It is the circle of life! Today’s episode centers on why leaders need to reconnect with their roots and return to their village, the village that raised them and helped them become who they are today. Rethink how we pay it forward in business and our village. Dr. Douglas Mboweni, the Group Chief Executive Officer of Econet Wireless Zimbabwe Limited and a visiting Professor in Practice at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, built his remarkable career in business. Still, it wasn’t without its dark, difficult moments. In this episode, he chats with Anne Pratt about the 19 days spent in prison for an alleged crime he did not commit – a life-changing crucible. Douglas also shares his principles for an extraordinary life. Tune in now so you can be inspired as he shares his business and leadership wisdom and walks this dusty road to exceptional success while empowering the next generation in this circle of life.
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Go Back to Your Village with Dr. Douglas Mboweni in Zimbabwe
It is The Circle of Life!
Greetings, future bold leaders. Thank you for joining us from around the world. My name is Anne Pratt. I’m formerly from South Africa. I relocated abroad to attend a Harvard Leadership Fellowship in beautiful Boston in the United States of America. Our board leader joins us from Zimbabwe, a landlocked country in the Southeastern part of Africa, loved and cherished for its dramatic landscape, natural wonders, and epic wildlife safari adventures.
He’s the Group Chief Executive of Econet Wireless Zimbabwe, a telecom, internet, and satellite business. He built the company from a low base of 200,000 subscribers in 2002 to more than 20 million by 2020. In the group business, he helped expand operations into Botswana and Nigeria. He has a Doctorate in Business Leadership. He is a published author of A Dusty Road to Success: Principles of an Extraordinary Life. He is a visiting professor in practice at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. We warmly welcome Dr. Douglas Mboweni.
Dr. Douglas Mboweni, thank you so much for joining this conversation. It’s a great privilege to have you on. You’ve had a remarkable journey, personally and professionally. Thank you for being part of this conversation.
Thank you very much, Anne. I appreciate it.
Is there an example you could share with us? What have been some of the toughest moments in your business life and career?
Thank you very much. My experience even as the chief executive officer was back in 2002. I was appointed the Chief Executive Office of Econet Wireless Zimbabwe on the 1st of April, 2002. If you remember the history of Zimbabwe, back then, Zimbabwe had already entered into hyperinflation. This was the period when Zimbabwe was assisting the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo or DRC. That was a very expensive war because if you fight any war flying over another country, it’s costly.
The economy in Zimbabwe felt the pressure. We saw the devaluation of the dollar. Running a business in a rising hyperinflation environment is a big challenge. I was the Chief Executive Officer. I learned how to survive in a period or a time when the change that was happening in terms of the price of commodities was tremendous.
Running a business in such an environment with no stability in terms of the exchange rate is a huge challenge. That is one of the biggest challenges that I faced. That went all the way from 2008 to 2009, when the economy turned around. It was indeed a tough challenge. That was when quite a few of my colleagues could not stand the environment in Zimbabwe. They left the country.
I recall reading some statistics about Econet Wireless, which was listed on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange in 1998. Amidst all this turmoil, what was a specific dark moment in the period you painted? Is there a date, a place, a time, or a particular event? What was your light bulb moment? How did you then pivot out of that?
The day was the 4th of November, 2004. I was on a flight from South Africa. I got to the Harare International Airport. I was told to report to the police. When I got to the police station, I was jailed for nineteen days on charges related to the business but later proved false. In my entire life, I had never imagined being in prison cells. I remember more than 27 years of Nelson Mandela being in prison. I was in prison for nineteen days, and it was tough. I couldn’t imagine a man being imprisoned for 27 years.
I was bitter when I got into the cells because I said, “I’m an innocent man.” There’s something fundamental that Nelson Mandela says about what challenges or problems can do to a man, “Either it will break you, or it will make you.” I remember those words very much and chose to be made by the tough circumstances that I was experiencing. I said, just as Nelson Mandela said, “You can allow circumstances to make you. Let me learn from this tough circumstance. It’s a dark moment, but I will not allow it to push me down.” That was one of the darkest moments in my life.Something fundamental that Nelson Mandela says about what challenges can do to a man is either it'll break you or it'll make you. Click To Tweet
That was the light bulb moment. Was that in your prison cell that you had that?
The first three days in my prison cell were very tough because I was thrown into a cell with real criminals, guys who had committed murder and some who had stolen vehicles. As a businessman to be thrown into the same cell with such people, I felt bitter. I felt a lot of anger, but then I realized that if I kept that anger in me, it would destroy me.
