally assassinated in February 1990.) The tension was palpable among my parents. This was during the time of Arap Moi. I attended the same youth group at church with Robert Ouko’s daughter. I saw firsthand what happens when leaders make certain decisions and how it impacts the rest of us. That translated into my brief military career, where I learned much about leadership at West Point. Then, I returned to Sierra Leone after learning about leadership to see at a time when the country was in a civil war. I saw various qualities of leadership, from pretty good to abysmal.

When you see leadership during wartime, wartime contracts significantly the time lag between a leader’s decisions and the effects, the consequences, or the benefits. In wartime, I got to see and learn a very simple lesson: when leaders make poor decisions, their people lose their lives. In peacetime, their people lose their livelihoods. The opposite is also true. These were some of the experiences that I got to see and experience firsthand as a child in multiple countries within Africa.

Wartime significantly contracts the time lag between a leader's decisions and the effects. In wartime, there’s a very simple rule: when leaders make poor decisions, their people lose their lives. Share on X

Crisis Leadership

That’s so profound, Modupe. As you were talking, it made me think of even this current moment in the world, where we’re dealing with this monumental crisis. We have a war and a virus. We have the existential threats of climate change. Having had these multifaceted experiences at this moment in time, what are the significant leadership challenges that keep you awake at night and concerned about what leaders today need to address and what we need to rise to in this moment?

I must confess that, in general terms, I am most concerned about the continent of Africa. I recognize that your question is global, but you will forgive me for focusing my answer on what leaders in Africa need to focus on. Part of the reason for that is that I believe that many Western countries are blessed with better leadership training and quality of leadership decisions per capita than we are in Africa. We see that in the outcomes that we see in Africa.

Our leaders in Africa must ensure that the people they serve as leaders are indeed being served. There is a perspective that leadership is a position, or that leadership is a right, or leadership is an honor. Authentic leadership is a service. It’s a service that a person provides to people. Those people are the constituents, the followers, or whatever terminology you want to use. When one starts thinking of it as a service, almost like a waiter serving, then one begins to adjust their thinking into understanding that first of all, your performance is determined by the people you serve and how they derive value from that.

Leading Boldly into the Future: What the World Needs Now | Dr. Modupe Taylor-Pearce | Self Discipline

Secondly, it helps you understand that if the people you serve are not benefiting, then quite frankly, it speaks to you as a mediocre waiter regarding leadership. The problems that we as leaders need to focus on in Africa are the problems that most Africans are dealing with. The problems that the majority of Africans are dealing with are issues like lack of education, poor healthcare, and poor infrastructure. Every problem that exists in Africa has been solved by somebody else in Africa.

Every single problem that exists in Africa has already been solved by another leader in Africa. What we need to do is to learn to connect with each other. Share on X

That’s a profound statement. Modupe, do you have perhaps one example of that? I’m sure there are numerous.

Thank you so much. I love your questions. They’re just prompting me, and getting me excited. Absolutely. I run a small organization called Breakfast Club Africa where we support leaders in connecting with each other. We even do things called needs and leads where we connect people so that somebody’s needs somebody else might have a lead to that. One interesting thing happened and I got the idea from when I was running the African Leadership University. One of our learners was a manager in a construction company in Egypt. That was his 9 to 5. His 5 to 9 was being a fruit crop developer. He needed a market for it.

One time, we were doing a needs and leads. Lo and behold, there was a Ghanaian lady who actually had, I think, resigned from a tech company or one of these phone companies. She was in the business of not farming but organizing farmers and creating a market for them in the supermarket. She recognized that in Ghana, certain fruits just weren’t going to grow very well there.

She had a market and she had a demand for it, but she didn’t have a supplier. We got the two together. The Moroccan guy found a market, started sending containers of fruit, and there was a business. Another person had a solution to it. Another example of what I talk about is more serious. A public sector official had an issue. For confidentiality reasons, I won’t tell you which country, but this is somebody who runs a significant in terms of revenue collection and customs authority. This person was faced with a challenge because one of the influential political people came to this person and said, “I’ve got some stuff that I need you to facilitate to be brought into the country discounted.” To put it bluntly, “Defraud the country so that I can get mine.” This person is a powerful political operative. One does not want to upset those people.

It so turned out that by connecting them to another person who occupied a similar job in a different country, this person was able to find a way around that situation. Why? Because this other person had found a way to deal with such political operatives who had direct channels, whether it was the state house or the parliamentary leaders, and wanted personal favors and how to deal with it. Person B gave the idea to Person A, and Person A implemented it and called me excitedly to say, “I’m so excited. I was able to do this and now I can live with my conscience and keep my job.” That was great.

Can you share what they did? Without disclosing, what were those steps? Many people in the world are faced with these moral decisions. How do you exercise leadership with moral courage while still retaining your life and your livelihood? Can you share very briefly what they did to navigate that?

In this case, I cannot. In the example I gave, I unfortunately cannot. One of the things that has happened is that with leaders, there is often an assumption, especially when faced with challenges that the solutions are binary. It’s either this or this. When in reality, there are multiple solutions to any problem, but one just has to expand one’s mind to recognize it.

Let’s take the issue of how you deal with something like today, the challenge of dealing with countries and used clothing. This is a problem that gained some notoriety, especially when in Rwanda, His Excellency Paul Kagame banned used clothing much to the sadness of the United States. There’s research to show that used clothing essentially destroys the textile industry in a local country. The textile industry is one of the places where you can get a lot of jobs. (Editor’s note: Paul Kagame is a Rwandan politician and former military officer who has been the President of Rwanda since 2000. He was previously a commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a rebel armed force that invaded Rwanda in 1990. The RPF was an armed force during the Rwandan Civil War and ended the infamous Rwandan genocide. He was the 16th Chairperson of the African Union · 28 January 2018 – 10 February 2019.)

