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Democracy and transformational leadership

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By Obadiah Mailafia

TODAY, our ship of state seems to be careening from side-to-side under a tumultuous, overcast sky. My brief remarks this morning centre on transformational leadership in a democracy and why it matters for our future.

Obasanjo, Yaradua, Jonathan and Buhari

It is my conviction that leadership makes all the difference. Leaders set the tone, exercise influence and mobilise people, ideas and technology for positive national transformation. They not only master the art of command; they call the shots and follow-up to ensure rigorous implementation of national policies.

In the words of John Quincy Adams, one of the Founding Fathers of the American Republic: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, and do more and become more, you are a leader”. Harvard Business School professor Warren Bennis, in his famous book, On Becoming a Leader, identifies self-knowledge to be 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”.

President Theodore Roosevelt, one of the greatest leaders of the American republic, loved the ancient counsel for African kings, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick”. Great leaders talk softly but wield a big stick. They always appeal to higher ideals and values – changing 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.

Eight qualities define the transformational leader.

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. Character often goes with charisma.

The German sociologist, Max Weber, famously underlined charisma as the foundational element that makes leaders stand out from the crowd — that personal magnetism that makes others want to trust and do the bidding of the leader. A healthy life-style and good grooming enhance the image of the transformational leader.

Secondly, transformational 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 they espouse. The American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., was deeply 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.

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 Obafemi Awolowo to Nelson Mandela, the greatest leaders 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”. Leaders are people who are continually learning. They tend to be of an objective bent of mind. Whilst remaining faithful to personal principles, they are willing to succumb to superior argument if logic and evidence are compelling.

Sixthly, leaders are men and women of courage. Sooner or later, every human being will come across one form of adversity or the other. The late Harvard psychoanalyst and organisational theorist, Abraham Zaleznik referred to ‘born again leaders’ as those leaders who have gone through the crucible of adversity and have emerged out of it the stronger and wiser.  In the words of Nelson Mandela: “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”.

Seventh, leaders have mastery over the context in which they operate. Their feet are always firmly rooted on the earth. They are ‘organic intellectuals’ in the sense understood by the Italian Marxist-revolutionary philosopher Antonio Gramsci. They not only learn from their environment; they apply those lessons to bettering the nations that they lead.

Lastly, leadership entails the pursuit of excellence as a life-long objective and commitment. Excellence, according to the philosopher Aristotle, is a state of mind. Excellence is about continually improving yourself in all areas; in intellect, soul and body. Centuries of oppression and humiliation have broken the spirit and confidence of the African people. We have been made to believe that we came into this world to be spectators and that we would forever remain on the margins of world history and civilisation.

As a counter to this pernicious ideology, Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah long ago espoused the ideal of African Personality. His vision was that we Africans must embrace excellence in all we do. Sloppiness or shoddiness must never be entertained. We must never settle for low quality because we are Africans. We must continually strive for the best and aim for the best. Nothing but the best is good enough for Africa.

The young people of our beloved country have been described as lazy and indolent – never working hard and demanding freebies. On the contrary, the young people of Nigeria that I know are hard working, charitable and generous. When given the right opportunities, they excel in whatever they lay their hands on.

I therefore use this opportunity to appeal to the young people of this great country of ours to rise up and be counted. Let us begin today. Never limit yourself. Never under-estimate your God-given powers. The greatest danger that can ever befall a young man or woman is to not have a clearly defined goal whatsoever in life. You cannot afford to be an aimless drifter. Know your destiny and be clear about your life’s goals.

Above all, learn to think for yourself. The greatest gift we have as human beings is the ability to think. The British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell famously noted that most people would sooner die than think. Thinking is the most noble quality of the human spirit. Rote learning is useless. Imitation is suicide. Therefore, learn to think for yourself.

It was the American President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy who famously declared: “Ask not what your country can do for you; rather, ask what you can do for your country”. Out of the travails of the moment, a New Nigeria will emerge — a land of hope and glory. We will not only triumph; we will prevail.

(Being Text of a Lecture Delivered at the Abuja People & Power Conference Held at National Merit House, Abuja, Thursday 26 April 2018).

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