I remember one of my colleagues who was also jailed while I whispered to me, “If you want to survive this, you need to have a positive attitude.” That’s when I started reflecting on other people who had gone into worse challenges than me. Who else but Nelson Mandela? With all those years, he let out the bitterness. He did not allow the bitterness to define him. That, for me, was a fundamental lesson.
In those days in a prison cell, you’ve got your colleague whispering a very important thought into your ear about choosing an attitude and then reflecting on many great leaders, including Nelson Mandela. What did you do in those next days in prison that helped you then process that anger and pivot, even in your time in prison and when you came out?
I reflect. I can see that, possibly, there was a reason for me to be there to minister to the people who were there. My prison cell was a small room. There were eight prisoners. I started speaking to them and encouraging them. I’m a Christian. My wife brought me my small Bible. I found that I was now speaking positive words of encouragement to fellow prisoners.
One of the prisoners was a Mozambican who was jailed because of drugs. He was found with drugs somewhere in Gweru, one of the cities in Zimbabwe. He was in that cell. As I spoke to him, he gave his life to the Lord. He received Jesus. He’s now a pastor in Maputo. That transformation for me was so fundamental. When I look back, I realize that you may be in a dark moment, but you look out for what you can do for others. They appointed me in that cell as their pastor.You may be in a dark moment, but look out for what you can do for others. Click To Tweet
In the evenings, I would read God’s word. We formed a choir and sang. The prison guards would come and stand outside our door to listen to the chorus and the singing that we did. We said it was quite encouraging, even for other prisoners in other cells. One can choose whether to let an attitude pull you down or to say, “I will sail through the situation with a positive attitude.” That was one of the things that we did in that place.
That’s remarkable. What songs did you sing? How big was the cell?
It was largely Shona songs because most of the people there were Shonas. The songs have very simple choruses, for example, Mwari Wakanaka, which means, “God is so good to me.” It said, “Irrespective of the tough situation you are in, God is not limited by the prison cells or the prison walls.” We sing, “Mwari Wakanaka. Hallelujah.” Different voices were coming in. There was such harmony.
I was telling my wife after the period in the cells that there is something that people do when they’re in trouble. They sing with a depth of genuineness. There’s authenticity. I suppose when you’re in trouble, there is a way of expressing yourself that has no fiction in it. That’s what I witnessed when the guys were singing. We could have won any competition.
You should have been on those local talent shows when you came out. After prison, did it change the way you think, the way you act, and the way you led when you came out of jail? If so, how?
First of all, it taught me to appreciate other human beings because when you go into our prison system here in Zimbabwe, and I suppose it’s similar to anywhere else, they remove your artifacts. There’s no suit. You are in a khaki uniform like anyone else. It’s an equalizer. That’s number one. You begin to appreciate another human being because you are now sitting next door to another everyday human being from being a chief executive officer in ties and suits. There is no differentiator.
You sleep on the same floor. There is no “I’m sleeping in a nice bed somewhere.” You sleep on the same floor. In a way, you look out for each other. Even though they’re criminals, there was a way of identifying with one another because you are in a common boat. I remember that one of the challenges we had in the prison cells was the challenge of flies. You get beaten by these flies.
I remember advocating the prison authorities, “We need to fumigate these places for our common good.” You begin to see the challenges within the prison cells. That is something that I did even after leaving prison. It opened my eyes to the suffering of fellow human beings in such an environment. I then deliberately began a program to assist those in prison cells even though I was out because my eyes had been opened to something I never knew.
The other thing that I learned, which is a severe lesson, is the fact that you cannot hold onto a position forever. We are generational people. We come and go. It has taught me a fundamental lesson where I begin to cherish the issue of mentorship. As a leader, I know that I’m generational. People come and go. Business life was going on when I was in prison for those nineteen days. Things didn’t stop because I was in jail. I then understood that a good leader prepares for a time when he is unavailable. All those were fundamental lessons that came to me.
The other one was initially, for the first few days, I refused to eat the food in the prison because it wasn’t good until hunger visited me. Hunger reduces you to Maslow’s basic physiological needs, where you have to eat. There is no differentiator. They would serve the same food, and you would eat the same food. It taught me to value life and the basic things of life. This is something that I’ve kept up to now. I’m the organization’s CEO, but I value the basic issues of life.