What do you do? You’re a president or a minister, you’ve got a situation in which if you say, “Wait a minute, we’re taxing that,” then you fall foul of the WTO (World Trade Organization) rules. You also then incur the ire of potentially some donor countries. How do you solve that problem? When these kinds of things are being approached, now you take the example of how Rwanda did it. Rwanda still survived. They didn’t lose the funding that they were getting and they were able to solve that problem.

There’s an example of how a leader manages to solve the problem because you can make confident decisions and yet have the proper negotiations to go with it so that you don’t throw up the baby in the bathroom. I apologize if some of my answers are less specific because I’m interested in solving the big problems in Africa. Those are problems that involve quite a bit of negotiation. They involve courage on the part of leaders who have to understand that progress is going to have to be accompanied by some pain.

Navigating Dark Moments

If we talk about pain and how we create this transformation, often it’s about how we navigate out of some of those dark and difficult moments and challenges. Can you share with us or take us back in time to a specific time in your young life, when you had a very difficult moment or a dark moment? How did you feel at the time? What was the a-ha moment and how did you pivot out of that?

First of all, I am so thrilled that you described my life as young because I keep telling my children in college now that I’m still young, and they don’t believe it. They think that anybody who’s over 50 is officially old. In 2013, I was summoned to the office of the president of Sierra Leone because there were complaints about me that I had stoked ethnic rivalries and was being unhelpful to the economic cause in Sierra Leone. The background to this was I had about 6 or 9 months before being appointed the executive secretary of the American Chamber of Commerce in Sierra Leone. The American Chamber of Commerce exists to support the facilitation of trade.

It so happened that I discovered that the American Chamber of Commerce, which I had taken over, had been silently hijacked by a small fraction of business people using it specifically to further their ends at the country’s expense. This level of selfish corruption was not necessarily propagated but was tolerated by certain public and diplomatic officials. “I blew the whistle.”

Who did you blow it to?

First to the board, then to the ambassador.

To the US ambassador.

Yes, and then to the broader membership cycle. Eventually, I blew it to a couple of senators in the US. I wrote a letter to them. I discovered very quickly what it means to be bold. It was a dark time because you chose to stand for truth and shine a light on corruption. In a small country, you will quickly become extra isolated. It’s not just the “corrupt people” who will leave you alone; it’s those people who wish for a less corrupt society but don’t dare to stand up for one who will make you feel the most lonely.

Can you share more?

Indeed, consulting or job opportunities dried up. Social gatherings and invitations to certain places also disappeared. The interesting thing is that when you stand for the right thing, you suffer for a little while but don’t realize how many people are now watching. Eventually, it didn’t take too long. It was about 3 or 4 months.

I was contacted by a multinational company that had a branch in Sierra Leone, and they said, “We have a factory here. We want your help looking at what’s happening with our night shift. We think there’s some funny business going on.” They contacted me, and I helped them. It was a multinational company called Heidelberg. That’s weathered the tide for me.

Interestingly enough, that started six months before the Ebola breakout in Sierra Leone. When Ebola hit Sierra Leone, almost every industry tanked except two. One was the medical pharmaceutical industry because everybody suddenly wanted to be healthy during Ebola. The second was the cement factory because in the face of depreciating currency due to the poor economy, most people doubled up on their construction work. After all, it was the safest place to park their money.

You were positioned in the right place at that time.

Yes. I do want to make clear that the burden of leadership when one wants to do those things is that one will have to weather the storm of being incredibly lonely and isolated.

What was your a-ha moment, and how did you pivot out of that? When did the light bulb go on, and how did you navigate that lonely, isolated period?

I was blessed, first of all, that I’m the son of missionaries. My parents were teachers and missionaries. In some ways, my parents have gone through different things like that. I learned a bit from shared stories from my parents. Because I spent time at West Point, we did a lot of studying of leaders. Even after West Point, I was a big fan of reading leadership biographies. I read the biographies of business leaders like Jack Welch or Lee Iacocca and political leaders like Mandela and Gandhi.

One of the things that is common to all of those is that they all go through those dark moments. Faith unites them that if they hold on to what is right, it will work out in the end. Even if it works out after my death, it will work out. Everybody knows that Mandela had the ultimate faith because I do not know too many leaders who could hold on to that for 27 years, but he did, and it worked out in the end.

Thank God mine wasn’t 27 years; it was three months. It’s by reading and learning from what others went through and sharing their experiences. Even Paul Kagame, from 1998 to 2003, nobody thought he was a genius, including in his own country. He didn’t have that level of support. Now it’s like, “This guy is great. He’s done well.”

You go through those periods, and seeing that, reading about it, and knowing that other people have gone through it made it easier for me to know that, “Hang in there. It will work out.” It also helped that I had a coach who helped me with some conversations to help me see the long term and realize that it’s always darkest before dawn.

How did you feel once you came out of it? How did you feel once you got that assignment? You were in a well-positioned industry. How did it make you feel about the whole experience coming out of it and coming out of it as well as you did?

Interestingly enough, it didn’t; how should I put it? It wasn’t like, “Yes. How do you like me now?” No, it was almost a feeling of gratitude and exhaustion.

Mental, physical, emotional, spiritual?

More mental and emotional exhaustion. In my case, it wasn’t physical exhaustion but certainly mental exhaustion. the most significant part of being a leader is the battle you have to wage in your mind about what you’re doing. Being a leader is about taking yourself and possibly others from point A, which you know everybody knows, everybody’s familiar with, to point B, which nobody knows. It’s in your mind. You don’t know it for sure. You have a vision of it, but it hasn’t been done before, at least not in your context. You can point to similar.

