It gives me great pleasure to be at this little-publicized, but otherwise, momentous, event. I say “little publicized” because the Young African Leaders Initiative is a program that the press ought to have devoted a fair proportion of its reporting space to covering, but which has so far, and for reasons yet to be established, been given scant attention. The wider public ought to have been regularly updated on discussions taking place at different sessions. Alas, I, as a member of the wider public, knew very little about the Initiative until the Director-General was kind enough to bring it to my attention and to invite me to deliver this address.
The significance of the address lies in the program’s theme—the development of the leadership capacity of the youth. Interrogated by itself, leadership is a topic of great moment. It stands out due to its actual or presumed association with the competencies needed to realize a society’s or an organization’s dream. Without leadership, a society or any of its component parts will be unable to envision a willed future or to translate its dream into preferred outcomes. Without leadership, a dream will remain just that, or even worse, fantasies of a distant and unreachable world.
When the youth variable is tagged onto it, leadership turns into a subject with a wide and interesting connotation. The idea of the youth in leadership positions offers an opportunity to examine the concept from all possible angles, ranging from what leadership entails, through its interaction with the wider environment, to the tests that the aspirants would have to pass to be admitted into the ranks of genuine leaders.
That is just leadership and the youth component. How about accountability, the third leg on which this address stands? Accountability is, without any shadow of doubt, the icing on the cake. It is a theme that has both contemporary and futuristic implications.
Let us examine the three sub-themes—leadership, the youth, and accountability–one at a time, before taking them all together.
What do we mean by leadership?
Like “development”, leadership is a term that has been loosely defined and constantly misused. Just manage to crawl into a position of eminence, and all of a sudden, you are declared a leader. It does not matter if you bring to the job the attributes and attitudes of a follower. What matters is that you are sitting in an important office, deciding what others must do, and issuing instructions to subordinates. Your status as a leader is confirmed once you are granted access to councils at which key decisions are made. It gets even better when you are followed around by a press corps looking for scoops and photo-ops.
On a serious note, leadership is a concept that has sparked lively academic debates. To some, it is a static structure that means little outside the environment in which it is located. If this school of thought is right, leadership is a captive, not the molder, of the environment. As it so happens, others see leadership differently, specifically, as the nerve center at which a particular society’s or an organization’s fortunes are plotted, shaped and determined. Whether you call it change or transformation, you are unlikely to proceed very far unless you dream big dreams and chart a course that takes you from one state to a preferred one. As my late boss, Professor Adebayo Adedeji once remarked, a leader without a vision is a fraud on society.
Viewed as a structure then, leadership is no more than a pecking order of positions located at the highest rungs of the socio-political and organizational hierarchy. This static approach conceptualizes leadership as positions that are assigned the rank, but not necessarily, the task, of visioning a better future for a community, a nation-state, a government department or a business enterprise. The structural view is one that finds favor in many parts of Africa, more so, as it places emphasis on who occupies what office, instead of who make happen those things which a people earnestly wish to see happen and interdict forces opposed to society’s peace and happiness.
Does the office make the leader?
For whatever it is worth, an example of a leadership “structure” is the range of make-or-break positions existing in traditional societies, notably, those of hereditary rulers, titled citizens and notables, custodians of society’s moral values, medicine men, shamans and water diviners. In a modern society, leadership positions in government will generally be those occupied by constitutionally mandated officials such as presidents, prime ministers, ministers, and senior career officials. By contrast, the leaders in a business enterprise will be the chair and members of company boards of directors, managing and executive directors, and senior professional managers. Opinion leaders are, as implied in the term, those shaping public opinions on wide-ranging subjects, or those leading civic action in various areas, all with the actual or implied intention of bringing about substantial change in the life and conditions of the people, mostly the weakest and voiceless sections of society. In academic settings, the leaders will be those depicted on the organization charts as each institution’s movers and shakers—be these ministers of education and their permanent secretaries, university presidents/vice chancellors, faculty deans and heads of departments, and the chairs and members of parents-teachers’ associations.
Leadership and the vision of a better society
In contrast to the formalistic (and static) view of leadership is the dynamic, visionary and transformational ideal-type. Where the former portrays leadership as an aggregate of strategic posts and titles, the latter sees it as the critical functions that must be undertaken to make those things happen that a society earnestly hankers after, and to prevent occurrences which run counter to the collective will.
When viewed as an instrument of transformation, leadership leaves posts and offices in the background and brings upfront the vision of a better society. In other words, the dynamic view of the concept does not start with the posts to fill, to fight over, or to kill and die for. It starts with the tasks that must be performed if society is to be where it wants to be, that is, if it is to move from point A to point B, from perpetual fire-fighting and damage control to orderly, self-sustaining and generally beneficial change, and from a state of hopelessness to that of elation and optimism.
Who then is truly a leader?