I picked that up. You authored a wonderful book titled A Dusty Road to Success: Principles of an Extraordinary Life. In choosing that title, what did dusty mean to you? Was that related in any way to your experience in prison? Are you referring to something different there?
Dusty Road refers back to the village. I grew up in a village that we call Joseph’s village. The village was named after my great-grandfather, who was a missionary. The chief allocated him land in one of the Southern parts of Zimbabwe. He called his village Joseph’s village. I was born in Joseph’s village. It’s a very remote village characterized by poverty generally because it’s in what we call Region V of Zimbabwe, one of the country’s driest parts. We receive less than 250 milliliters of water every year. It’s not very lucrative in terms of agriculture.
That’s where I grew up. We used to have cattle, goats, and so forth. Dusty was part of the process because of the dryness. I reflect and realize where I sit now in the corporate office. I realize the road has been quite dusty to get where I am. That is what inspired the title A Dusty Road to Success. The village occupies a pivotal role in my life, quite honestly, because my early years were fashioned and nurtured by the village life.
That leads us to an interesting question because often, from a leadership point of view, it’s understanding where we come from in those early childhood influences that shape us. In a nutshell, what do you think shaped you in that village?
What shaped me was the relationships. Each time I look back to the village, what resonates within me is the love and warmth of the people around me. It took an entire village. I had my father and my mother, but I remember very well the relationship within the village. Even as I was herding the cattle, if I saw an elder walking by, it was part of me to greet them. It was as good as seeing my father or mother.
That taught me a value system. It’s captured by the word Ubuntu, “I’m well if you are well.” That is the philosophy embedded in me as an individual to know that I cannot be someone without the supportive relationships I have with others. That, for me, is so fundamental. It has caused me to go back to the village and invest in it because I realize I owe the village for how it shaped me from my early stage.
Was there a tough moment that you had in the village? Can you share if there’s a specific event when amid this love and warmth, there was a tough time that required you to evoke a better part of yourself and was an important child lesson?
I completed my primary education in 1977. 1977 was possibly the toughest period during the war because that was the transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. It was a tough period. I remember very well that my father was a school headmaster. Sometimes you find this in a society where you can get an individual who can be envious of another person. It also happens in the villages. My father was a school headmaster. I remember that he had a pocket radio or a small FM radio where he used to play music. He would walk to school and come back from school. Someone said, “He’s a sellout because he has a walkie-talkie.” My father was taken in for interrogation. That was one of my toughest moments.
Who took him in?
What happened was that during the war, you had two camps. They were the ZANLA combatants and then the Rhodesian forces. Someone then said that my father was a sellout. They reported to the Rhodesian soldiers that he was using all these devices via radio. He was picked up. He was in trouble on both sides because, in a war, you can be caught between both sides. He was picked up by the ZANLA people and then was interrogated heavily.
The next day, he was also then picked up by the Rhodesian forces. They said, “You are feeding the other camp. You are caught in between.” There is nothing as tough as a young person to witness such trauma on your parent. I thank God that nothing disastrous came out of it, but I remember very well that it was traumatic for me. You can quickly lose trust in people. You become cautious and guarded.
I became cautious and guarded. It was difficult to trust another person after that situation. It’s something that I had to walk out of, but after that, my life is now more very guarded when I relate to people. I don’t think it’s always something good for you to have, but that’s something that I became. I became guarded even when I went to the university. I was guarded in terms of how to relate to other people. That also had another shaping of some kind when I was young in the village because of the traumatic experience that I saw my dad going through due to other people saying untruths about him.
How did you navigate through that, Douglas? What are the steps? When did you realize that being guarded and perhaps mistrusting was not serving you? How did you navigate out of that? Trust is essential to how we connect with people, not only from a leadership point of view but in our personal lives.
It is key. The way I walked out of that situation was by learning to communicate and learning to be accountable. I’ll tell you what I do now with my colleagues in the business sector. I’ve got executives that report to me. I don’t want a situation where I can be suspicious of my colleagues. In leadership, it will be very dangerous for me always to be suspicious. What is one way that you can eliminate these things? Communication.
I reflect in the village if people had only asked to say, “Can you explain to us what’s going on? What is this device?” In other words, I learned now that if there is any misunderstanding about anything, I should not conclude without seeking an explanation from another person. That is who I am now. If anything seems suspicious or I’m not sure, I would rather call the individual, “Let’s sit and talk. Why have you done what you’ve done? What are the issues?”
