There is a strange ritual we are getting too familiar with. Every year we commemorate the death of one or another struggle hero, as we should. Instead of celebrating their contribution, however, we lament their passing and wonder aloud how much better life could have been had they not died.
We do this as a complaint against what we perceive to be poor and unethical leadership in various spheres of society.
This ritual is a futile fantasy we use to escape the responsibility of solving our own problems. Apart from never waking up, we also have no guarantee that our dead heroes would not have morphed into something we equally detested once they ascended to power. They can do no more about challenges than we can. The dead must be left in peace.
If it is true that nations get the leaders they deserve, then we must accept that we have exclusive dominion to do something about the quality of leadership we have. Public leaders do not fall from the sky but are born and bred of the societies they lead. In a democracy they are generally an accurate reflection of the best aspirations of the people that elected them. It is dishonest in the extreme to complain about the tendencies of those in power when they did not impose themselves to begin with.
The first step in changing the nature of our leadership is to define precisely the kind of individual society should nurture. In this context the individual is the most critical unit in society for two reasons.
The first is that even when part of a group is constituted with the best intentions, individuals will conduct themselves in a way that destroys public trust in that group or institutions if their socialisation is the antithesis of society’s aspirations.
Secondly, it is individual qualities that set leaders apart from the rest and good leaders from bad.
No society wants to be led by a fool because objectively everyone knows the disastrous consequences the reign of a fool will bring. As philosopher Bertrand Russell said early in the last century, powerful fools preside over societies where the intelligent become the enemy.
“A society will be produced in which all the important positions will be won by those whose stupidity enables them to please the herd. Such a society will have corrupt politicians, ignorant schoolmasters, policemen who cannot catch criminals and judges who condemn innocent men. Even if it inhabits a country full of natural wealth, it will in the end grow poor from inability to choose able men for important posts.”
Russell also observed that notwithstanding the number and grandiosity of monuments foolish rulers erect in tribute to freedom of man, their insecurities will cause them to persecute the very people whose ideas might save their societies from disaster.
Secondly we need to structure our institutions and rules of selecting leaders in a way that limits the possibility of incompetents, rogues and wolves in sheep’s clothing from ascending to commanding heights in our country. For instance, we get rogue captains of industry because the individuals responsible for either selecting or working with them are themselves either compromised or do not care about protecting the public. It is for the same reason we have senior police officers who commit crime.
In addition to electoral reform, we need to revive our relationship with meritocracy. There are people in our republic who peddle a false theory that only political consciousness is required to hold positions of enormous responsibility. They argue that no one leader acts alone but is always part of a collective. They say it is not necessary to make an objective assessment of whether leadership candidates are up to the task to which they aspire to be appointed. The sooner South Africans see this theory for the pale-faced lie it is, the better.
It is extremely naive to appoint officials and public representatives to portfolios they have no reasonable prospect of managing effectively. If we continue to do that, then we might as well appoint cardiologists as detectives.
Third, we must choose leaders who welcome openness and significant access to information for those they lead or affect. At a political level, it is difficult to make informed political choices when citizens do not have good access to government information. That is why citizens must always be vigilant when politicians propose measures whose aim is to limit access to information.
The same is true for corporate organisations who lack the transparency that would make their shareholders and customers know that their trust is not misplaced.
Finally, we need to rediscover the immense value of inspirational leadership. This is founded on three critical principles.
The first is a personal ethos that shines above that of many ordinary members of society. The values expressed by a leader must not only challenge citizens to pursue positive endeavours in every aspect of their lives, but must also be visible in the leader’s action. Leaders whose actions contradict what they preach sow confusion and lead to the lessening of the values that should be held dear.
The second is an ability to propose a clear vision of the future that excites citizens and galvanises them into action.
Visions go beyond the five-year plans usually presented at election time and relate to goals that will transcend generations. They help found legacies.
Third, they need a gift of expression that enables them to connect with citizens across many social and political fissures.
Leadership does not have to be defined by political office. Leadership is equally important to business, civil society, the civil service and other segments of the country. The qualities required of those who play a leadership role in all of these are exactly the same, and every attribute of leadership expressed here applies to all of them.
What SA needs to seriously grapple with is how to lessen the possibility of compromised individuals taking the helm in all the different sectors of our society. If we aspire to global recognition and to leaving a mark of leadership on the African continent, we have to ensure that we get our leadership equation right – all the time.
Lamenting after departed leaders who may or may not have continued to inspire us will get us nowhere.