We are unlikely to grasp the differences between the structural and the functional view of leadership unless we identify their distinguishing features. When conceived as a structure, leadership is all about positions, rituals, and appearances, and not about tasks, accomplishments, outcomes or substance. The mere occupation of a post that is perceived to be strategic, powerful, or otherwise, important, is what confers on one the title (if not the substantive or the moral authority) of a “leader”.
And this is where the problem lies. The focus on positions most frequently removes the very essence of leadership. It enthrones self-seeking power play and adventurism in place of real, visionary, leadership. It turns a serious business into, at best, child’s play, at worst, an uninhibited opportunity for the pursuit of self- or sectional interest. Focusing on rewards and not on performance and results, the opportunistic conception of leadership cannot but ignite or exacerbate inter-group and inter-personal power struggles. When leaders are not held accountable for specific outcomes, everyone will assume that what matters is incumbency of a “leadership” position, rather than the incumbent’s actual or potential contributions to growth. Where that is the prevailing orthodoxy, candidates eyeing leadership vacancies will leave nothing undone to gain possession of the prized objects. They will fly ethnic, religious, gender, or age kites, and will apply methods, fair and foul, to sway the final selection decisions (or election outcomes) in their favor. The free-for-all fights and controversies accompanying election primaries and top political appointments are symptoms of a deeper malaise—the failure to agree on benchmarks for leadership recruitment.
The dynamic, visionary conception of leadership does not totally reject the association of the concept with the aspiration for public office or for any office for that matter. However, it assumes that who gets what position would be determined, not by physical combat, but by a clash of visions and by the outcome of open and fair competition. In this regard, the clarity of each candidate’s vision or the superiority of each candidate’s qualification, is important. So is the ability to convince others (e.g., disciples, the masses, the electorate, and, for career leadership positions, appointing authorities) of the genuineness of a serving or prospective leader’s commitment to a cause. Other essential leadership competencies are the demonstration of the capacity to tackle a nagging problem, and the depth of the followers’ emotional attachment to the leader or to what s/he stands for (effectively summed up by the term, charisma) .
In a nutshell, the visionary leader distinguishes him/herself from myopic, self-seeking, transactional, leaders by the ability to grasp the challenges confronting a society or an organization fully, and to come up with innovative and effective remedies. Examples of the challenges are cultism on university campuses and within the putative leadership class, endemic corruption, rising incidence of crime, mass and graduate unemployment, terrorism, kidnapping, police brutality, and sundry threats to public order.
The aforementioned challenges rarely get the attention of the position-fixated “leader”. Where the visionary leader values service and citizen welfare, the transactional leader is interested solely in power and the perquisites of office. When s/he acquires the power, the transactional leader rules over his subjects, while his visionary counterpart governs in the interest of all. The visionary leader is sufficiently altruistic to care about others besides him/herself. S/he, at the very least, “stands for something”, mostly, the amelioration of the conditions of under-privileged, marginalized, or oppressed groups. The self-seeking “leader” may convey the impression that he cares for others, but deep down, s/he looks out for no interests except his/her own.
The narcissistic streak in the power-obsessed “leader” shows up at various stages. When canvassing for an important position, the entrepreneur-leader makes promises s/he very well knows s/he cannot fulfill. Standing for absolutely nothing (except personal survival and advancement), the self-obsessed “leader” switches party allegiances at will and as dictated by momentary power considerations.
Comportment in office further marks a visionary leader from his self-seeking counterpart. The visionary leader makes every effort to bring respectability to his office. Among other things, the visionary leader subscribes to the highest moral standards and to the norms underpinning the office’s credibility and integrity. S/he also eschews choices likely to bring the office into disrepute. To the self-seeking “leader”, the office is, by contrast, a pathway to corridors of power and decision chambers, a shield against “enemy attack”, an opportunity to reward loyalists and whip independent-minded individuals into line, and/or a detergent with which to launder a soiled image.
The visionary leader enjoys the followers’ spontaneous loyalty, thanks to the latter’s favorable rating of the leader’s strength of character, tenacity, judgment, and other unique attributes. The self-seeking leader may also engender strong emotional reactions from his/her followers. However, the followers’ loyalty to a self-seeking leader will depend on the leader’s dexterity in the alternation of the carrot and the stick, his/her continued hold on the power of patronage, and the followers’ inability or reluctance to wean themselves of dependence on a “beneficent”, “God-sent” leader. The inability to stand on one’s own feet may be due to ignorance of options and the reluctance may be dictated by short-term personal calculations. Whatever is responsible for the self-seeking leader’s hold on his followers cannot but make for the persistence of bad governance.
Leaders can also be identified by the effort each makes to proffer solutions to vexing problems. The visionary leader acknowledges that the knowledge and competencies s/he needs reside in others apart from him/herself. She therefore makes extra-ordinary effort to look for the best and the brightest. S/he does this by constituting think-tanks on various subjects, and by encouraging a free flow of ideas. For a self-seeking leader, this is asking too much. Ideas are threatening, in that they challenge the status quo, and may take the “leader” where s/he has no intention of going. The self-seeking leader stands for nothing except personal survival and prosperity. Completely disinterested in the vision of a better society, such a leader is most unlikely to look for the best and the brightest. He is far more likely to surround himself with flunkies and bootlickers. At any rate, the self-seeking leader wants to be in control, while brainy subordinates may be difficult to control.
