07.12.2008 Feature Article

It's not just 'the leaders' (II)...

It's not just 'the leaders' II...
07.12.2008 LISTEN

In my previous article of the same subject (“It's not just 'the leaders' (I)…”, 24 November 2008), I set out the beginnings of an argument about our leadership failings as Ghanaians, and what I believe to be the root-causes. I outlined why our leaders alone aren't the problem, and why failure to recognise the true extent of the problem is an abdication of responsibility. We don't have the right systems to develop the right type of leaders, and I suggested the reasons for this failing – our values, rigid adherence to customs and traditions, weaknesses in our socio-political systems, and organised religion. In this follow-up, I explain the rationale behind my assertions.

The type of leadership we need…
I see 'leadership' as the ability to empower people and create an environment for them to develop and excel. It can manifest in many forms, but to me it is much more than just rhetoric, skilful oratory, or even charisma; it is the ability to genuinely and selflessly inspire, often by example and nearly always through servitude. This type of leadership is rare in our part of the world. It would be unfair of me to suggest that we don't have any good leaders at all, but our collective achievements to date suggest we don't have enough. We need a critical mass, and 'closet leaders' are of no use!

Failings caused by our values system…
'Values' as people's innermost beliefs and motivations, which drive their actions and the way they see and interact with the world. Just as individuals have a set of values, a collection of people – a community, an organisation, or an entire nation – can also have a set of values. These are shared beliefs developed and accrued over generations. Our values – as Ghanaians – are not conducive for effective development in today's world. While there are some elements that are wholesome and positive (e.g. family values), there are many which are not. In my view, these are the underlying causes of some of our most serious problems. Take, for instance, the way we 'value' the dead. We spend exorbitant sums of money on funerals which are protracted over days, while we neglect those among us (the living!) who need our help! I could probably write a whole book on our values system, but I will focus on what I believe is its single most damaging element – the way we define and measure success. Its implications are far-reaching, and I believe it has a hand in many of our failings, not just leadership.

An unfortunate example of leadership that we experienced – and seem to have assimilated – is that of Colonial rule. The Colonial Lords ruled with fear and a 'divide and conquer' philosophy. They were masters of all they surveyed, enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, and demanded total obedience and reverence (fear, actually). This model – due to the powerful image of 'success' that it portrayed – has probably and unwittingly become one of the key foundations of many of our aspirations and motivations. I often refer to this as 'Lordship Syndrome'. Its success is based on the principle of inequality; that others can't be Lords too, or the whole system breaks down! Many of us seem to want to be 'Lords' – to be revered, to command, and to dominate. The idea that we can all play an important role and make a difference wherever we find ourselves, seems lost on us! In practical terms, success means a couple of houses, a few cars, the customary wife, two to four kids, and probably several girlfriends. We often don't care how we come by these wants, and we are prepared to lie, cheat, steal, hurt, or even destroy ourselves – the ends justifying the means. During these developments, the female role has been continually undermined and underutilised.

Consequently, we don't have the sort of common and compelling vision that it takes to build a successful and thriving community. Our environments and systems are not designed to encourage the development of the most critical leadership attributes that we need – servitude, selflessness, and sacrifice. We have become selfish, greedy and myopic as a result. Our professed concern for each other seems to be largely superficial, and this has led to poor and worsening human development efforts over the decades.

Adverse contributions of our customs and traditions…
Our rigid adherence to customs and traditions makes us quite 'backward', in my view. I agree that culture and traditions are important differentiators, but I think following them too religiously limits our ability to change and improve things. Life's journey can be seen as driving a car. One looks forward to see where to steer. For me, rigid adherence to traditions would be like driving forward while looking backward. It is important to know where one has come from to help one's journey along, but we don't turn around and face backward.

Some of our old ways contradict the principles of equity, liberty, and change. They promote ideals which make us timid in the face of authority, and risk and change averse. This has made us custodians of the status quo, and is partly responsible for our stunted socio-economic development. More often than not, common sense gives way to tradition. I've lost count of the number of times I've been told “that's just the way things are” when I've dared to suggest improving some process or practice! This helps sustain and perpetuate the unsuitable and unaccountable leadership models of old. We also miss out on the valuable and necessary contributions of sections of our community – our women and our youth – because of the way we sideline them in the name of culture. The balance, compassion, energy, and varying perspectives that they could bring to our development agenda are often underutilised.

Weaknesses in our socio-political systems and institutions…
Imperfection is a human affliction; a fact of life. It is something we need accept and be honest about. For many of us, our own desires and interests are centre-stage and most other things are relegated to the background. For effective human coexistence, we need rules, laws and governance systems. These serve as the 'controls' or 'checks and balances' to help us do the right things and prevent us from falling prey to our human weaknesses and desires. Without these and associated sanctions our existence would be chaotic, and many of us would probably unthinkable things. Even in 'advanced' communities, the result of 'controlling' systems failure is often chaos. We only have to look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the power-outage in New York of a few years ago to see examples of this.