The biggest part of being a leader is the battle that you have to wage in your mind about what you're doing. Share on X

Going from the known to the unknown is fraught with doubt. It’s fraught with naysayers. It’s fraught with obstacles. It’s fraught with people like, “This guy is crazy.” It’s fraught with temptations of, “Just do this one; this is fine. It’s okay; it’s good enough.” It’s fraught with all of those things. Amid that, you, as the leader, must have the courage to continue to profess that that place is attainable without a shadow of a doubt. Two seconds after you have said it, a part of your mind asks, “Are you sure about that?” You’re going to fall out.

That’s why I say it’s a mental battle to get there. This battle is a battle that, with each mini struggle you go through, and you’re able to succeed, gives you fuel for a more significant struggle. Today, we’re dealing with big battles, such as how we industrialize Africa. How do we make the Africa Free Trade Agreement work for Africans instead of just a piece of paper? How do we deal with a world of COVID and beyond?

How do we deal with the Tigray massacre and things happening in Ethiopia? (Editor’s note: Amnesty International confirmed the brutal massacre of possibly hundreds of civilians in Mai-Kadra in Ethiopia’s northwestern Tigray state, committed by Eritrean forces near the Sudanese border.  The Mai Kadra massacre, as it was called, was an ethnic cleansing carried out during the Tigray War on 9–10 November 2020.) The truth is nobody knows for sure what will happen five years from now. The people shaping what happens five years from now are courageous enough to envision it, communicate it, and take positive steps toward achieving that ideal future. Even though they cannot guarantee it will happen, they must act like they are sure. Those people are what we call leaders.

Self Discipline And Leadership

That is so powerful and profound. You were the first person in Sierra Leone to go to the wonderful US Military Academy West Point. To what extent has discipline been a part of your leadership? To what extent do you think discipline is a key component of the kind of bold leadership we need today?

It’s been a considerable factor. Let me expand on this. First of all, I want to nuance the word discipline. Self-discipline has been a vital factor. In Africa, we’re quick to say, “Yes, I believe in discipline, as long as it’s disciplining somebody else.”

That’s an important distinction.

West Point taught me about self-discipline. I learned that the first person you lead is yourself. If you don’t lead yourself well, you don’t gain and earn the right to lead others. I’ll give you a little tip. Do a little study for yourself and look around Africa and see how many are there and the correlation between leaders who demonstrate self-discipline and their country’s economic fortunes. You would probably find that there is a correlation between how fat or overweight leaders are and how their countries perform economically. Part of even your self-discipline is the self-discipline of managing your body.

The first person you lead is yourself. If you don't lead yourself well, you don't gain and earn the right to lead others. Share on X

Expand on that correlation a little more, Modupe. Are you saying people who are overweight and lack physical self-discipline are living and working in what kind of country and economy? Expand that a little more for us.

What I mean is that when you look at a leader, if that leader is unable to discipline herself or himself, then you’re going to find that the organization, the community, or the country they lead in general isn’t going to have the most desirable outcomes. It’s a generalization with some exceptions, but you can look at political and country leaders. You can see there’s a correlation.

Countries like Rwanda are doing very well, and even Ghana and Botswana, and you look at their leaders. It’s a generalization because some people genetically have specific genes. Still, I have yet to see a country that is led by an overweight, big-bellied man or woman and to see that country’s economic performance or social-political performance go in a positive direction during the tenure of that person.

That’s an interesting point. You’ve alluded to Nelson Mandela, and we’ll come back to that now, but I’m just curious. To what extent do you think physical discipline and military training support us? How do you think it programs us in terms of being disciplined in other parts of our lives? What do you think the connection is based on your experience?

It programs us by getting us to understand that in the same way that a waiter in a restaurant, there are days when that waiter is not in the mood to serve food. There may be days when they cannot even stand the smell of some of the food, yet for every customer, the excellent waiter understands show time, puts a smile on, serves, makes the food sound exciting, etc., regardless of how you feel. That’s self-discipline. The same thing happens in leadership.

Not too many leaders wake up every day saying, “I cannot wait, let’s go, let’s do this.” There are times when you’re just not in the mood. There are some decisions that you’re not even keen on. Sometimes, those decisions have to do with disciplining somebody else, or sometimes, they have to do with eschewing certain pleasures for future gain or doing that.

Sometimes, the people you serve may look at you and say, “We don’t like this, but it’s only because it’s you. We’ll go along for a little while.” That is the way that it is. It’s almost like a parent. You cannot be your child’s friend all the time. You have to be your child’s parent. That’s self-discipline. Once you’ve learned to do it to yourself, then it becomes easier to do it with others and with things that need to be done.

Let’s take you and me today. You are fueled by a vision. Today is five days before a holiday. I’m pretty confident that there could be more fun things that you could be doing on a day like this, but you’re driven by what needs to be done and a vision. Therefore, you’ll say, “No, let’s do it now because this is the day he’s available.” Self-discipline. You could even devise an excuse to say, “Let’s do it sometime later,  and then you lose the outcome you want.

Staying Alive

In the military, when I think of your experience, the consequence of not being disciplined and physically showing up in a disciplined way doing what needs to be done. You made the point earlier about the consequences, particularly in times of war, which are accentuated and very often lead to loss of life. I’m struck by your experience at West Point and after West Point; you went back to Sierra Leone during the Civil War, a very protracted 11-year civil war. It was a devastating time, I’m sure.

Can you share an example of how you lead and stay alive? I know you were shot in battle. You’ve been right on the edge of how you exercise leadership and physically stay alive. Based on that time and that experience, can you share an example of what you’ve learned about how you need to stay alive and what happened to you in that time? How did you stay alive?