When we talk, it can quickly dispel any misunderstanding that we can have. For me, that is how I’ve walked out of that situation. It’s learning to communicate. I love to share. It’s something that I have also even taken into my marriage and my family. I’ve told the guys, “If there is any misunderstanding, let’s sit and talk.” I find that is very useful even in the business as a leader.When we talk, it can easily dispel any misunderstanding that we may have. Click To Tweet
You speak about the accountability piece.
Accountability means I’m not beyond approach. I don’t want to be a CEO where people are talking behind me when they see something wrong. I’ll tell you one practice I have in my office. I do sign a lot of authorizations. I’ve asked one of the finance department’s accounting officers to audit everything I do. Every week, I tell him that I’ll give him a call, even if it’s for ten minutes, and say, “You have been watching all the documents that I sign and all the authorizations that I give. Do you have an issue?” I told him that he should be very frank and upfront with me. That’s accountability.
What he does is he usually calls me and says, “Can you explain why you signed this document? What was it for?” I have to explain. That is vulnerability. Be vulnerable even to junior individuals so you can be transparent in what you do. I believe that is a quality that we should take across the body, particularly even in our nations as African nations. The issue of accountability and transparency is absolute. Know that even junior people can contribute great value to what you do.
I can tell you that when I read about Nelson Mandela and even his relationship with other people, when you go past the people who saved you, it’s easy to ignore them but to wait and shake their hand to acknowledge them is a profound depth of respecting other people irrespective of social positions. That’s what I admire as well. That’s what I also practice.
What does that do for you when you do that?
It creates so much positive energy because when I see another individual being uplifted by what I do, it also uplifts me. I notice that positive energy breeds or gives rise to more positive energy. When I see other people being encouraged, it also inspires me. I believe good promotes good. That’s what I’ve seen. That’s what it does to me.
I saw a wonderful interview that you did on Father’s Day, talking about your three beautiful children, Sandra, David, and Matthew. There was a beautiful picture of you, your lovely wife, Sarudzai, and your three kids. You’re talking with great passion about your privilege and role as a parent and passing on these principles or values. I’ve read very briefly about your seven principles. If I recall correctly, your seven principles are identity, purpose, empowerment, balance, success, action, and legacy. To what extent are those principles part of your business life integrated into your business life? To what extent does Econet Wireless practice those principles and values?
I summarize those principles using the acronym you have articulated, IPEBSAL. I noticed that I must always be clear regarding my identity in my position as the Chief Executive Officer. This is something that I’ve also communicated with my colleagues in the business. That identity is an anchor point. It reminds me of a ship. Amid the waves of the sea, your identity is your anchor. That keeps you from straying away. That has been helpful for me even in the hyperinflation days within our nation of Zimbabwe.
There’s a purpose. What am I here for? I find that even as I articulated these issues to my colleagues in the business, they find it encouraging to realize that if they know who they are and what they’re there for, it drives them positively, even in the business. There’s the issue of empowerment, where you are empowered to do what you must do. I love to empower people in my business. If you are given a task, you also empower them to do it.
The balance issue came in because I’m a family man and a social leader, just as I’m a corporate leader. I must learn to balance these things so that I don’t excel in one area at the expense of another, which is where the whole issue of balance came in. I also had to go on to success. I expressed it as a mathematical equation where I said, “Success is your plan plus the resources multiplied by action.” If your action is zero, mathematically, if you multiply anything by zero, it’s zero. It doesn’t matter what plan you have. If there is no action, success is zero.
There’s the issue of the specific actions you must carry out. Ultimately, there’s legacy. I look at Nelson Mandela and the legacy that he left. You can’t replace legacy. Legacy is something that I believe you take away. You will leave your house. All these other things are left, but I think that legacy is part of the eternal value you always carry away.
You look at some of the characters we have in the Bible, like Solomon and David. When you go to where they used to stay, the houses they built are no more but not the legacy. What they did is recorded forever. These are the things that I also teach in my business to young people. It has resonated so well. It drives us away from chasing materialism and individualism and creating an aspect where what we create as individuals has a lasting impact after our generation is done.
You’ve touched on such an important point. Some of the wonderful leaders I’ve been talking to discuss this issue of greed, avarice, conspicuous consumption, and obsession with possessions. I wondered when you spoke about balance being one of your principles and having this balance between your social leadership and your business leadership.
As a powerful captain of the industry, to what extent do you think capitalism needs to rethink its model in integrating social aspects into the business world and embrace these social issues, not simply as charities or corporate social investment but bringing them into the core strategy in a sustainable way so that we redefine capitalism? It’s more inclusive, not simply about shareholders but multiple stakeholders.
