Leaders: why meaning well is not enough

Popular, especially progressive leaders, love to advertise their virtues. But is meaning well enough?

There is a quick and easy way of assessing the leaders around
you, and I focus here on leaders in politics and government (local, city,
provincial, state or national) but what I will be saying applies equally to
leaders in other spheres. You ask: does this leader mean well? In other words,
does this leader pursue the broad public interest in all things rather than
interests that are personal, or ethnic, racial or sectarian? Most of us can
answer that question firmly about the leaders around us that we have observed
for some time. In which case, you are unlikely to disagree with the following
assertion. Although all leaders claim to mean well, in the world today a growing
number of leaders at different levels in many countries do not mean well at
all.

Yet some of these leaders have a supreme skill. They have figured out
how to control their political communities. They have mastered their arenas.
They have become dominant and dominating political players. Their reigns
endure, their wills prevail, and their opponents discover the true meaning of
suffering. Note that there is hardly an instance in which these leaders started
out in a dominant position. They worked their way to that status. They read the
context correctly, formed cynical alliances, ruthlessly exploited the
vulnerabilities of other players in the system, and, gradually, the system
succumbed.

In the second category are the
leaders around you that you love and trust. You are firmly convinced that they
mean well. Some are luminous and charismatic. People hang on their every word.
Your context, your call. But are these leaders that you believe mean well any
good at getting things done? You might love your Mayor, for instance, but if
there is a housing shortage in your city or an eruption of violent crime, is
she making a difference? Has refuse collection improved? Are schools getting
better at educating the young ones in the city? I live in London and these are
a few of the relevant questions right now.

There are at least four reasons why a
leader meaning well is not enough. First, it is paralyzingly difficult to know
the social and economic challenges that a leader can tackle successfully, given
the right amount of sagacity and skill, and those challenges that are simply
too deeply entrenched to be fixable during the four- or five-year term in
office of a leader. Say, for instance, you are the Mayor of Sicily in Italy and
you believe that the Mafia control the waste disposal business, can you kick
them out and improve delivery? Would that be a challenge you should commit to?

Second, reality is complex, and politics
everywhere is a brutal business with a lot of shin kickers. Just because a leader
means well and wants to do real and permanent good does not mean that power or
veto players in the system will meekly line up behind the change desired. For instance, I have spent most of my life in
three political systems: Nigeria, the United States and Great Britain. In each
case, the relentless selfishness of governing elites is a constant despite how
vastly different these polities are in other ways.

There is a third reason: we the
people, the citizens. As the economists finally claim to have realized (or
discovered!) human behaviour is only occasionally rational. We are unpredictable.
Each one of us contains multitudes. Which is why public opinion is notoriously
fickle yet leaders keep trying to figure out what we think about an issue, what
we want, how we are likely to react to different policy reforms and so on.

And finally, you have the biggest
crooked stick in the fireplace: events. Leaders make their plans,
build in supposedly informed assumptions, then …BOOM. Life happens. A terrorist
attack, a tsunami, an epic fire, civic insurrection or some other such
unforeseen event. And suddenly all assumptions collapse, and all bets are off.
What then? What does the leader do now?

Therefore, while it is crucial that
leaders mean well if they cannot be effective despite the four factors I have
just described, well, what is the point? Of what use are these leaders, really?

In my experience, there are two types
of leaders who claim to mean well that I do not trust. I do not trust effete shouters
of blazing eloquence. And I do not trust technical experts suddenly thrust into
leadership positions. For they usually think technically sound reforms are also
feasible ones. In contrast, there are only two types of leaders who claim to
mean well that I take seriously. I trust proven
battlers with broken noses and cauliflower ears. (Dwell on the image
please!) And I trust unproven leaders who have this pedigree: they have shown
in other arenas that they are tough, calm, thoughtful and deliberative. While
there are no guarantees, such leaders are likely to survive the inevitable
firestorms of political battle and find a way to be effective.

And that – effectiveness under real
world conditions -- is what it is all about.


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