It wasn’t the easiest of times. I do want to make this clear. I was not the Rambo soldier. I was just another 23-year-old officer who, when the bullets started flying, his first instinct was to pee his pants.

What year was that? Can you take us back in time?

1994.

Where about in Sierra Leone were you at the time?

Let’s call it the northern part of Sierra Leone. One of the things that I could do and learned from West Point was the importance of drills, just repetition. You go through and do the same drill. By the way, it’s mind-numbing. It isn’t pleasant when you’re in the Army. You’re like, “Why must we do this again?” The importance of drills became clear to me when I went into war. I came in, and a couple of soldiers went through drills, firefighting drills, and night vision drills. We would practice setting up our weapons, et cetera, and discussing things.

When the bullets start flying, your first instinct is to shit your pants and hide. Only the drills make your brain go to that automatic part that says, “This is what you do.” You end up not even thinking clearly, but you go into autopilot mode. You won’t go into autopilot mode if you haven’t done it enough times. That’s one of the ways we stayed alive. I was very fortunate we went through those drills with some of my soldiers. When the bullets started flying, we knew what to do.

What did you do? You were personally shot, right?

Yes, it wasn’t my finest moment. Yes, it did happen. I was shot when we were responding to reports of a rebel incursion in a small town called Matali. I took a platoon of soldiers, and we went. We were going through this village, and gunfire hit. When gunfire hit, we did the first thing we were supposed to do, which we were trained to do: take cover. You take cover and do not return fire.

Why? The first thing you need to learn or figure out is where the gunfire is coming from. They come from the North, from the East, from the West. If you start shooting like you see in the movies, you won’t find out. You’re more likely to shoot each other. We took cover and tried to understand. You have to think about it because it’s not like the bullets are moving at a pace where you can see go, “There you go, it’s there.”

All you see is somebody go, and you’re not sure whether it came from this way or that way. You don’t have exactly a lot of time to go and inspect the body and say, “I can see the trajectory of the bullet is like this.” All of those things happened, and we were there. Eventually, we figured out which direction the fire was coming from, partially because the enemy some of them were talking, and you could hear their voices. I organize a train of fire in this direction. After a while, it was clear that if we were going to get out of there, we needed to surprise the enemy a bit.

I wanted to do what is called a bit of a pincer movement, which is you get a small group to go around and approach the enemy from the side so that they would get fields of fire from two places, which would then confuse them. Usually, what would happen to an untrained force is that they would get up and run and high-tail it out of there. While getting to that pincer movement, I had to cross a small clearing that wasn’t well protected, and two of my soldiers crossed before me. While I was crossing, I got hit.

For the most part, my military experience ended that day in terms of active duty because I was hit by two bullets, one of which hit my elbow and perforated the ulna nerve. That was not the serious one. I didn’t even realize it at the time that I was shot in the arm. The one that perforated my femoral nerve that went through my groin essentially paralyzed my leg on the spot. That’s when I discovered a lot about the body. When your femoral nerve is snapped, your muscles collapse like a balloon popped. Instantly, the leg becomes half its size and not practical for much other than decorating.

How did you stay alive?

By the grace of God, because I was bleeding profusely, thankfully, some of my troops who risked their lives to run across this clearing laid covering fire. One of them picked me up in a fireman’s carry and ran across back to cover while I was screaming because my groin was on his shoulder. As he ran, it was like I was experiencing more and more bullet wounds. Thankfully, he didn’t listen to me, and he kept running, and we got to safety. Later on, I remember asking him, “Why did you guys do that? You risked your lives for this.” He gave me the most profound and yet simple answer. He said, “Sir, you are our leader. We couldn’t leave you there. You’ve never done anything wrong to us.”

Very profound. Do you still have a connection with the people you served with?

Yes.

We’re very grateful that you are here with us to share the story, but it also bears testament to the excellent leadership quality and example that you set for them. I guess I’m hearing that there was a sense of duty and support coming from your people, given how you had served and been a leader for them.

Leadership is a service because if you serve your customers well, just as a waiter who serves them well, if they’re regular customers, they come to the restaurant one day, and you’re not there. They say, “What happened?” “That person had troubles, or his child is sick.” We all know, we’ve heard of stories like that, where they suddenly say, “We need to talk. Let’s see what we can do.”

It’s the same thing that happens when you’re a leader. When you pour yourself out for the benefit of your people, when they understand what you’re doing and the decisions you’re making, put their interest first, and that’s a process that takes time. Yes. When they understand that, then when you need them, they will always be there. The best example of that we have all around us in Africa, it’s mothers. I am continually frustrated by our idiotic fixation with putting men in charge of political positions when we have examples of fantastic leadership in front of us every single day.

When you pour yourself out for the benefit of your people and put their interest first, by the time you need them, they will always be there. Share on X

The African mother has a vision for her child. She sacrifices for her child. She communicates that vision to that child. Fix it into him or her every day. She will defend that child, yet she will discipline that child. She will go without for that child’s benefit. Invariably, that child becomes something because of those sacrifices. There’s a reason why when she’s 60 or 70 years old or 50 years old or 80 years old, when she says to that child, “I need this,” that child who is now a man or woman will drop whatever meeting they’re in.

Will move heaven and earth.

Yet, we continue to ignore this example. We keep choosing mediocrity.

It’s an interesting question. It reminds you of the African saying that you strike a woman, you strike a rock. Suppose we think of the influential women leaders who have exercised leadership very courageously to make significant changes and overcome great adversities, not only at home but even at war and as leaders of countries. It raises a question about the importance of diversity, inclusion, equity, and the extent to which we bring women to the table as examples of leaders.

