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Ten Greatest Leaders of all time-an African Perspective

Updated on May 1, 2015
Johan Smulders profile image

Johan has a BA and BEd - University of South Africa and a Masters-Abilene Christian University. Lectures in World History at ACC- Swaziland

Student who chose the top ten from an African Perspective

Who are your greatest leaders?

A group work exercise in a lesson on leadership produced some interesting results that in my opinion should be shared. This little study shows how 18 students from different countries in Africa and from different age groups see great leadership. The instruction was simple; “List in your groups for today the ten greatest leaders of all time, you have 15 minutes”.

When the results were analyzed some interesting conclusions became apparent. These students major in Bible and either, Counseling, Ministry or Leadership and are in their second or third year of study. There are 6 women and 12 men in the class and the countries represented are Swaziland, Kenya, Zambia, Uganda, Malawi and Zimbabwe. Their groups were chosen randomly and consisted of three persons each.

The top leaders according to these students came out as follows:

  1. Nelson Mandela
  2. Martin Luther King Jr.
  3. Robert Mugabe
  4. Mother Theresa
  5. Jesus
  6. Mahatma Gandhi
  7. Robert Kennedy
  8. Martin Luther (the Reformer)
  9. Dr.Kamuzu Banda
  10. Desmond Tutu
  11. Barack Obama


The rest of the 26 leaders mentioned also included the present or past leaders of the countries where the students came from, showing a pride in their own people.

With my somewhat western mindset, due to me growing up in South Africa, there are indeed (at least to me) some interesting conclusions that can be made after studying these results:

  1. It is interesting that Jesus only received two votes in a Christian College situation. Perhaps as the Son of God they did not consider him; I hope so. Other famous religious leaders like Buddha and Mohammed do not even get a showing in.
  2. Freedom fighters rate highly in the minds of these black Africans who have often been affected by wars in their own countries and certainly have a rich history in this area as they moved out of colonial control into independence, often in the last generation.
  3. Scientists in distant history, artists and innovators did not even get a mention. So Rembrandt, Picasso, Einstein, Beethoven, Ford, the Wright Brothers and many others in those fields were ignored. Does this show a lack of knowledge of history of simply a lack of concern for art or technological leaders?
  4. Literature likewise was ignored, and none of the great writers or poets were mentioned, be they European or even the more modern African ones. Bob Marley did get a mention, perhaps because of his music or perhaps because of his words. Certainly some of the authors from the past would be on some people’s lists. Confucius, Socrates, Shakespeare, Darwin, Rousseau, Marx, and even some more modern writers and thinkers could be considered.
  5. Leaders in the wars that make up an important part of western history had no takers except for Napoleon who was mentioned once. Ghensis Khan, Alexander the Great, Hitler, Mussolini. Churchill and Montgomery are just a few that come to mind. Even the more local Shaka Zulu and Muslikatzi are forgotten.To many people Shaka has become an icon of African History popularized in movie and TV mini-series and even Budweiser adverts in the USA. He does not get a mention here.
  6. Important world leaders like Bismarck, Lenin, Khrushchev, Thatcher, Gorbachev, Peron and Kohl, would normally all have their support, but here are nowhere to be seen. This shown in my mind that most people do not really look outside their own world and that world history is probably not taught in most countries. The next point also indicates this!
  7. Explorers like Magellan, de Gama, Diaz, Drake, and Columbus, and in Africa Rhodes and Livingstone, that to some made up an important part of the history of the modern world, are all missing. Livingstones fight against the slave trade would seem to be important, at least in my mind.
  8. On the political front Smuts, Castro, Kissinger are ignored, but Kofi Annan at least gets a mention.
  9. High finance and business is another area that is left out and so Ford, Kennedy, Oppenheimer and in more recent times Donald Trump are not rated. Bill Gates is mentioned.
  10. Sporting leaders also do surprisingly not find a place on the list. Makes you think as we spend so much energy, money and time in the sporting arena.
  11. Medicine produced some great leaders and Madame Curie, Florence Nightingale and Chris Barnard come to mind, as do those in the Psychological field like Freud and Rogers.

The list of these Africa students seems to lean heavily to more modern times and this may be that the students in Africa tend to come from a background where recent and more local history is of greater importance, and more real, than what happened many years ago. Ancient history and a study of the classics can seem to have little or no relevance for today. Obviously Africa is where they grew up and live and just like everyone else in the world we look at our world through a window that is open where we are.

A similar exercise in other parts of the world would be interesting, and if you do one send the top ten to me for a possible follow up article on leadership as it is seen in different parts of the world. If nothing else this article should open up the debate in your mind as to who the greatest ten leaders in the world were. Also thing about adding your personal list to the one of these students.


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    • Johan Smulders profile image
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      Johan Smulders 2 years ago from East London, South Africa

      Thanks for your very interesting comment. Your take on Jesus is also excellent!

    • profile image

      Tatien Bigirimana 2 years ago

      Where are Moses of the Bible and Paul Kagame of Rwanda? They should appear in the list. Every great leader to me is measured by where he took his people from to where and "how"he has gotten them there before he joins his forefathers. Am not prejudiced for Am not even a Rwandan.

      Those claiming Jesus to be Number one in the list are biased because the context here is earthly leadership, therefore, does not involve spiritual leaders. Am a strong Christian and a follower of Christ Jesus, My MASTER, but I tell you: "could Jesus' mission has been earthly leadership, He could have done 99% more that what He did". He could not have come even in the list of comparison for there would be nobody to compare HIM with. He could be probably 99% better compared to others.

      He came as a spiritual leader to liberate the whole world from the spiritual oppression that the devil had confined humanity in for a long time. Upon finishing His mission He ascended to heaven but He is coming back and He will then lead. If you will be there, probably you shall compare.