Now, there is a lot of dissatisfaction with the world systems. If you look at what COVID has taught us, COVID, in some way, has been an equalizer. Something that starts in China impacts Zimbabwe, South Africa, the United States, and Europe. What it means is that you can’t afford to have a them-and-us mentality. In some way, capitalism has got this aspect where it says, “I can accumulate things for myself even at the expense of other people,” but when a tragedy strikes, like a pandemic, that’s when you realize it’s not a solution that is sustainable.
In a way, even as a corporate business, I’m very much aware of Econet being in Zimbabwe. We cannot have a mentality where we build our profile or objectives that are far removed from the existence of other people in our society. From a corporate point of view, I realized that in what I do as an organization, I could not define goals that will propel my organization forward, leaving the rest of the people and the customer-based society. I’ve moved away from this world that we call corporate social responsibility. It’s part of the whole fabric of our existence as a business.
I believe that capitalism has created a mindset in some cases where people want to maximize profits, even with the existence of the environment and other groups of people. I believe that holistic prosperity carries everybody along with it, including society and the environment. You clear the deserts out of your environment. The saltation of the rivers, for example.
When there is poverty in society, it also breeds behavior that is damaging to the business community. I believe that it’s no longer corporate social responsibility. It is the life of the organization. It has to be part of the strategic intent of a business to do good, not only to the environment and the people but anything that is a 360-degree environment of the business has to be promoted.
How has Econet done that?
You may be interested to know about Econet. Before we were granted a license to operate, which we did in 1998, already in 1996, we formed a foundation. It was called Capernaum Trust by them. Capernaum Trust was formed before Econet to take care of the needs, particularly of the orphans and the widows at that particular stage, even before we opened our doors for commercial launch.
I remember my chairman saying that it is our responsibility, irrespective of the performance of the business. That was a mind shift because, typically, what people do is allocate a portion of their profit. Still, my chairman and the founder of our organization said, “It is our responsibility even before we make the profit that you talk about.” For me, that was a fundamental shift from corporate social responsibility because I know many people who pull back from that responsibility. After all, they say, “The costs are getting too high.”
We have seen that in Econet, even during the hyperinflationary period, when many people cut their budgets on corporate social responsibility. We didn’t look at it as corporate social responsibility. We saw it as our responsibility in society, end of the story. It was part of our very existence. That was something completely different from what I had experienced before. That is the world mentality we have kept even up to now.
How do you budget for it differently? Can you practically take us through the foundations and set up there? How do you budget for it so it’s not a cost that could be cut depending on the profit levels? How do you build that into the business model?
When Econet was launched in 1998, 2% of our revenue was set aside for intervention. We call them interventions in society or the environment. It’s 2% of revenue. This is irrespective of what else you will do because it’s the top line. I know a lot of organizations normally look at the bottom line. We took a position to look at the top line. In addition to that, our license as an organization was issued on the 31st of December 1997. That day is considered a Thanksgiving Day within Econet. All gross revenues obtained on the 31st of December of every year are channeled toward social intervention.
There is no negotiation or debate about it. It’s something that our board is very clear about. Some of the interventions I have seen are pretty extraordinary because they don’t look at, “What are our cost lines? Can we afford it this year? No. This is a standing position.” We believe that it has been part of sustaining the organization to where we are now and even assuring us of our future as we go into the future.
That’s an exciting shift in mindset and a very different way of bringing it into the business model in a very committed way. I was wondering about your thoughts. You select your part-time as a professor of practice at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. You’ve blended your amazing business, academic, and social life. What keeps you awake at night? We are at a pivotal moment in the world. You’ve spoken about the pandemic. What three big leadership challenges or contextual environmental factors keep you awake or concerned about where Africa and the world are at?
This one is very deep within me. It’s the one I would want to call mentorship. Why mentorship? Our world has a leadership crisis. My real desire and yearning are to see if we can get men and women who we have lent the art of true leadership to mentor the next generation of leaders. I have come to a position where I’m no longer that person who complains, “This guy is a bad leader,” and so forth. It doesn’t help me at all. My mind now is like, “That is a given. We have corrupt leaders and institutions, but it’s all about people. How do we ensure that the next generation of people is robust and solid?”We have got corrupt leaders, we have got corrupt institutions, but it's all about people. Click To Tweet
That is all abound mentorship. Item number two is the impact. I’m saying to myself, “I want to see a group of youngsters who are mentored into their next phase of leadership,” but I also realized that my life as an individual has a limit. I can’t live forever. I have got a passion for training young people. I had a group of twenty young leaders with me. I was pouring myself into them because I’m hopeful they will be the next authentic leaders for the next generation. That, for me, is key.