We still have very immature socio-political and governance systems. Our 'checks and balances' are unfit for purpose as there is little accountability. It is therefore not surprising when those in positions of power end up abusing their authority. It's the result of them falling victim to their weaknesses, in the absence of proper controls and accountability. I know people who – very honestly – admit that they would do the same if they found themselves in similar situations; many of us would too! Our challenge here is to build robust socio-political systems to 'check' our excesses. As the popular expression goes, “turkeys don't vote for Christmas”! Those who enjoy the benefits of an immature, unaccountable governance system are unlikely to want to change it for the better. This is evident from the way politicians vow to bring about greater transparency and accountability when they are in opposition, but seem to have had brain transplants the minute they get into power.

Exacerbation by organised religion…
Africans tend to be quite superstitious. I think our natural spirituality and our continued search for answers to the age-old questions of 'where we came from' and 'where we're going' probably have something to do with this. As a result, we tend to quickly and easily accept any notion of the supernatural; even where there are 'real world' explanations, we're quick to conjure up supernatural meanings! It is little wonder that organised religion – of all shades – has done so well on the continent. This propensity to the supernatural also contributes to our culture of mediocrity, because anything that is outstanding is automatically shoved into the supernatural 'pigeon-hole'.

One principal method that some religious movements have used to further their ends has been the idea that it is wrong to question the doctrines. Followers are asked to put a hundred percent blind faith into the teachings – no questions, no dissent. As a Christian, I believe in 'faith' and understand the need for it, but I also believe that God has given us brains and free-will for a reason. I think it is important that we question and challenge, and develop appropriate mechanisms to 'check' our religious leaders. I've often wondered why some people feel the need to 'defend' God – to the extent that they will even kill. God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient and He is quite capable – in his own ways – of 'defending' Himself. These people are in fact defending their own positions, choices, and ignorance. This aspect of organised religion exacerbates our people's inability to develop appropriate behaviours and limits free thought and adventurism. They compound our cultural and traditional practices, which we then apply in other areas of our lives – our homes, our work-places, and inevitably, our politics! Those to get into leadership positions think theirs is to tell others what to do, and conversely, those who are being led feel it is not right for them to question or challenge.

Developing a better leadership pool…
It is often said that half of the solution to any problem is identifying the real problem, and this has been one of my primary intentions. What Ghana – and probably 'Black Africa' as a whole – needs is “captains all over the pitch”. We need many more patriotic and sacrificial leaders. The proper way to achieve this would be a long-term strategy involving a set of programmes and initiatives that would address the root-causes and attempt to reverse the impact they've had. This must include a series of concerted and coordinated educational initiatives – using available channels such as television, radio, schools, the Internet etc. – with the ultimate goal of developing a common and compelling vision for our country. The problem with this approach, however, is viability. Widespread acceptance and the required commitment would be difficult to come by, due to the duration and cost.

In spite of this, I believe there are things we can do now to help us along:

  • We need to revamp our educational systems to be more purposeful, broader in scope, and more practical. Our old, classical and theory-based systems are no longer suitable for the challenges of the modern world. We also need to examine our educational syllabus and cleverly infuse elements of patriotism and leadership within them.
  • Our press and media houses should promote the ideals of togetherness, equity, and liberty. They ought to 'teach' messages of patriotism, peace, and leadership – rather than the personal and divisive views of some quarters, which are not conducive to progress and development. It is important for our people to understand that progress can only come when we all contribute to it, and when we realise that we all have a part to play.
  • We must take every opportunity to highlight the efforts of successful role-models – those among us who exercise exemplary leadership and sacrifice – for all to see, and not glorify those who have attained their wealth and power using dubious and illegitimate means.
  • We need to invest more in human development initiatives – particularly for our youth – instead of the vast sums we spend on unnecessary showing-off (e.g. huge houses, funerals, the latest cars etc.).
  • Those among us who have 'made it' should mentor and coach some of our young people as part of their contribution to the country that made them! Many of these people have had free education, scholarships, and many other forms of benefits and opportunities from the State, but have given very little back in return.
  • We need to start seeing the beauty and value in artefacts that are quintessentially African, and reduce our insatiable appetites for everything 'western'!
  • We need to stop treating our women like second-class citizens and enable them to contribute more fully – like only women can – to our development agenda.
  • As the old cliché goes: 'charity begins at home'. I challenge all Ghanaians to examine their values and motivations, and their contributions to the motherland. We all need to 'be the change we seek' rather than pointing our fingers elsewhere. We don't have to wait to get into political office or become CEO of a multinational to exercise good leadership or to make a difference, and we don't have to wait for someone else to take the lead. Opportunities to lead and make a difference are rife and all around us – in our homes, in our places of work, and through our interactions with others. To conclude, I would like to suggest to all readers that what made Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela the historical greats that they are, is the fact that they had the conviction of their beliefs and the courage to act on them – even in the face of ridicule, incarceration, or death! In our mortal human existence, the only way to achieve immortality is to do something that touches or benefits people. Let's complain less, and let's lead and do more!

    Comments welcome at [email protected]