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Leadership and good governance in a democracy

BY ‘governance’, we refer to the traditions and institutions by which leadership and authority are exercised in a given country. When people talk of ‘good governance’, they generally refer to situations whereby the institutions and traditions of governance ensure peace, growth and prosperity within a framework of stability and the rule of law.

The World Bank identifies the following criteria for good governance: “predictable, open and enlightened policy making; a bureaucracy imbued with a professional ethos; an executive arm of government accountable for its actions; and a strong civil society participating in public affairs; and all behaving under the rule of law.” The UNDP identifies its key ingredients as being, among other things, participatory, transparent, accountable and equitable institutions and styles of rulership that ensure that “political, social and economic priorities are based on broad consensus in society and that the voices of the poorest and the most vulnerable are heard in decision-making over the allocation of development resources.”

While good governance is anchored on the role of public institutions, the concept of leadership is about the personal attributes of those who govern. There are as many definitions of leadership as there are theorists of leadership. John Quincy Adams, one of the founding fathers of the American Republic, conceptualises leadership in terms of the ability to inspire people: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, and do more and become more, you are a leader.”

Scholars of leadership have debated on whether leaders are born or made. Some would argue that leaders such as Obafemi Awolowo, Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah and Nelson Mandela can only appear once in a century. There are others, however, who insist that leadership is a learning process and that individuals can be coached and mentored on the art and skills of effective leadership.

Harvard Business School professor, Warren Bennis, in his book, “On Becoming a Leader,” starts from the presupposition that leaders are made, not born. He argues that the process of becoming a leader requires education, training and character formation. He regards “self-knowledge” as the key to the process of becoming a leader. Leaders, according to him, “…know who they are, what their strengths and weaknesses are…They also know what they want, why they want it and how to communicate what they want to others, in order to gain their cooperation and support.”

A distinction has been drawn between two main types of leadership, the first, “transactional”; and the other, “transformational”.

Transactional leaders tend to use ‘carrot and stick’ approaches to achieve the results that they want. They engage with their followers using incentives and threats. President Theodore Roosevelt, one of the greatest leaders of the American republic, reportedly loved the African wisdom saying which admonishes the leader: “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”

Transformational leaders, on the other hand, tend to appeal to higher ideals and values among their followers. Transformational leaders aim to change human conditions while empowering their followers to aim for the highest and best. According to the medieval Jewish sage, Rabbi Hillel, ordinary leaders create good followers, while extraordinary leaders make leaders out of others. Transformational leaders bequeath a legacy of creative change while building and mentoring other leaders who will carry on their work.

Seven qualities, in my opinion, are essential to the successful exercise of transformational leadership.

The first is character. It has been said times without number that character maketh the man. Character, is, indeed, destiny. Without a good character and a good name, a man or woman is not worth very much. Character entails adherence to virtue ethics and to the old and time-tested attributes of honesty, loyalty, humility, respect, loyalty, goodness and faith.

The German sociologist, Max Weber, famously underlined charisma as the foundational element for that personal quality that makes leaders stand out from the crowd. Weber himself acknowledged that charisma is better felt than defined. It has to do with that personal magnetism that makes others want to trust and do the bidding of the leader.

Secondly, leaders possess vision. According to the ancient Hebrew sages, “without vision, the people perish.” Leaders are those who are able to see tomorrow; providing a clear vision that rallies the people together for great national undertakings.

A third element is passion. Leaders are deeply passionate people. They believe in the cause that they espouse. The American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., was passionate about the cause of emancipation of his people.  He once noted that unless we can find something worth dying for, we haven’t begun to live. His immortal “I Have a Dream” speech, given in the shadows of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, remains a landmark in the history of American political rhetoric.

Fourthly, leaders possess integrity. Because they believe in a cause that is greater than themselves, they are ready to make all the sacrifice necessary for the achievement of that goal. From Mahatma Gandhi to Obafemi Awolowo and Nelson Mandela, the greatest leaders are incorruptible. They identify with their people in their struggle for a better life. The people, on their part, repose their trust in them, knowing that their trust will not be betrayed.

Fifthly, leaders are learners. They are extremely curious people. They are always on the quest for truth. Jesus Christ of Nazareth said, “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” They also tend to be of an objective bent of mind. Whilst remaining faithful to personal principles, they are ever ready to succumb to superior argument if logic and evidence are compelling enough.

Sixthly, leaders are a profile in courage. Tried and sentenced for treasonable felony, Obafemi Awolowo remained a man of supreme courage.

While in Broad Street Prison, he got the terrible news of the death of his son and heir, Segun Awolowo in 1963. He remarked dryly that the human soul can never be destroyed. He urged his associates to “look after Mama Segun.”

Paralysed by polio, Franklin Roosevelt lived by the philosophy of “the strenuous.”

John Fitzgerald Kennedy defied painful illnesses to lead America in a time of peril as well as opportunity.

Nelson Mandela endured more than 27 years of incarceration with hard labour. As he later explained: “I learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers fear.”

True leaders are always prepared to learn even from the worst of adversities. Being positive-thinkers, rather than dwell on their limitations, they focus on their own possibilities. They are great overcomers.

Even in the loneliness of his Calabar prison, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo was reading and thinking tirelessly on how our country could be taken forward. In that sense, leaders must be ‘born again’.

According to the Harvard psychoanalyst and organisational theorist, Abraham Zalenznik, ‘born again leaders’ are those leaders who have gone through the crucible of adversity and have emerged out of it the stronger and wiser.

Last but not the least, leaders have mastery over the context in which they operate.

Being learners and being supremely curious people, they tend to master their environment. You could say that they are ‘organic intellectuals’ in the sense understood by the Italian revolutionary intellectual, Antonio Gramsci.

Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau was an agronomist who travelled throughout the rural countryside; studying the problems of rural peasants, literacy and health, including cultural traditions and social practices and how these could be factored into building an anti-colonial revolutionary strategy. His famous essay, “The Weapon of Theory,” is a magisterial insight on the relations between the theory and praxis of liberation and nation building. Genuine leaders do not isolate themselves from the people; rather, they unite with them in their struggle for a better life.

True Leaders never give up, no matter the odds. As Madiba instructs us: “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.”


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