Tuesday, February 27, 2018


In the last fortnight the issue of leadership has really come into the fore.

In South Africa Jacob Zuma stepped down from the presidency, more like he was forced out kicking and screaming by his erstwhile allies. During his term he has blighted the notion that an African leader handed an emerging economy to manage can shed his baser instincts and run a tight ship.

Closer to home, disturbing, but not surprising, noises have been raised about our handling of refugees. Only last year the world was in awe of us. How as a poor country we were managing to handle a historic influx of refugees, up to a million from South Sudan alone. It turns out of course that that number might have been grossly overstated for the purpose of skimming, more like shovelling, the excess funds to connected individuals in the Office of the Prime Minister (them again?) and related UN and donor agencies. An investigation is ongoing but everyone is seating tight.

In Ethiopia prime minster Hailemariam Desalegn resigned following a wave of mass protests around the capital Addis Ababa. It was a classic case of, if you give them an inch they will take a mile. 

Previously to the recent protests the Ethiopian government had released hundreds of political prisoners to ease mounting pressure. But as soon as they were released protests begun calling on Adis Ababa to release more. Desalegn, might have stuck his neck out, betting that by releasing some prisoners the tension would ease and when it didn’t, and in fact mounted, he jumped – or was he pushed out?

Leadership is not for the fainthearted. On one extreme side of the pendulum are the leaders – rare indeed, who with former US president Harry Truman profess that “The buck stops here” or on other side of the pendulum, the leaders who will take all the credit for all the good but no responsibility for any of the bad that happens in their time.

Whether one tends towards one side or the other is a function of their upbringing, mentoring and world view.

The moralists would like to believe it is a cut and dried subject. You are either one or the other, with no space for grey in between. But such people have often not had authority or leadership placed on their shoulders.

Imagine you become a leader. Say of Wakanda.

 Up to this point your credentials – academic, moral and reputation are beyond reproach.
The first thing you realise is that to get anything down you need power, the ability to influence people and events, without which you cannot bring your vision to life. But you also discover that you will not be allowed to go about your business unmolested. There are plans to unseat you no sooner have you assumed the throne, and not only from the official opposition. Even from within your own ranks. External agitators will not be left out too.

"Despite your best intentions in an effort to retain power, you may be forced to get dirty, doing or sanctioning actions you would never have dreamed of. And it is very possible that your desire to stay in charge even compromises your ability to achieve your program...

The longer you go down the murky road, the more you lose touch with reality, up to the point where like Zuma, you protest that you see no wrong you have done.

Meanwhile all of us standing on the sidelines wonder why you don’t resign and are shocked you show no remorse.

To avert the above scenario, what if you became a leader. But when faced with the above scenario, of needing to cling to power to manifest your vision, you instead choose to sell your vision far and wide, in the hope that a critical mass of your people will internalise it, so much so that, if the need arises you can step down, safe in the knowledge that your mission will be completed without you.

But as was pointed out to me, the same mechanism that propels one to leadership, the ego, would not allow such an act of selflessness. The ego demands that you take credit for your achievements, stepping down is not an achievement that seats well with the ego. So you soldier on convinced that you are doing good work and the moral questions are but a distraction. And at another extreme would argue that the end justifies the means.

Of course in our thought experiment above we assume that the leaders in question have goals beyond their own self-aggrandizement or enrichment.

"This in no way justifies why leaders, at every level of society,  behave the way they do, but is a partial explanation, a rough psychoanalysis of their motives, which may help in understanding and even dealing with them....

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