Leadership Lessons From Mandela

If we shift to another leader whom we both greatly admire and respect, who was powerfully shaped and influenced by his mother, Nelson Mandela, he often said that his mother was his first female best friend. In his own life, after his father passed away from TB (tuberculosis) when Madiba was only eleven, his mother gave him up to be raised by King Joningthabo of the Uthembu tribe. That was an act of selflessness.

To your point, you’re right. She communicated to him what she was doing and why she was doing it. She still supported him, visited him, and shaped his model of leadership in the world. That’s a beautiful example and an excellent segue into that. Do you have a moment that is a Mandela Moment for you? Can you take us back to a moment where you witnessed Mandela exercising leadership that impacted you and how you chose to live and lead?

whenever I speak to South African people who talk about Mandela almost in the first person and or have even had a chance to see him live in person, I feel insanely jealous because I never did have that opportunity. I have voraciously consumed most of the material that’s available about him. My favorite, though, is the interview that Mandela did. I’m trying to remember which year it was. It may have been ‘93 or so in New York. It may have been his first trip to New York, and it was a town hall.

Koppel.

Ted Koppel, exactly.

When Mandela was released in 1990, it was the year he exited prison. You’re right; it was his first trip abroad.

This was a huge deal. I don’t know the media ratings, but I’m sure they were probably through the roof, like a Super Bowl. I don’t know whether he knew it. I suspect that he suspected that it was a trap. Many of the questions set up for him were absolute traps. I’m sure that the journalist would say, “We wanted to show a balanced and fair representation.” Still, the reality was many of the questions were trying to get Mandela to make commitments to things that would serve one interest at the expense of the long-term interest of potentially the South African people.

My Mandela Moment was when he dared to say this. He said, “It is a mistake for our friends to assume that their enemies must be our enemies.” It wasn’t just the fact that it was eloquent, which was great. It was brilliant. For me, it was the courage that he demonstrated. He spoke to the people who had worked hard to get his release. In human terms, he should have been grateful to them and grateful to the point of “Whatever you say I do, I’ll do. Thank you.” He had the moral courage to understand that I can be grateful, but that doesn’t mean I must be gratuitous. There’s a difference.

He dared to stand up, to say that to the world. He didn’t just stand up to “the Americans or the Jews or the Whites.” He also stood up to his own ANC folks who wanted to turn South Africa into Zimbabwe. He showed courage, which, for me, is the Mandela Moment. It’s the courage to speak the truth not just to power but to those people who can rightly say to you, “You owe me. I made you.” Yet you’re able to tell them, “You’re right. You do pay my bills. You do pay that, but that doesn’t mean you own me. I may owe you, but you don’t own me.”

This is a crucial distinction. Indeed, it was a very significant town hall. I think it’s interesting that you say it was a trap for him to make specific commitments. He was put on the spot around some very sensitive issues. In your mind, what have you learned from him about having that moral courage? It’s not only a defining moment for him in South Africa and the world but how has that supported you in your life and leadership?

I wish I could say that I have consistently demonstrated that moral courage. That would be a lie. I try, and there are times when I know I have probably chickened out a bit, but I believe that having watched and sought to emulate, I have stood my ground more times than I have chickened out. I have stood my ground more times than I might have if I had not had Mandela’s examples. It helps, whether it was the situation with the American Chamber of Commerce and being able to say that and speak truth to power in the president’s office.

Sometimes, it’s as simple as talking to my children and saying, “You’re not going to go to this particular place that I know you’re dying to go to. All your friends are going to, and you think that your parents are the anti-Christ because they won’t let you go. I have a responsibility, and I have a vision for your life. That’s what’s guiding my decisions. I know that tonight, you’re going to wish you had different parents, but eventually, I believe it will work out for you in the end.” Even in those small circumstances.

Do you think Mandela’s leadership example is still relevant for us today? If so, why?

I think you only have to look at the performance of South Africa as a country during his tenure and in the many years after to understand that it is very relevant. Leadership is the cause. Everything else that we see is just the effect. It’s the outcome of leadership. We get fooled into that relationship because there’s usually a time lag between the decision and the outcome.

Leadership is the cause. Everything else that we see is just the outcome of leadership. Share on X

Sometimes, there’s even what I call a person lag or a victim lag between the decision and the outcome. I will answer your question, but I want to make this point. If every time you say a word I don’t like, let’s say that word is blue. I didn’t tell you I didn’t like it, but every time you said blue, I came up and smacked your hand. When you’ve said it 3 or 4 times, you’ll realize, “That’s not the word for Modupe. I’m going to avoid using it.”

Now, here’s the problem. If every time you said the word blue and I waited a year, and then I come and smack your hand, you’re going to be at a loss to figure out, “What is the problem? Why did I get my hand smacked?” Worse yet is if every time you said the word blue, I waited a year, and I didn’t smack your hand, but I went to smack your child’s hand. You’ll say, “I just got a crazy smack on my hands.” We don’t see that as what most leadership is like. What we’re experiencing today in the United States and many African countries is the result of decisions made five years ago, three years ago, and ten years ago.

It’s the lag difference.

Now, come to Mandela. Mandela understood this. He understood this more than anybody else because he lived through 27 years of lock. He saw it. He was offered multiple times, “Renounce the ANC, and we’ll let you out. You can retire quietly. You can see your wife,” all of that. He understood that if he made that decision, there would be children born that day whose lives would not be better. The same leadership principle is what guided every single one of his decisions. That is still important today.

Today, we as leaders must understand what we are doing, and its effects will be felt three years from now, five years from now, and ten years from now. Even the interview you and I are having today may influence somebody born today in 20 years to make different decisions. If we don’t invest in that, if we don’t recognize it, then you might get discouraged by the fact that you will have the book, it only sold 50 copies, or the video got a thousand hits. You’re like, “This thing wasn’t worth it. I’m not doing another one.”

