The Secret of Rwanda: Pushing Leadership down the Line

In Rwanda, even ballpoint pens hold emotional lessons. John Fox remembers the moment a traveling companion handed one to a child on a trek back from a gorilla refuge in Virunga National Park. The child ran off into the bush, squealing with delight. Then came the scolding. “The guide stopped the entire group,” recalls Fox, one of 27 Wharton students who visited Rwanda in January 2012 as part of a special course on conflict, leadership and change, “and he said, ‘You cannot do that. All you’re doing is teaching these kids to be beggars. That is not acceptable to us.’”

It was a moment when Fox realized how nearly every person he met in Rwanda seemed onboard with a common vision to rebuild the country. From the minister of defense to the bus driver, Rwandans seemed propelled by both history and hope, the ferocity of every personal nightmare apparently overcome by an even fiercer collective determination to move beyond it.

It’s a message that comes from the top. The country’s president, Paul Kagame, has vowed to transform Rwanda from a country of subsistence farmers reliant on aid to an independent, innovative economy filled with knowledge entrepreneurs by 2020. Less than a generation after a brutal genocide in 1994 that killed more than 800,000 people in 100 days, the World Bank calls Rwanda a country “at peace and among the most stable on the continent.” More than half (56%) of the country’s parliamentarians are women — a larger percentage than in any country in the world. In the past five years alone, according to Rwanda’s ministry of finance and economic planning, more than one million Rwandans have pulled themselves out of poverty, and the country continues to grow.

“I think of Rwanda as a very rich case study,” notes Wharton professor Katherine Klein, who designed the course with Eric Kacou, co-founder of Entrepreneurial Solutions Partners. Students spent four intensive days in Rwanda learning about the country’s history and meeting local business leaders, genocide survivors and a wide range of government officials. “The country has made remarkable progress in the nearly 18 years since the genocide,” Klein says. “For observers, and certainly for future leaders, the country’s transformation provokes questions and deep thought. I see in Rwanda a leadership and management case writ large.”

A Visionary Leader …

Kagame is hailed as the visionary leader responsible for Rwanda’s dramatic change. His critics attribute his success to intolerant dictatorship that suppresses dissent. Yet Rwanda’s transformation did not come from one man alone, Kagame’s supporters say: Rwanda changed by establishing a common history, facing up to past conflicts, constructing a clear path forward and bringing everyone on board to get the job done.

Kagame was born in Rwanda to a Tutsi family in 1957. Amid ethnic tensions, the family fled Rwanda in 1960 and settled in a refugee camp in Uganda, where Kagame lived for 30 years. Leading the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RFP), he returned to Rwanda in 1990 and overthrew the genocidal government in 1994. He has ruled since, elected president in 2003 and capturing a second seven-year term in 2010 with 93% of the vote.

“In a world in which conflict is emerging as a near constant, Kagame’s example prompts important questions,” Klein notes. “How do you, as a leader, foster stability and healing following traumatic conflict? How do you set a nation — or a company or organization — on a constructive path following devastating conflict? How do you ensure that the entity you lead will survive and thrive when it’s time for you to transition?”

There is concern in Rwanda about what will happen when Kagame steps down. The Kagame regime has brought the country together after decades of ethnic conflict, insisting that Rwandans work together to move forward and shun the focus on ethnic rivalries that fueled past conflicts. “Today, individuals describe themselves not as Hutus or Tutsis, but simply as Rwandans,” Klein says. “Given the country’s history, having a leader who is intent on serving everyone in Rwanda and advancing the country as a whole is critical.”

… But Will He Go?

There are also concerns that Kagame won’t step down. Klein remembers asking one Rwandan if he believed Kagame would relinquish power in 2017 when his term finishes. “And he said, ‘I hope so. And if he does, I will cry,’” Klein recalls. “To me, it was a powerful statement both of Rwandans’ great respect for and pride in the president, and the ongoing fragility of the transformation.”

One of the first steps in Rwanda’s recovery was establishing peace, order and security. By many visitor accounts, Rwanda has turned itself into the cleanest, most orderly place in Africa. Streets are swept daily. Plastic bags are banned. Police and soldiers line the streets at rush hour to keep everything running as it should.

“These things strike the visitor immediately,” Klein observes. Today, Rwanda is safe, corruption is minimal and streets are litter free. Such structure provides a platform for rebuilding the country, and has become “key in attracting tourists and investors,” she says. To international observers, the extreme order can feel authoritarian. To many Rwandans, however, it feels secure. As one Rwandan explained to Klein: “My country was broken, and we put it in a cast.”

Security is extremely important for fostering a culture of hope, reconciliation and entrepreneurship, says Liz Dahan, vice president at Albright Stonebridge Group, a Washington, D.C.-based strategy firm that helps companies do business in emerging markets. A first-year student in Wharton’s executive MBA program and course participant, Dahan was impressed with Rwanda’s feeling of security and order, and in that atmosphere saw larger lessons.

“I could not help but think about some of the most successful and creative companies I know — Apple, Pixar, Google — and how the leadership of these companies has created a strong identity around being comfortable sharing ideas,” she notes. “Security is at the heart of this. In the U.S., we take security for granted. My experience in Rwanda reminded me that in the workplace, it’s my responsibility as a leader to cultivate and support that sense of security in order for my team to operate at its best.”