      So, those including Jesus Christ in the list of great leaders are not wrong. They are 100% right because though His (Jesus) manifest function was not becoming an earthly leader,and as the best leader, BEING the best human the world has ever known, He could not afford to avoid leading but as a latent function.

      Bless you for the article and the above comments.

    • Johan Smulders profile image
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      Johan Smulders 3 years ago from East London, South Africa

      I agree fully, thanks for the comment!

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      Blessed 3 years ago

      If i was among your students Jesus would be the best .But any way that's according to their understanding that they did it that way. thanks for the post

    • Johan Smulders profile image
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      Johan Smulders 3 years ago from East London, South Africa

      Thanks Ben for your comment. If you read the article you will see my take on why some groups did not vote for Jesus.

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      Ben 3 years ago

      Jesus is not number one? This is sad any way there some leader we forget like Julius Nyerere he was one of the best leaders in African countries, he helped a lot of political leaders in America

    • Johan Smulders profile image
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      Johan Smulders 3 years ago from East London, South Africa

      Remember these are students at a Christian College.

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 3 years ago from Singapore

      Very nice post. How come Muhammad is missing with 50% Muslims in Africa.

    • Johan Smulders profile image
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      Johan Smulders 4 years ago from East London, South Africa

      Many will agree with you but remember these people are looking at it from an African viewpoint and they may even claim that Obama has African Roots and so that would be something amazing for an "African" to become the leader of a nation like the USA. Lots of thoughts to ponder and thanks for your good comment! the question was also not limited to African leaders as such, but world leaders in general.

    • someonewhoknows profile image

      someonewhoknows 4 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      Choosing Obama as one of the greatest African leaders of all time seems to have the effect of diluting the standards one expects from just such leaders.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Your students found leadership partially in the political arena, as well as those that believed strongly in peace and/or those that had good ideas on how to achieve it. I often have wondered why many people fear those that are so charismatic and have so much to offer the world. I'm glad that you did this piece, Johan.

    • Johan Smulders profile image
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      Johan Smulders 4 years ago from East London, South Africa

      Wow! that is great to get some interesting debate. Thanks for reading the hub and all your comments.

    • Levertis Steele profile image

      Levertis Steele 4 years ago from Southern Clime

      Johan Smulders,

      When I was young and an early learner, I thought that many great scientists were awesome. Just think: a smart man had reasoned/discovered that man evolved from the monkey family! I won't mention the many other lies that many school children have been punished for not remembering. Some of these scientists admitted their lies. The worst part is that some of their research, findings, and "proof" were not questioned because they were accepted as the works of great minds. So, that put a damper on great scientists, which is unfair to the ones who are truly great.

      I, too, was surprised to see the numbers on Jesus. I expected Him to be #1.

      This is such an interesting hub! Hats off to all of those youngsters who participated!

    • profile image

      Levertis Steele 4 years ago

      Obama's is well into his second term of office. If anyone could prove that he is not legitimate, it would have been done. If you know what you are talking about, prove it. Assumptions and gossip are not reliable.

      In my opinion--my opinion--Obama has not been in the big eye of the world long enough to be one of the world's greatest leaders. But to say damnable things about him that you cannot prove, is not right. Donald Trump tried to prove Obama an imposter, but he failed. Others, too. This gossip is really old. The man will be finishing his second term in three years. That's a short time. Then, another President can gain the office and get mud slammed all over him. No leader has ever held such an office and survived without a continuous mud baptism by some. To say that Obama's SS and birth certificate are questionable is to say that US intelligence, in all respects, is lacking. That is so unpatriotic and downright insulting to the country. Surely there are enough keg-headed brains to uncover any dishonesty.

      How can we human beings know when we are choosing perfect human beings to be leaders when not one is perfect? We have leaders that we think are upstanding, but discover that they are pedaphiles, cheaters with the same sex behind their spouses' backs, pornographic nuts, those who commit sexual misconduct right on capitol hill, leaders who violate their own children, leaders who pretend to be Christians but actions are on the contrary, and the list goes on. The majority of "crooks" are never discovered, and we just worship them to death. As the spouse of one great leader said, "If only they knew!" As long as we do not discover the wrongs, we are ok with the leaders, but let it be known that all people do crooked things sometimes. If they are not doing it now, they have done it. If they say that they have not done any wrong, they are lying. If we were wise enough to judge hearts, we would probably die from severe shock.

      I say what I say without anger, just conviction. I attack issues, not people. So, I do respect everyone's right to voice opinions.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

      It is a wonderful experience when we look at our race and find those from whom we draw inspiration. Good for you. And thanks for sharing.

    • someonewhoknows profile image

      someonewhoknows 4 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

      I can only assume they chose Barack Obama as one of the ten greatest leaders from an African perspective because they think of him as the first Black president. Some say he is only a token and not really qualified to even run for president due to contradictions concerning his birthplace. Then there is his Social security number and school records. He is like a man without a country that he can call his own.So, how did he get so far in life?A Good Question to ask! He certainly was not born into an all black family and despite claiming to be a christian he belies that with his Islamic friends.So,who is he really?What does he really believe? Is,he a communist ,capitalist or a fascist or any of the above?

    • Johan Smulders profile image
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      Johan Smulders 4 years ago from East London, South Africa

      Thanks Jackie I will look up your Hug of the day with interest!

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 4 years ago from The Beautiful South

      I bet Robert Kennedy (if he were alive today) would be very glad he did not come ahead of Jesus. As you say though, it could be they did not consider Jesus in the vote being God, I hope so too. Very interesting article. Up and sharing.

      You may be interested in the person I chose today for the Hug of the Day if you don't know him, he was 8 in Scotland during WWII.