Taaka Awori is the CEO of Busara Africa a Pan-African Leadership Development Firm, a Leadership Trainer, Professional Coach and Organisational Development Specialist with over 20 years experience working with civil society, the private sector and various Government Agencies across Africa, Europe and the United States. Taaka has a Bachelors Degree in Political Science from Harvard University and a Juris Doctorate in Law from Columbia University. She sits on the Board of the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) and the Editorial Board of “Coaching Perspectives”, the flagship global publication of the Association for Coaching. Taaka is a member of the International Coaching Federation. More about her work from www.busara-africa.com
You held a number of leadership roles before shifting to developing leaders. What learning from your own leadership experience do you draw on in developing others and why?
In many respects, the leadership programmes we run at Busara Africa are based on all the things I wished I had known when I had a leadership role. These are all the things about how to better manage myself and how to bring out the best in others. This is because, like me, many people are given leadership roles, without adequate preparation and support. So what my team and I seek to do is provide practical, hands on support to help people navigate all the complexities that leadership entails.
You shared some great insights recently on the Reimagining Leadership in Africa programme which aired globally on radio. You indicated that leadership for you is ‘unleashing the best in me’ but also requires a broad base of everyone. How do you see that kind of critical mass of leadership happening?
I believe the critical mass around leadership will grow when we as Africans stop defining a leader as someone who has a title or who has authority. Instead, we should see a leader as anyone who steps up to influence others to achieve a shared goal. We can’t wait for leaders with titles to change this continent. We will hold them accountable for the positions they hold, but at the same time we will seek to exercise leadership in all the spaces we find ourselves. Our narrative of leadership on this content, therefore, has to become one of shared leadership that is about all of us. That’s how we get the critical mass changing things.
You are also a social development expert. Considering the challenges Africa faces in establishing the drivers that build the right quality of life for citizens, what would you say accountable, innovative leadership needs to look like in practice?
In many ways, your question answers itself. To achieve all the social development challenges we see on this continent such as poverty, inequality, social exclusion and gender inequity, we need leadership that is accountable and innovative. To be accountable in practice means that you are willing to answer to those you lead and you are transparent about your decisions. To be innovative means you are willing to do things differently and think differently. I would add that you need leaders who are inclusive. This means that they value and honour difference; they are willing to look at and work on their unconscious biases and ultimately they are committed to promoting equity in the spaces in which they lead.
Regarding women’s leadership, what key threads would you say are missing in ongoing debates and any thoughts on what would be effective ways of injecting these threads in order to evolve the conversations?
What is missing is how we move from conversation to action. So much has been said about the absence of women from key leadership positions and the challenges faced by women when they assume these positions. And yet the challenges persist. Current leaders need to be held accountable for absence of women in decision-making positions within their governments, organizations or companies and for creating organizational cultures, which make it difficult for women to thrive. They need to stop talking and start acting.
Some say women need to lead in way that makes them to be taken seriously (aka lead like men). Others think women lead differently from men and need to bring more of their natural styles. What advice would you give a female client grappling with this?
I would advice a woman to primarily be herself in leading others. People are more likely to trust you when you are authentic. That being said, leadership is very situational. There are times when you need to be tough and they are times when you need be soft. There are times that call for brutal candour and there are times that call for diplomacy. What a leader, whether man or woman, needs to do is understand what style is called for in that moment, and adjust his or her style accordingly. Adjustment of your leadership style can be done without changing who you are authentically.
If you could ask one question to a leader you really admire, what would that be and why would that question be important for you?
I would ask: “Tell me about a time you failed? What did you learn from it?” I would ask that question because most of the leaders I admire are people who learn from their failures rather than their achievements. This question, therefore, would elicit some of their deepest lessons along their leadership journey.
In your own leadership, what is the ‘constant’ that has held true whatever you’ve faced and how do you intend to scale your leadership?
You can’t lead another until you lead yourself; that has been a constant for me. This is the concept of leadership from the inside out. The best leaders I know are those who have done the inner work to develop their ethics, integrity and character. As Rumi the poet said: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” Your ability to influence others as a leader is more dependent on who you are (character and values) than on what you do. So in our leadership training at Busara, we always dedicate time to supporting our clients on developing who they are as people.
You are the product of some very well respected schools including Harvard, worked with reputable organizations and done work in institutional development. What would you say breeds excellence in people and in organizations?
I am very grateful to the schools I went to and the institutions I worked for in demonstrating and providing a benchmark for what excellence looks like. What I take from this as an organizational development specialist is the power of institutions to create a culture of excellence. Culture is a powerful tool in shaping behavior. If a person who does poor quality work comes to a company that has a culture of excellence, they will soon conform or they will leave. But creating a culture of excellence doesn’t happen by accident. This is one of the most important roles of those in leadership positions, so a lot of what I do now is help leaders create an organizational culture that breeds excellence in their staff.
As a coach you help clients seeking clarity about their life purpose. How did you arrive at your life purpose and how would you need to keep developing to pursue it fully?
I was blessed to have parents who dedicated their lives to making this continent a better place. This influenced my life purpose. So from a young age I always knew my calling was to make Africa a better place. What has changed over time is “how”. Initially I did it through human rights, then through women’s rights, then through development, advocacy and policy influencing and finally through leadership development. I have stayed on course by attention to what feeds my soul and energizes me. When people are not sure about their life purpose, however, I tell them that it doesn’t have to be one thing for your entire life and it doesn’t have to be some big noble cause. Just find what gives you joy and passion. Again as Rumi says (I love this poet): “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.” That is your soul calling you. Follow that and you have your purpose.
Taaka in one word?