Success Story from South Africa: Fred Swaniker and The African Leadership Academy

Fred Swaniker’s family left Ghana when he was just four years old. The family moved about such that Mr. Swaniker lived in four African countries before he was 18 years old. As a young man, while living in Botswana, Mr. Swaniker’s recently widowed mother was asked by her community to start a school. She agreed, but asked her son to run the school in which she would teach. Serving as a headmaster changed Mr. Swaniker’s life and over time he grew convinced that a leadership position at a young age was something that could prove transformative for other youths. He moved to the USA for studies, graduated from the Stanford School of Business in California, and, in 2004, started a summer program called Global Leadership Adventures (GLA).

By 2014, GLA was working in 11 countries and had received participants from 50. Mr. Swaniker had been recognized as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, as one of the 10 Youngest Power Men in Africa by Forbes, profiled on CNN’s African Voices, named a TED Fellow and praised by President Obama.

Much of the praise Mr. Swaniker is now receiving is just not for GLA, but for the exceptional residential secondary institution he founded on the outskirts of Johannesburg called the African Leadership Academy (ALA). ALA opened in 2008 and offers a two year program of study to 15 to 18 year olds from Africa and around the world.

ALA students have witnessed outstanding success. They have placed into leading universities including: Harvard, Yale, Brown, Cornell, Duke, New York University, MIT, Stanford, Oxford, London School of Economics, Ashesi University, University of Cape Town and collectively have earned over $35 million in scholarships. ALA’s young leaders also have launched 44 non-profit and for-profit enterprises and five ALA young entrepreneurs have been recognized by the World Economic Forum for the innovative organizations they launched.

Based on the literature on international development and personal success, why has Fred Swaniker (and ALA) been so successful?

Some key characteristics come to mind:

Mr. Swaniker saw the difference that a good or bad leader could make. He had left Ghana because of a coup, moved to the Gambia and left that country because of a coup; thereafter he lived in Botswana and South Africa where he saw excellent leadership. These life experiences gave him a BURNING DESIRE to bring about positive change by helping to train future leaders. He DID NOT WAIT for OTHERS TO MAKE NEEDED CHANGES, but did so himself.

Mr. Swaniker is a “PRACTICAL DREAMER,” a DREAMER WITH A PLAN. The personal success literature indicates the need to have faith in one’s self, to combine one’s passion or burning desire with one’s talents, and to identify and work with others who share your passion and dream (Hill, Think and Grow Rich, 1937, pages 9-28 and 46-55). Swaniker has done all of these things.

Mr. Swaniker, like Columbia University Professor and development expert Jeffrey Sachs, also recognizes the IMPORTANCE OF GIVING BY THOSE WHO HAVE MORE to make the world a better place. Although Dr. Sachs has been criticized for his grandiose, overly idealistic, even utopian plans (Easterly, The White Man’s Burden, 2006, pages 19-20), he, like Mr. Swaniker recognizes the potential of TODAY’s YOUTH to FIX the PROBLEMS that plague our communities and planet.

Mr. Swaniker has a MINDSET FOR SUCCESS. He not only plans to graduate 6,000 leaders from ALA over the next 50 years but also has launched African Leadership Unleashed, an initiative to create “Africa’s Ivy League:” 25 excellent new universities across Africa that will enable ALA graduates and others to attend world-class universities in Africa. The first campus is set to open in Mauritius in September 2015.

By Heidi G. Frontani

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