Real Leaders

Stedman Graham on Africa, Oprah and Leadership

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

The best-selling author, educator and entrepreneur tells us why Africa is the next big thing and why he is not Oprah.

Part of what makes us human 
is our ability to be aware of our own existence, to both live and reflect on our own lives. It’s this capacity for self-awareness that allows us to see our authentic selves and build our own identity, rather than letting others dictate who we are and what we do with our lives. Stedman Graham has spent the last 15 years travelling the world, teaching people to become leaders, rather than followers.

His soul mate of 27 years, Oprah Winfrey, has also developed a career around self improvement, yet while Winfrey does this over the air, on television, Graham has chosen to do his work on the ground, meeting students, professionals and governments across the globe. He asks three basic questions of them: Who are you? Where are you going? How are you going to get there? You might even regard this as a three sentence business plan, but Graham believes that regardless of culture, race or creed, each person can begin to create positive change around them by simply asking these questions of themselves.

Many of us spend years trying to find out who we are and, sadly, too many of us never do, says Graham. If we fail to define ourselves, we risk letting others define us by our race, gender, and background.

We buy into the labels that keep us in a box and, as a result of those limitations, never reach or realize our greatest potential,” he says. And while his relationship with Oprah can sometimes overshadow many of the messages he takes with him around the world, he is adamant that he is, “not Oprah,” as he recently stressed on a CBS interview.

The author of eleven books, two of them New York Times bestsellers, Graham has acknowledged that he has a lifelong commitment to youth and community and has focused on the hidden potential of both top executives as well as people trying to make a difference in their communities. While acknowledging a universal desire among the worlds population to do something good with their lives, he tries to get people to commit to a personal mission that will empower them as individuals.

This lifelong commitment to empowerment and learning started in Graham’s early years, when he was a professional basketball player – he’s 6’6” tall. When he realized how the power of sport could influence young lives he established Athletes Against Drugs in 1985, dedicated to developing leadership among underserved youth in Chicago, now with programs countrywide.

“The positive sporting role models I had in my life showed me how important it was to be visible, and to show young people they could be somebody,” says Stedman. “The negative press around doping in sport at the time was the catalyst for me to create an organization that was not involved in drugs, and to develop a drug-free alternative.” Stedman’s attitude of never wanting to be “anti” but always “pro” a situation, has seen him take a keen interest in Africa recently. He believes there is huge unlocked potential on the continent, that requires self-awareness from locals and commitment from others. He shared his outlook with us.  

What potential do you see in Africa? Why is Africa seen as the next big opportunity for economic growth?

Africa is currently seen as the next big power house because it’s a pin-up economy – it hasn’t been developed. You have millions of people who’ve never been part of the mainstream economy. This is the perfect opportunity to create infrastructure and have people develop their own businesses, become educated, become entrepreneurs and develop organizations that give back and serve people.

I think there’s a greater opportunity in Africa than any other continent I’ve seen, because you have so many people with no place to go, but up. Once you start that process it’s going to explode. China and the U.S. are both investing in Africa, so that must mean something.

Are these countries investing in natural resources or investing in people? Natural resources are a prime reason people come to Africa, but if the countries were more structurally set up to do business, where everyone can benefit, then that’s where things really start to work. You can’t have people coming here to take all the resources away while the people who live here can’t even farm their own land or feed themselves.

The way to build anything is to first invest in people. You build a strong family, and then invest in family members, who then build strong communities. You need to prevent a community that can’t feed itself, that can’t have it’s own voice or educate itself. Otherwise, you’ll have a drain on that society and the community.

What kind of leadership is needed in this type of scenario?

Firstly, leadership you can trust, and secondly, leaders who understand the possibilities of what they are leading. You also need a vision, a plan and the ability to align people and bring them together to create opportunity. Education is important and people should understand who they are, including a sense of duty to others. People have to care.

What are you hoping to achieve personally?

I teach identity development to people around the world, helping them discover who they really are. Most people are stuck in a box and do the same thing, over and over, every single day. If you do the same thing today as you did yesterday, you wouldn’t have achieved much. At school the educational system teaches you how to memorize, take tests, and repeat information.

You just get labeled with a grade and two weeks later you’ve forgotten this information. So nothing from nothing, is nothing, and most people end up not truly knowing who they are, or how to take information and make it relevant to their development.

Most people in this situation are at a loss and end up being defined by their race, family, or religion. Being defined by all these external things, keeps people from becoming a leader. Basically, around one percent of the world is being followed by everyone else. Out of seven billion people on the planet, 99 percent are followers.

The challenge is to transform them from a follower to a leader. The system is not set up to do this because it teaches you to be a worker.  It doesn’t teach you to think or take ownership of your development. Leadership is about stepping out of the box and being able to define yourself, as opposed to having the world define you.  

Are you formally structured in business with Oprah in any way?

No, I don’t have any businesses with her, she does what she does, and does it well. My relationship with her is strong because I don’t have a business relationship with her. I support her 150 percent and I can still support her and have my own interests, otherwise I couldn’t teach what I teach. This is how I define myself, despite the fact that people are continually trying to put me in a box and make some connection between us, based on speculation that she’s supporting me. I maintain my own development, and if I need to travel, I can go and create my own ventures.

It’s a beautiful thing to have a partner with whom you can work together, because we’re basically working on the same things. She does it in the air, through television, and I do it on the ground but we’re both doing the same kind of work, which is why we get along so well. Oprah understands my work and I understand her work.

She loves what she does and I love what I do. I’m just more grassroots and community based, I go and talk to the people – the homeless, school children and institutions. I want to talk to people and connect with them.

Is America still a shining light for opportunity or have other countries now adopted this role?

The American Dream is now a global dream, but America is still strong to me. I knew a long time ago, when I used to play professional basketball in Europe and travelled widely, that America was not the only country in the world. I realized that people are basically the same everywhere, especially now, with our connection through technology and the Internet. Now we can speak to almost anyone, anywhere, and we all travel a lot more.

The world is almost becoming one economy, because each economy is so dependent on the other. We should continue to be open and assimilate people and cultures at all levels – class, race and nationality – and be bold enough to do that. Identity development helps you do that. It helps you identify what you love and what you care about. It helps you assimilate, get along with other people and build better relationships. It’s a good blueprint for the challenges we face in the 21st century.

We live in an ownership-driven society and you should also strive to own yourself too, your own thoughts, your own ideas, a self-directed learner. You need to be a life-long learner in these times, the global marketplace demands it. If you fall behind, you’ll be pushed back to a lower class, something that’s happening right now in the U.S.

The middle-classes are being pushed back to lower class, because they haven’t made the adjustments needed for the 21st century.

Many people in Africa don’t feel they have the right to independent thought. Many governments and leaders have held onto power longer than they should. How do you nurture entrepreneurship and independent thought in this environment?

It’s about adapting to a global marketplace, where you have other ideas and thoughts coming in, with outside people willing to help countries get to the next level. No one makes it alone and no woman or man is an island unto themselves.  No country can make it by themselves either. Having good trade agreements and encouraging experts from around the world to come to your country is a good idea.

Countries can provide their knowledge base to experts, who in turn, share their skills locally. This is a way to grow, and sometimes it’s just putting the right people together in a room. You need a team of people to help; you can’t do it by yourself. If you want to create wealth, you bring wealth in, if you want to create economic opportunity, you bring it in with you.


More like this

Most Recent Articles