Instead of understanding that this is about leaving behind a legacy that will help generations yet on board to do things. That’s the key to Mandela’s legacy. Mandela’s leadership was not about what I can get today or what even my people can get today. It was about making sure that my grandchildren had a better South Africa than the one that my grandfather left for me. You, I, and every other leader should be conscious of that. We want to make sure that we leave behind the world, speaking of climate change, or in Africa, speaking of Breakfast Club Africa, that is better for our grandchildren and the grandchildren of our neighbor than the world that our grandparents left for us. That is important, especially today.

Regarding how Mandela, you made the point that you’ve read voraciously. You’ve watched a lot of his interviews and stuff. What do you think Mandela would say to the leaders of Africa today and perhaps even the leaders of the world?

I suspect he would say to the leaders of Africa, “Chart your course for Africa. When I took over South Africa or came out of prison, I understood that our journey had to be different from other countries. Even your well-meaning friends will try to prescribe what’s right for you, but you need to charge your course, even as you recognize what you’re going for.” He would also probably say the things that he’s already always said about education is very important for leaders serving their people.

I think the biggest thing he would say is, “Africa’s solutions need to be created by Africa’s people,” having understood the uniqueness of Africa. They have to have the courage sometimes to say no to whom they owe their very positions. To the world, I suspect what he would say is probably not different from what he said at that town hall: “Respect our sovereignty and help us, but don’t control us.” He would continue to speak truth to power. He had the temerity and the courage and the longevity to understand that some of the same people who were healing him as the Messiah were the same people who had been calling him terrorists barely twenty years before.

Africa's solutions need to be created by Africa's people. Share on X

He didn’t let their description of their accolades or the opposite change what he believed was right. I think that as he looks at the world, if he were advising world leaders, he would be saying to them, “Folks, let’s give the people in the poor countries a fair shake and support them, but don’t control them because even when you mean well, your solutions may not be appropriate for them.”

Learning From Leaders

That’s a great insight, Modupe. I see that. I could see him saying those things, having experienced how he navigated those very fine lines between the same people with very different responses on different occasions. I’m just shifting gears a little. A couple of fun facts about yourself: I know you love reading and reading voraciously. Can you share one of your favorite leadership biographies you’ve read and why?

There are so many good ones. Interestingly enough, let me give a few. It’s going to be hard to pick one. I loved the story of Jack Welch.

It’s a business leadership mega course. I also love the story or reading about Richard Branson. Talk about somebody who is like an opportunity hawk. What makes him unique is that he never let fear hold him back or the fear of failure. Coming closer to Africa, I recently read a biography that most people would not have heard. It’s a friend of mine. His name is Dr. David Thuku. He wrote a biography about his life, rose to be a managing director of a bank, and was a coach.

What was interesting about it was that there was a confluence. They talk about how luck happens when preparation meets an opportunity. That’s precisely him because he came from a small village where going to some of the top schools was way out of the league, but somebody challenged him about something and said, “If you improve your grades, you will never even get to that school.” He decided, “I’d improve my grades anyway.” Somehow, he got an opportunity to go to that school.

I love those stories. I’m a natural storyteller and love reading stories because they help me understand that we walk in this life by faith. Leadership and faith are intertwined because we walk toward a place. It was in his mind’s eye when Walt Disney decided on Disneyland, which he had never seen in person. That’s what he saw, and that’s what fueled him. Whether it’s Bill Gates or whoever else you want to describe and say, “Why not? Why cannot this happen?”

Those are the most fun biographies for me when you read about people who look at a situation and say, “Why? Why should it be that way? Why cannot we have a situation where I can sit in my office and move money from my bank account to somewhere else? Why can I not talk to my friend in Australia and see that friend simultaneously?” An idea which 20 years ago or 25 years ago was gross. People would have laughed you out of the room.

Today, sometimes, the people who ask the question “Why not?” will create those mega changes in the future. I question why everybody in Africa cannot access world-class education, world-class healthcare, and the money to make it happen. Why not?

The people who ask the question, “Why not?” are the ones who are going to create mega changes in the future. Share on X

That’s a wonderful question—just a different one. I know you love playing the piano. What is one of your favorite pieces? What genre of music do you play?

Mostly gospel. I love gospel, especially African-American gospel, but I love all gospel. I also like jazz, but my number one is gospel. You’re right; I do play the piano. I serve as a music minister in my church, but I love the power of music to inspire and influence. I’m grateful to God for giving me some of that gift. I love to use it to see people being transported and influenced into a different state of mind or form of thinking.

Does it take you there when you play? Do you also go into a different state of mind?

I do. My wife will tell you that she knows my mood and what kind of piece I play, whether discouraged, happy, or angry. She can almost tell by what I’m playing because it does influence that. As I play and I play, it’s cathartic. It helps to accentuate certain emotions that I have. I know that music is a very powerful influence, too, because the reality is that most of our decisions are made by emotion and not logic. Music can tap into our feelings in ways that sometimes we may even be surprised.

A third fun fact: I know you have a wonderful wife named Renée, like my late mother. Can you share one fun, unexpected rating that you and Renée did not expect but have gone on to remember with joy? It was an unexpected date, time, and art together.

I’ve been married for 23 years to the love of my life. We are polar opposites. What makes the marriage work is that we share common values. We never argue about money, we never argue about how to raise children, none of that, but we are opposites. I’m a long-term planner. On Friday, we should go out. She’s like, “You’re pressuring me.” Friday evening around 7:00, “Why don’t we just go out?” I haven’t planned it. As you can imagine, when you asked me about one of those times when we spontaneously had fun, I was probably the wrong person to ask because she’ll probably remember it more.