The last thing that is also causing me quite some restlessness is documentation or putting in writing the things that I have in my mind because I realize that somewhere somehow, there must be some institutional memory that remains. I look at the book I wrote, A Dusty Road to Success. It’s now documented. Even when I’m long gone, at least there is something that people can pick up, “Let’s look at it.” It’s documenting. In Africa, a lot of value has gone with the people that have gone.
They were part of the storytelling traditionally.
That social aspect is disintegrating. It used to be effective, but now, I believe that putting it in writing is one sustainable way of ensuring that it lasts. Those are the three things I would cite at this stage in terms of something that occupies my mind. When I think about things that keep me awake, those are the three things.
What’s interesting about that is that all of these go back to where you began, which is about the leadership crisis in the world. If I listen to you correctly, it seems the biggest issue that concerns you is the quality of leadership we have in the world.
We have a world that has become so selfish, self-centered, and materialistic, a leadership that says, “I care for my own at the expense of others.” For example, if you look at the COVID pandemic exposed many issues worldwide where certain sections of the planet said, “Let’s close them off.” I remember that I was in San Francisco before Omicron hit. I was on a canceled flight while I was in San Francisco. I said, “I need to get back home.” I was left on my own with my wife. We were stuck because flights to Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Zambia were banned.
I approached several offices for solutions. It was like, “That’s your baby. Quite honestly, you take care of yourself,” including the airline that had taken my money. They dumped me. That left a sour thought in my mind to say that people can adopt an attitude where they say, “It’s your problem. You sort it out.” That exposed a lot of individualism that we should not see in leadership nowadays, but unfortunately, it is in leadership nowadays.
As an aside, this is a very big topic and question, but around the world and even on the African continent, there has been a question abound the level of wealth and the disparity between the haves and the have-nots. In your mind, what has been effective in shifting that mindset? People who are often part of the struggle are people who were often underprivileged and marginalized and now have gained access to markets. How do we tackle this issue? How do we remind the generation that was underprivileged and became incredibly privileged and seemed to have forgotten a lot of those values and principles? How do we reset?
It’s a big challenge. I’ll share with you what I’ve done personally. It’s a project that I’m working on. I’ve gone back to the village. I know I’m privileged because I’m the CEO of an organization. I’ve built myself a house in town. I have no reason or need to go back to the village but what has drawn me is the fact that I am where I am now because of the very village that I can shun and reject as not part of me. I would not be here if the village had not been there for me. It has activated my conscience to say, “When I’m lifted to where I am, I have a responsibility to lift my fellow villagers.”
In my book A Dusty Road, I call myself a citizen of Joseph’s village. I go back to the village and walk around, meeting other villagers. I drive into the village in an expensive car, park it somewhere, and walk from household to household. They say, “You were responsible for taking me to where I am. What can I do for us to lift the life in our village?” We are completing a village center with a village boardroom and putting a communication center for villagers to come together now and again to research. For example, we are an agricultural village to some extent. What are the best practices in agriculture?
I’ve also taken it as a responsibility to get once in a while an agronomist who goes to the village and talks to the villagers about how to grow vegetables in the best way and rear goats, sheep, or what have you in the best possible way. In other words, it’s imparting knowledge so we can lift the village to another level. The guys have appreciated that relationship.
We formed a trust called the Joseph Valley Trust or JVT. The board members of that trust are villagers. We have a board of ten members. I am also a board member. Sitting on that board, we share ideas and what we can do. We are now tackling issues of erosion in our village. We are tackling the problem of building a basic school for our village. Some of the brilliant ideas have come from people who are not educated at all, but they’ve got tremendous ideas of how to uplift the village.
I believe this is something I would like to challenge my colleagues with, particularly in Harare, where I am. I’m saying to my fellow single friends, “Go back to your village where you came from and do something to lift the village you left. It will be a pity for you to go and vanish out of this planet without an impact on the village.” That has been my view. The privileged people need to know where they have come from so that they can do something about where they have come from as a way of lifting humanity. If we all did that, the world would be different.
I’m curious. Apart from the remarkable acknowledgment and affirmation of your village, we say in Africa, “It takes a village to raise a child,” but emotionally and spiritually, going back to the village and being part of a very tangible social impact initiative to uplift the village, what has that done for you personally, emotionally, physically, psychologically, and spiritually? How has that changed your life, if at all?
