Leadership in a Time of Change

As Nigerians usher in an era of change, we need a leadership that is crafted for such a time as this.


BuhariIt is hard to define leadership but we know it when we see it. But as Lord Bryce reminds us “perhaps no form of government needs great leaders as much as democracy” because it takes leadership to bring democracy to life. Democracy is now the dominant form of government in the world. Many years ago, the globalisation of democracy and the decapitation of dictatorships began in Portugal and later swept through Spain and Greece. This democratic wave spread to other totalitarian states from the communist regimes of Eastern Europe to the military juntas in Latin America leading to successful political transitions. Even sub-Saharan Africa have experienced its own episodes of democratic transitions during the period, most conspicuously the end of apartheid in South Africa and the termination of military autocracy in Nigeria.

The democratic content of these neo-democratic nations vary but the values of a liberal democracy are unchangeable: free and fair elections, respect for the rule of law, separation of powers, virile opposition and strong institutions like an independent judiciary, impartial electoral body, competent police force and organised political parties. Democracy orthodoxists have no difficulty nonetheless in according primacy to the inalienable power of the citizens to remove ineffectual incumbents by a majority (or plurality) of voters in periodic elections as the ultimate democracy premium and this is at the heart of democracy’s claim to be the only legitimate form of government.

To sustain democracy will continue to depend on the ability of democratic governments to fight corruption, implement sound economic policies, improve the capacity and professionalism of the state, advance human liberties, manage intra-national conflicts, protect minority rights, eliminate income inequality and eradicate poverty.

It is noteworthy that on its part, democracy affirms the inevitability of change. But, what does change really mean in a democratic society? It means overcoming stagnation, breaking down the braking mechanism of progress and giving it greater dynamism, creating a dependable and effective mechanism for accelerating social, political and economic development. It is the continuous encouragement of initiative and creative thinking, the improvement of order and discipline. Change means working towards a closer unity between words and deeds, rights and duties. It is the constant quest to create a balance between pragmatism and idealism. Today, we are, once again, in a time of change which goes a long way to prove that our democracy has come to stay.

But the continuous legitimacy of democracy depends on leadership and this explains why countries like the United States of America, Great Britain, France, India, Botswana, Mauritius, among many others with a history of liberal democracy have recorded high levels of growth and transformation over long periods of time. So we in Nigeria have to respond to the challenge of leadership – good leadership – in order to avoid the multiple malignancies of kleptocracy, policy illiteracy and the abuse of power. It is safe to conclude that leadership in a democracy is therefore the art of fostering and managing change in the service of a free society. So, what does such leadership do? How does it work?

In Wordsworth’s Preface to the 1815 edition of his poems, the famous commentator on the French Revolution lists the powers requisite for the production of poetry and they are very applicable to leadership, especially in a time of change. The first requirement on the list is Observation – the ability to observe with accuracy things as they are in themselves to know whether the things depicted be actually present. Next, Reflection, which teaches the value of actions, images, thoughts and feelings; and assists the sensibility in perceiving their connection with each other. Then Imagination to modify, to create and to associate. Then Invention, and finally Judgment, to decide how and where, and in what degree, each of these faculties ought to be exerted. These requirements when applied to the highest level makes a great leader – the only proof of which is the act of doing well what is worthy to be done, and what was never done before.

In a time of change, the leader is the victim of emergency, the prisoner of crisis, the servant of deadlines and has a set of qualities – humility (leaders must humbly accept that their own perspectives need to be broadened by others), energy, vision, perspective, passion, compassion, conviction and a capacity for continuous learning. Good leaders in democracy should have a unique state of mind. They have to offer (in the words of Ndidi Nwuneli) “incentives to inspire people through vision”, communicate this vision in a language that promotes the tone of politics and mobilise masses of people towards the vision. Once in government, they espouse the ethic of good governance by avoiding hubris, developing a governing philosophy, tolerating difference and dissent, building institutions and encouraging consensus.

Leaders in a time of change take decisions as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. puts it with “absolute clarity – no ambivalence, no fear, no reservations just courageous clarity, however matched by patience, candour and a healthy respect for the vicissitudes of history”.

Successful leaders in a time of change have a nose for opportunity and a knack for knowing who to tap to get things done. This depends on a set of skills that non-leaders rarely possess. To achieve it, they create and use a network, fabric of personal contacts, who will provide support, feedback, insight, resources and information. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “creating an elite of virtue and talent”.

According to Fernando Cardoso, “(leaders) no longer seem to derive their legitimacy from upholding the ‘right’ cause or ‘fighting the good fight’, but from doing a good job of delivering what their constituents want and expect. Today’s motto is not ‘what to do’, but ‘how to do it’ in the most efficient and cost-effective manner possible. Yet this in no way implies that values or ethical considerations do not matter to public agency. ….This is why it is so important that the ‘modern prince’ should have a republican turn of mind and a clear view of the ultimate values that political decisions should promote. Otherwise, the prince risks being held hostage by corporatist interests.”

He goes on to write that “for a leader to safeguard national interests and achieve national goals, there is an additional requirement. Updated knowledge, republican values, and a good deliberative process, important though they are, may not be enough to produce a successful statesman. The missing quality is what Isaiah Berlin identified as the capacity for good ‘political judgment’. This entails not only the discernment to avoid the opposite risks of impractical idealism and uninspiring realism, but also the practical wisdom to grasp the character of a particular situation or moment in history and to seize the opportunities or confront the challenges that it presents. It is the capacity to reach into the chaotic flow of experience and sift out what matters, to see what fits with what, what springs from what, and what leads to what. It is a sense for what is qualitative rather than quantitative, a proven capacity for synthesis rather than analysis. Those who lack this gift, no matter how clever, learned, imaginative, and noble they may be, lack the sense of what will make a difference in history and what will not. One may add that while political judgment always matters, it matters even more so at times of transition. It is true that in democracies, all moments are in some way transitional, for democracies are constantly reinventing themselves. Yet no moment is perhaps so critical as that of democratic consolidation, when progressive trends struggle daily with regressive ones…”

As Tony Blair observes, a leader’s desire for impact too often obscures the value of balance. But he warns that “a leader has to calibrate leadership and public opinion, be out in front of it, but not too much so. He or she has to judge sentiment finely, but making his judgment is hard if you’re governing by Twitter feed. Social media is exciting and can effect real and positive change, but it is also the domain of the loudmouth – and those who shout loudest don’t necessarily deserve to be heard most.”

Leadership is not about the exercise of power. Without leadership, power dies at the end of its own channels of command. Power gets its way but leadership makes its way. Leaders in a time of change gain assent not just obedience, attract a following not just an entourage, have imitators not just subordinates. Leadership in a time of change is a public transaction with history.