One thing that comes to mind that I will share is that we went out to a buffet. This is a buffet that I’ve been wanting to attend. I said to her, “Can we go here?” “I’m busy this time.” Asked again, “I’m busy this time.” One Friday, I said, “Let’s go there tomorrow.” She’s like, “Okay.” I said we would meet there at 1:00. She said, “Okay.” My wife is extremely busy. She’s a businesswoman. It fits with her personality because she likes doing things on the fly. She showed up at 3:00 for this appointment.

I was there at about 2:00, so I wasn’t happy. I remembered that at the end of the day, this was about us having time and her working so hard. I wanted her to get a chance to relax. We were there, and the poor people who were the waiters were very kind because the buffet usually closes at 4:00. We were there from 3:00 to 6:00.

A long extended lunch.

They kept it open for us. Around 5:30 pm, they finally asked, “Is there anything else you guys want?” We said, “Just this dessert, and then you can play.”

What was fun about it? What was the fun part of it?

What was fun about it for me was the fact that we got to talk. It wasn’t anything earth-shattering, but it was the fact that she said, “I appreciate the fact that we could slow down and have fun with each other here.” We’re not the kind of couple enamored by let’s go to Paris or somewhere. We’re dull people, but we enjoyed ourselves, sat, and talked a bit about the kids. We discussed where we were going, but it was no pressure. It was two busy people who paused their lives for three hours.

It sounds terrific, Modupe.

It’s not three hours in the evening when one person is falling asleep, and the other is trying to do something. It’s three awake hours. We just had fun. I suspect our kids will tell us, “See, I told you they’re boring people. Don’t ask them about their lives.”

It sounds like what your kids make out to be boring is contentment, a supportive, fantastic marriage, and partnership. That’s wonderful. Coming back to the world of leadership, just some final thoughts and questions I have before we close off today. You were a founding Dean for the African Leadership University of Business School. Given Africa’s and the world’s challenges today, what do you think business leaders are being called out to do and lead differently? What is the most significant shift that business leaders need to make to exercise leadership to meet this moment in Africa and globally?

I’m happy to answer your question, but I have to make it a little more nuanced because business leaders in Africa have a different set of things that they need to focus on from business leaders outside.

Let’s focus on Africa first.

A pretty astounding statistic will show you that over the last four years, African businesses have been owned by Africans. The businesses owned by Africans have grown at 1/3 of the rate of firms in Africa that are owned by non-Africans. Companies in Africa that are owned by Africans are growing at 1/3 every year. That’s the rate of growth of businesses in Africa owned by non-Africans. What do business leaders in Africa need to do? I will start with the SME leaders because that’s generally the term for businesses owned by Africans, the small and medium enterprises.

Business leaders in Africa of SMEs need to both think bigger and network bigger. They need to invest in knowledge sharing and probably some coaching services to expand their minds to see greater possibilities. What do I mean? Forty years ago, there was a local bank in Sierra Leone. That was the biggest bank. At that time, there were maybe only 2 or 3 banks in Sierra Leone. Today, there are 14 banks in Sierra Leone, seven of which are international. The local bank I spoke of is probably about twice its size 40 years ago. The other banks are easily 50 to 100 times the size that they were 40 years ago. Why? Because the leader didn’t think big.

I get it: thinking big and networking more. For the corporate leader, what do you think are the significant challenges for them?

For the corporate leader, the big challenge for them is convincing their shareholders that doing good is worth the sacrifice. In Africa and most parts of the world, the phrase do good, and you’ll do well makes sense. It would be best if you did these things. At the risk of sounding extremely controversial, that’s a cliche that everybody loves to say. Still, when deciding on the boardroom, you don’t get supported to do good, especially if it comes at the expense of doing well. This is one of the reasons why corruption still exists in Africa.

There could be no government corruption if the private sector didn’t pay. It’s like there’s no prostitution without a job. Why does the private sector pay? Because the CEO is under pressure to get things done because if you say no to bribery, then the government will ensure that your business costs increase. When your cost of doing business increases, your shareholders now say, “Wait a minute, I thought we were paying you to get this thing done.” Then you say, “No, I’m doing good.” They say, “Don’t worry, you can do good elsewhere.”

I’m saying that it’s about making the business case for doing well and doing good. There are prominent international successful businesses that do that.

Leading Boldly into the Future: What the World Needs Now | Dr. Modupe Taylor-Pearce | Self Discipline

It’s about making the business case for doing well and doing good without considering the short term versus the long term because, in Africa, doing good usually comes at the expense of short-term profits.

It’s like other parts of the world. This whole notion of doing well and doing good, the short term versus the long term, and having a different timeframe in terms of expecting results. It’s short-term thinking versus sustainability and longer-term thinking.

The reason why I’m making this point is because in countries where corruption is more endemic, the cost of doing good, I’m not talking about just doing good like we pay for two people’s school fees. That’s just a good performance. We know where corporations and multinationals can genuinely make an impact.

We are talking about sustainable impact.

Don’t be bribing the government official to get a good deal so that you get the benefit of $1 million here, and then the government official gets $100,000, and then you pay for 20 scholarships, which cost $20,000, and say, “I’ve done good.” That’s hypocrisy. Many times, we’re engaged in hypocrisy. Do good by standing for good, recognizing that we cannot do certain practices, and being willing to suffer the additional expense you will undoubtedly suffer for doing that good. When we’re ready to do that, that will undoubtedly move and transform Africa. I do know that no government can be corrupt if the private sector persons say, “Sorry, we’re not paying that.”

When you say expense, it’s the short-term expense because there is a business case for a longer-term gain. You’re talking about the short-term expectation of having the short-term sacrifice instead of having the longer-term gain.