It’s tremendous. Sarudzai and I have three children. Two of them are in the United States, and one is in London. It’s the two of us now left. It has given us a deep sense of purpose because when you build a big house, for that matter, and the kids are all gone, you begin to realize that you don’t need the house because you can only sleep in one room. All the other rooms are now empty. There’s the demand for maintenance and so forth. You begin to realize that real value is not in material things.
The real value is not in having a fat bank account. Even for food, you only eat one plate of food because you’ve got one stomach, which is small, for that matter. You begin to realize that there is a limit to which you can use your money for. If we allow greed to take the better of us, we will keep on accumulating, get out of this planet, and leave them anywhere.
It has given my wife and me a deep sense of purpose. We can go back to the village and realize that where there was no infrastructure, we have managed to mobilize the villagers to work together. We have improved the state of our village for the next generation. That gives me a tremendous sense of satisfaction. I have not experienced any greater satisfaction than seeing the upliftment of fellow villagers or fellow human beings. For me, that has been tremendous.
You’ve spoken quite a bit early on about the role that Nelson Mandela played in a very dark time in your life. Was that your most significant Mandela Moment? Was there another moment when Mandela struck a chord for you? Is there a different moment? That was a pretty profound moment.
I’ve got some iconic people in my life who have shaped my way. My chairman and founder of my group, Mr. Strive Masiyiwa, has been a brother, a mentor, and somebody I look up to because of his value system. He has shaped me. I noticed his leadership is aligned with the Nelson Mandela type of leadership, where it’s not about pomp, fun, or the glitter around it. Still, it’s about service, a servant’s heart, and the ability to sit with you, talk with you as an individual, hear you out, and value you as a brother, a sister, or a fellow human being. That’s what I have seen.
It resonated when I looked at Nelson Mandela’s journey from Qunu Village to the statehouse via prison. When I look at my village and now being in the city, I realize you can have a long-winded journey or a long road to freedom and success. It resonated. It’s almost a reflection of the entire journey to where I am. I can see the moment and the value. At the end of the day, it’s about saving and not being saved. That’s what I see with Nelson Mandela. Even when I saw the handover of power, the ability to be able to step aside and hand it over was unique.
In Africa, it’s difficult. People want to die in positions. All those aspects are deep in learning mentorship, which I’ve discussed before. I wouldn’t say it’s one moment. I believe that Nelson Mandela’s entire life has spoken to me. It’s his insights and the ideals that he stood for. I’m very boldly standing for those ideals. I believe in life that I should also have ideals that I should not compromise. Integrity is one of them. Nothing whatsoever should ever pull down the integrity pillar of my life. I should be able to say, “This is an ideal that I stand for. Nothing can interfere with it.” Those are some of the fundamental lessons that have resonated with me.
Do you think Mandela’s leadership is relevant for the next generation? Why?
It is because it’s a rare leadership. It’s a leadership style that the world needs. It’s a leadership that is built on selflessness or being selfless and humble. It’s a leadership that is authenticated by the welfare of others. In other words, I’m not sitting on other people’s heads. We are joining hands and building our future. Planet Earth needs a team of leaders who will join hands with fellow human beings to solve the glaring problems of our society. If we do that, I believe that we truly are living the ideals that Nelson Mandela lived for.Nelson Mandela’s leadership style is what the world today needs. It's a leadership built on selflessness and humility and is authenticated by the welfare of others. We are joining hands, and we are building our future. Click To Tweet
Look at South Africa, for example. It was easy for him after prison to come out with a bitter heart and cause the disintegration of that country by saying, “This is time for retaliation,” but he didn’t. Instead, he embraced every individual, whether Black, White, Indian, or Chinese, irrespective of where they came from. That’s what we need in this world. The polarization we see in our world nowadays is because they are leaders who only stand for certain sections of society. That is very dangerous. To answer your question, we need a Nelson Mandela type of leadership going into the future. There’s no doubt.
That’s a very powerful note and a heartwarming reminder. Are there any final thoughts generally on leadership and leading boldly into the future? Are there any final thoughts about what you think Mandela would say to our leaders in the world now?
I have been observing the trend in the world now. We have talked about VUCA, or this aspect of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity, and all these things we see around us. It’s not getting better. It’s getting wasted worse. We have witnessed climatic changes, technology changes, and even the issue of the pandemic. They say, “The pandemic we saw with Corona is probably lighter than we will see in the coming years.”