What type of leaders are we?
We have taken snapshots of two types of leadership—the static one that places high premium on forms and appearances, in contrast to the other that highlights the dynamic, functional and substantive meanings of the concept. The next logical question is which type finds favor in Africa. What exactly is our definition of leadership? What do we expect our leaders to be and look like?
Generalizations tend to be misleading. For that reason, we have to be guarded in what we assert as emblematic of African conceptions of leadership. Africa, after all, is not a monolithic continent. It comprises nations in which visionary and transformational leaders co-exist with their transactional, mostly, self-seeking, opposite numbers. The continent that produces Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, and other visionary leaders, is also home to cynical, corrupt, self-seeking, sit-tight despots, godfathers, hate preachers, and ethnic supremacists.
Still, after making necessary allowances for diversity of perspectives and experiences, we can, without any fear of contradiction, affirm the preponderance of title-loving and power-obsessed “leaders” over their visionary, forward-looking and impact-oriented counterparts. There is no other explanation for the continent’s relative backwardness. If truth be told, the leaders whose task it is to lift the continent from the abyss of poverty and destitution to peace and prosperity are precisely those fighting over government and public service posts. If the cynics among them are not complaining of “marginalization”, they are likely to be caught exploiting ethno-religious and partisan political differences and fighting for the possession of “juicy” posts in government and allied agencies. While squabbling over “leadership” positions (and fanciful titles), the combatants are wont to forget, or turn blind eyes to, the rapidly unfolding and increasingly complex challenges (like those alluded to earlier). Those parading themselves as leaders do not care a hoot about perennial electricity power failure, water shortage, sundry threats to public order, the unemployment time-bomb, or the ravages of new and old pandemics. What they care about is holding key positions and looking important.
Interestingly, the masses, who should lead the charge for transformational leadership, are themselves busy hailing and actively promoting bad rulers and bad governance. Believing that their lot in life depends on who is there to root for them and “protect” their interests, howsoever defined, the masses queue up behind corrupt leaders, or behind individuals who, on the surface, appear capable of defending narrow, sectional, or purely personal interests—be it one’s religious belief, the advancement of particular kinship or ethnic agendas, or the enhancement of one’s chances of representing a zone or district at the highest levels of government. The transactional leaders, for their part, never pass up the opportunity to exploit the average citizen’s phobias and insecurities, that is, the unceasing quest for “protection”. They promote the average citizen’s dependency mentality by exploiting religious differences, fanning ethnic conflicts, cashing in on acrimony at the slightest opportunity, over-simplifying problems, and promising panaceas to every ailment.
African youths’ readiness for leadership
African youths generally believe that they are unjustly denied the opportunity to occupy leadership positions. They describe themselves as products of a digital age who are fully equipped to displace the analogs in the corridors of power.
Even if the youths are right, they are going about this problem the wrong way. By resting their case for the occupancy of offices on the mere fact of their age, they are repeating the mistake of the analog, self-seeking “leaders” whom they are trying to displace. In simple language, the youths are using age to buttress the culture of entitlement, just as their elders used incumbency to justify and entrench analog, self-seeking, sit-tight leadership at the expense of the visionary ideal-type.
The youths will be ready for leadership if and when they demonstrate the will to rise above ethno-religious acrimony and ponder win-win, holistic, solutions to vexing challenges. As participants on the current leadership training program, the questions you should be asking yourself are whether we have firmly grasped the essence of leadership in Africa, if those parading themselves as leaders are worthy of the appellation, when social science will get round to finding the correct term for the analogs so we stop calling them leaders, and what you, program participants, need to do to be acknowledged as bona fide leaders. If you are thinking of challenges to tackle and make your mark, you don’t have to look very far. Start with the challenges close to home—cultism on campuses, examination malpractices, corruption of values and institutions, sexual harassment, police brutality, and exertion of undue influence on public service recruitment agencies and processes. Begin to make an impact in any of these areas, and see how quickly you, the digital generation, will send the analogs adrift.
The accountability factor in leadership
Your task is of course not finished until you agree on mechanisms for holding your selves and other leaders accountable. Accountability goes beyond answering for the allocation of resources. It includes holding leaders and their subordinates accountable for the delivery of preferred and fairly specific outcomes. If you ever find yourself in top executive leadership positions (like President, provincial or state Governors, Mayors), you should insist on entering into performance contracts between yourselves and your lieutenants. This is one innovation that the analog leaders have so far resisted. It is one innovation you need in order to cement your reputation for digital, computer-age, leadership. It is one innovation that has delivered quick results in a number of African countries.
I thank you for your patience and attention. I also thank the Director-General of ASCON for giving me this opportunity to interact with you. May you all grow to be leaders with the will and the capacity to tackle Africa’s complex but actually surmountable challenges.