Indeed, but bear in mind that some people’s short-term is long. It depends on the industry. If I’m talking about a mining license for 30 years, maybe eight years in the short term. Whereas if I’m talking about maybe a restaurant I will build, that may be my long-term. It has to be nuanced. We have to be honest with our shareholders about whether we truly want to do good or appear to be doing good.

I think that’s a good point. Before we close off, do you have any final thoughts about leading boldly into the future in Africa and other parts of the world? Do you have any final thoughts about general leadership or what President Nelson Mandela would say to the world today?

My final thoughts would be, first of all, to congratulate you for pursuing this because documenting leadership perspectives and stories is essential. I’m a beneficiary of that. If nobody had written Mandela’s book or taken the time to record some of that, I would never have read about him or Lee Iacocca or Richard Branson, etc. Documenting the lessons is necessary because knowledge sharing is very important.

As we look into the future as leaders, I want every leader to answer this question for themselves. How have you grown as a leader in the last 4 to 6 months? Our challenge in many parts of the world is that, as leaders, we sometimes become complacent about growth. When striving to be number one in the organization, you always have a boss there saying, “This is what you need to do to make the next step.” When you become the number one in the organization, nobody usually tells you, “This is what you need to do.” You have to be that person for yourself.

This is where I urge and encourage every leader to challenge themselves to say, “How am I ensuring that six months from now, I’m a better leader than I am today? What am I doing to make sure that that happens?” My ways are knowledge sharing and having a coach, but I’m not saying that has to be everybody’s answer. I am saying that the people you serve have a right to expect your leadership to be better six months from now than what it is today. You owe it to them as a leader because here’s the reality: the world is changing that fast. What worked ten years ago, even five years ago, is probably inappropriate today.

If you’re not growing, then you’re becoming outdated. My message to all leaders is to become intentional about growth because growth is no longer accidental, at least not after you finish your teenage years. You have to be intentional about growth. As a leader, your organization will only grow as fast as you, as the leader, are willing to grow. The more intentional we are about developing, the quicker our organizations will grow and the better opportunities we will create for generations yet unborn so that we can all someday look back and smile at Africa that we have developed or the world that we have influenced to become what it is.

As a leader, your organization will only grow as fast as you are willing to grow. Share on X

Modupe, thank you so much for sharing those very powerful words. Thank you for being so intentional about your life and leadership—they are truly inspiring. Thank you so much for taking the time to share those very authentic thoughts and moments with us. Monsieur, I am so grateful. Merci beaucoup. Au revoir until we meet again.

Thank you.

Our conversation with Dr. Modupe Taylor-Pearce, who fought and was shot up during the eleven-year civil war in Sierra Leone, confirms the powerful leadership value of his West Point Military Academy training. The discipline of self-discipline and practicing daily habits in war, in life, and leadership help us win battles, stay alive, and thrive. West Point is “the” US Military Academy, founded on March 16, 1802, and is rated as one of the nation’s best undergrad educational institutions by the 2023 US News and World Report.

West Point is so much more than a university or a college. It is a living leadership laboratory that prepares young men and women intellectually, emotionally, and physically. It prepares them to exercise leadership with character and for a lifetime of selfless service for the Army and the nation as a whole—men, and women in and out of uniform with mental and moral discipline.

We know how hard it can be to shed those old lingering habits that no longer serve us. What is the definition of a self-disciplined habit? Like a military drill, it is self-regulated and practiced. It is an automated, routine behavioral response to a trigger. The best-selling author of Atomic Habits, James Clear, shares a proven and practical habit-forming framework consisting of four parts.

  1. There is a cue or a trigger to act. For example, if you open the refrigerator and see a pack of delicious crème brulée. 
  2. A craving for change. Again, if you’re eating those delightful crème brulées most nights and gaining weight, perhaps the craving for change is losing weight.
  3. The action. It’s the triggered response. Again, for example, if there is a craving for change because of weight gain, perhaps the action is to eat healthy red berries instead of crème brulée. 
  4. The reward, the final step, and the desired outcome. Again, in that example, the reward could be eating red berries instead of crème brulée, a loss of weight, that feeling of relief and comfort when one feels healthier, and, of course, wearing that hot new outfit in the closet.

When we crave change, there are seven habit-forming hacks to get those new disciplines to stick.        1. Make those cues visible and unmissable, front and center. Change your environment. Stop buying crème brulée and instead buy packs of red berries to sit in the front of the refrigerator.

2 Be intentional and specific with your plan. For example, set a goal to lose 30 pounds, eat salads Monday to Friday, and eat red berries instead of crème brulée.

3. The research reveals that dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter, is a potent motivator.

4. Neuroscientists reveal that dopamine can be triggered by the mere anticipation of a reward or something to look forward to. Pull that hot new outfit from the closet and hold it up daily in front of the mirror to get your dopamine feel-good fix.

5. Use temptation bundling. What do we mean by that? Combine an unappealing new behavior with an appealing old behavior. For example, if part of your plan is to get fit and lose weight, you could listen to your favorite podcast or music while working out.

6. Make that new habit attractive, easy to adopt, and immediately satisfying.

7. Track your performance. Get on the scale and measure the number of steps, miles, or kilometers you take as part of your workout plan. Tiny behavioral results can be practiced daily and lead to significant results.

You, too, can start your own West Point Military Academy and build a positive system of daily disciplines and practice habits that combine and compound to deliver remarkable results, whether in war, life, leadership, or our chaotic world.

Until next time, remember that leading boldly is about making thoughtful, clear choices.                  Bold leadership is about taking bold action, just one small step at a time, one step for you, but together, a giant step for humanity. Take care and take thoughtful, bold action.

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