Given this complexity, it needs leaders who can brisk up to the task of dealing with those challenges. It will not be dealt with by the leadership we have. If Nelson Mandela were standing with us, he would be crying and aching for a leadership conscious of the gravity of the complexity facing us. Therefore, I would say that setting aside our agendas and running with a more inclusive plan to serve the globe and humanity.Set aside personal agendas and run with a more inclusive agenda for the sake of serving the globe, of serving humanity. Click To Tweet
What a powerful note to end on, Dr. Douglas Mboweni. It’s such a privilege to talk to you. I hope you come back again. Thank you for your words of wisdom and acts of service.
Thank you very much, Anne, for having me. I appreciate it. Thank you so much.
Talking to Dr. Douglas Mboweni brings home the power of making willful and conscious choices in troubled times, imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, despite the anger, the bitterness, and the despair. He asked himself, “Will I let this injustice define, break, or make me?” He consciously chose the last option.
It was in that conscious choice that the healing and the transformation began. He found meaning in adversity. He learned valuable lessons about himself and what matters. In his prayerful actions and joyful singing, he not only healed himself and encouraged his prison mates in his cell, but they healed, encouraged, and uplifted other prisoners and prison guards too.
The choices we make are often defined by our childhood village where we grow up, the values and principles of our elders, and the people that have gone before. They shape our identity. They help define our moral compass and courage. It is the circle of life. What is the circle? It is the end of the beginning. It is the beginning of an end. We repeat the patterns of those that have gone before.
In the circle of life, we learn how we are all interconnected, like Baby Simba in Disney’s Lion King. His father, Mufasa, the king of the lions, taught Simba how to overcome adversity, evil, threats, and greed. He taught Simba that to protect not only the lion pride and their land, he also needed to cover the entire kingdom and all creatures in the kingdom so that the balance of nature could take its course. Nature, his lion pride, and his kingdom not only survived but thrived.
Like Simba the lion, Douglas, and Nelson Mandela, you can make conscious choices and return to your village with your head held high. In protecting the village, your people, and your tribe, you know it is all interconnected. Like Simba, Douglas, and Nelson Mandela, we need to protect and respect all creatures in the kingdom for the kingdom to thrive. It is the circle of life.
- Econet Wireless Zimbabwe
- A Dusty Road to Success: Principles of an Extraordinary Life
About Dr. Douglas Mboweni
Dr Douglas Mboweni is the CEO of Econet Wireless Zimbabwe, the country’s leading provider of telecoms services and has over 20 years of executive management experience in the Information Technology and Telecommunications industry. Under his stewardship, Econet Wireless Zimbabwe has leveraged innovation in the face of difficult economic conditions to grow its subscriber base from two hundred thousand in 2002 to over twelve million today, commanding market share of above 65%.
Dr. Mboweni was instrumental in the promotion of local mobile financial services through EcoCash, up to the unbundling and listing of its parent company, Cassava Smartech on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange. He was also part of the team that set up and launched Mascom (Botswana) and Econet Wireless Nigeria amongst various roles assumed in the Econet Wireless Global group. In recognition of his leadership and success, Dr. Mboweni has won several national and international accolades including the coveted Institute of Directors Zimbabwe, Director of the Year in 2005 and 2013 as well as the Zimbabwe Institute of Management, Manager of the Year in 2004.
Dr. Mboweni graduated with a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) Degree in Business Leadership from the Zimbabwe Open University (ZOU) in 2019. In his doctorate thesis, he proposed the Leadership-Driven Resilience Model (LDRM), which theoretically proffered possibilities for business leaders to develop sustainable coping strategies in response to extreme business operating environments. He is also and is a holder of a Master’s in Business Leadership (UNISA), and a BSc Mathematics & Computer Science degree from the University of Zimbabwe (UZ).
Besides his many career accomplishments, Dr Mboweni is a published author of A Dusty Road To Success: Principles of an extraordinary life, an inspirational piece intended to motivate people to discover their purpose and unleash their God-given greatness. He is a visiting Professor of Practice at the University of Johannesburg since 2018 and is a member of the Johannesburg Business School (JBS) International Advisory Board. In his spare time, Douglas facilitates a number of youth mentorship programmes in the community. Dr Mboweni is married to Sarudzayi and they are blessed with 3 children.
Hands up for this aunthetic discussion chief. Thank you Anne for the project.
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