Creating a Shared History

Security alone did not transform Rwanda. Also critical for the country was creating a shared history that all Rwandans could accept. “Organizational cultures are founded in part on the basis of critical events, the lessons we draw from them and the stories we tell about them,” says Klein. The U.S., for example, created shared stories after the Challenger disaster, 9/11 and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A corporation might have to create a common story after going through a hostile takeover or a series of layoffs.

“There are, of course, many ways to tell the story of Rwanda’s past,” Klein adds. “Leaders in Rwanda have sought to craft a narrative that honors the victims but builds a platform for moving forward rather than fueling division and resentment. Rwanda’s example provides an opportunity to explore how a leader’s messages may simultaneously honor individual experiences and perceptions and create a foundation for cooperation.”

Having a common history was just the beginning. Rwandans also needed to find a way to heal and seek justice without sliding back into chaos. For Rwandans, it came in the form of gacaca courts, a participatory justice system that empowered local communities throughout Rwanda to carry out public, open trials to judge and punish the perpetrators in their midst. A new twist to a traditional way to solve family or village disputes, the gacaca system allowed 12,000 grassroots courts to adjudicate more than 1.2 million cases in just a few years — a feat that would have taken decades if left to the traditional courts of law.

“Rwanda’s gacaca system of transitional justice was at once remarkably innovative and resourceful, and reminiscent of long-standing cultural traditions within Rwanda,” Klein notes. Procedural fairness is important in any setting, Klein says. “I may not like an outcome, but if I think the decision-making process is fair, I’m much more accepting of it.”

The gacaca trials have come under fire from human rights groups for incidents of corruption and procedural irregularities, yet Klein suggests that for Rwanda, they began a process of healing and empowerment for communities that had been devastated by violence and felt abandoned by the international community. “The gacaca courts are not a perfect system, and yet it’s not clear what, if anything, would have been better,” says Klein, reflecting on conversations the group had with the country’s director of training and mobilization for the gacaca courts. “There’s an important lesson here: You may as a leader face extraordinary challenges for which there is no perfect solution…[but] you have to find something.”

For Kagame, bringing stability and reconciliation to Rwanda was not enough. He also insisted that Rwanda could become better. “The power of visionary leadership comes through in this story,” Klein notes. “Kagame and his team had a vision for transforming society.”

Vision 2020

That vision has been articulated in what is known to Rwandans as Vision 2020. The long-term plan envisions the country moving from a subsistence agricultural economy to a knowledge-based society by 2020, creating its own savings and reducing its dependence on foreign aid. The ambitious plan requires annual growth of 7%, and is based on pillars of good governance, agricultural transformation, an efficient private sector, health and education, regional integration, and infrastructure development.

“The vision is simultaneously clear, ambitious, multifaceted and succinct,” Klein points out. “They established a lengthy list of goals and benchmarks — literacy levels, fertility rates, infant mortality rates, gender equality in decision-making positions, HIV prevalence … economic growth indicators, road network coverage, electricity access, non-agricultural jobs — and they have made substantial progress towards realizing this vision.”

Communicating Vision 2020 in clear, understandable language has probably helped Kagame carry it out, according to Soumya Pati, a second-year Wharton MBA and course participant. Formerly a consultant with Accenture in Singapore, Pati has been involved in projects that deal with organizational conflict and change. “In organizations, whatever the scale, communication gets garbled because sometimes the message is so complex that it’s prone to misinterpretations,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s necessary that everybody across the organization know what that vision is.” In Rwanda, everyone she met knew about Vision 2020. “From businesspeople to survivors, ordinary people, they all recognized what Vision 2020 was and what was stipulated in it.”

Not only did people in Rwanda understand the vision, they were given the power to carry it out, she notes. “In Rwanda, it was clear that leadership and independent problem-solving were encouraged at every level,” she says. “It was not a question of simply following the leader, but becoming a leader in one’s own department, region or sector to move things forward.”

There is a difference between the leader and leadership, people in Rwanda told her. Leadership is not restricted to one particular leader; it is about giving leaders at all levels the power to make decisions. “The concept of leadership is about inculcating that spirit of critical analysis and decision making at all levels of the organization,” she states. “When you talk about having a strong leadership, it means the sustainability of the organization is not dependent on one person at the helm…. you have an entire organization that can stand by itself.”

Klein agrees that Kagame’s administration seemed to have leaders throughout. “You have this feeling that there are layers and layers of very smart and visionary leaders throughout the government and the country.”

Kagame’s leadership and team building impressed Fox, who works as CEO of Parietal Systems, a defense contractor in the Boston area, when not working on his Wharton MBA. Kagame not only surrounds himself with capable people inside his government, but has also enlisted powerful allies abroad, such as former U.K. Prime MinisterTony Blair and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Fox notes. “It’s not just his vision. The vision is at some level very much a team vision,” Fox says. “He’s not saying, get with me or get off the boat. He’s involving his entire team in refining the vision and developing a plan.”

Fox left Rwanda convinced that the populace was genuinely united by a shared vision of stability, self-reliance, prosperity and growth. The general feeling is not “let me look back” as much as “let me look forward,” Fox says, adding that he was “cynical” before he visited to Rwanda, expecting that the message was just government propaganda. The visit erased those doubts. “These people had no reason to lie,” he says. “What I came away with was that these people really buy into this as well. The vision can really survive Kagame.”

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