Nigeria and the False Notion of Leadership


By Gozie Irogboli…

The 57th edition of the trite annual ritual of marking what is supposed to be our day of freedom has come and gone by October 1st 2017 and as I reflected ruefully on our current political imbroglio, I remembered what Chinua Achebe of blessed memory once said about what he considered to be the problem of Nigeria, the recumbent African giant. In his epochal essay entitled: The Trouble With Nigeria, the erudite scholar had declared assertively that, “The Trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership”. Everybody agrees to this heroic assertion. Nigeria has not produced the right leadership that is needed to properly cement the disjointed fissures and ethnic cleavages, chart a common course and inspire the people towards the accomplishment of national goals.

The devastating effects of bad leadership are felt on every facet of our national life. There is unbridle corruption, undesirable culture of impunity, cronyism, nepotism, mediocrity, no clear national aspiration, lack of unity, mutual recrimination, poor national productivity etc. plaguing the soul of the nation.

But the pertinent question that rankles in the minds of every well-meaning Nigerian is: why is it difficult for the right leadership to emerge? The reason for this is not far-fetched. The Nigeria socio-cultural milieu has made it impossible for the right leadership to emerge. There is a close connection between the people and the types of leaders they produce as Joseph-Marie de Maistrethe French-Italian political philosopher and diplomat puts it over two hundred years ago: “every nation gets the leaders it deserves”.

Nigeria is a heterogeneous entity of over 170 million people and about 500 ethnic nationalities – something to cheer about. Unfortunately, that which is supposed to be its strength has become its worst weakness. The socio-cultural environment is polluted by ignorance, hypocrisy, hatred, mutual recrimination, ethnic irredentism and adverse socio-cultural atavism. Our decisions at personal and national levels are colored by hatred, creed and ethnic prejudice. We have people supporting injustice and promoting tyranny and oppression out of ignorance, hypocrisy, hatred and lack…By electing bad leaders and not holding them accountable and showing them solidarity even when they display crass incompetence and glaring injustices to the citizens, Nigerians are culpable in the crime of making and sustaining dysfunctional leadership.

Indeed, leadership like most terms and concepts is grossly abused and bastardized in Nigeria. The Nigerian notion of leadership is tinged by traditional dogma and military mentality by the Nigerian public. Leadership as it generally conceived is about influencing peoples’ behavior towards the attainment of shared goals or common aspiration. This means that the leader wields power. Power in this context is not force, coercion or excessive reliance on authority but ability earned through trust, style, skills or other rare attributes. What does the leader do? The leader influences, motivates, supports, develops, plans, and achieve goals. A Leader, creates vision and strategies, effectively communicates goals, seeks commitment from his people, and builds teams and coalitions for the purpose of goal attainment. And the followers are usually motivated by the passion or the genuine commitment of the leader to pursue and achieve the shared goals. People are usually demotivated, and disenchanted when the leader abandons the common goals and hanker after parochial interests.

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Essentially, leadership is a process involving people, activity and mutual interaction, influencing people in the pursuant of common goals. Trait, skills and style approaches are the schematic ways scholars look at the concept of leadership. The trait approach emphasizes the attributessuch as, intelligence, self-confidence, integrity, sociability, determination, and emotional stabilityamong others which the leader is expected to have. It is believed that with these traits the leaderis able to influence his followers to achieve the desired goals. The traditional notion of leadership is that leaders are born with these leadership traits. The danger of believing that leaders are born is that it makes the so-called leaders arrogant; taking things for granted and ignoring efforts to sharpen their skills and latent potentials by learning.

Those who believed they were born to lead most of the time rely on authority to lead; what I call leadership by assumption – clinging to assumed noble ancestry or position. And the inherent dangers include lack of training, reliance on authority, impunity, patronage, illusion and unrealistic assumption. People who hold on to this belief place all emphasis on their rights and most often negate their obligations. Rights and privileges without obligation or responsibility are tyranny. History has shown that the ultimate destination of tyranny is failure. The current state of affairs in the country has made a complete mess of the born-to-rule hypothesis for what we have experienced in the past fifty years in the hands of those who lay claim to this antiquated theory is toxic and dysfunctional leadership that has ruined the nation.

However, over the years, the general views about leadership have evolved from mere emphasis on leader’s personality (traits) to other issues like the leader’s behaviors and capabilities. Thus, leadership can be appraised based not only on individual attributes, but on competencies (problem-solving skills) and leadership outcome (performance or goal accomplishment).

The style approach to leadership is about the behavior of the leader towards the followers and task accomplishment in different situations. By and large, the attitude of the leader in this regard is dependent on the situation. The behavior of an officer leading his troops to the war front may not be the same when he is leading them to the parade ground or to the armed forces games. In the style approach, some leaders are task oriented (more interested in goal accomplishment) while some are people oriented (more interested in relationship building). The most effective leader in the leadership grid is the one that combine both styles.

In the skills approach, leadership is seen as a skill-based process. The skill approach emphasizes the capabilities that make the leader more able to effectively influence his group. These skills can be latent, honed or learned. Skills and abilities can be learned and developed. Robert Katz, a Harvard scholar identifies technical, human and conceptual skills as the basic skills that make leaders effective. Technical skills have to do with competency. Leaders should have the right techniques and analytical tools to interpret situations. A man who does not know about Economics may find it difficult leading an economic team. In the contemporary fast-paced world, leaders are expected to be updated with current global trends in order to keep pace withthe environment. Outdated individuals would not understand issues and global contemporary trends and therefore may not be effective.

Human skills entail ability to work with others; being sensitive to the needs of others and people management entails: sincerity, openness, respect, discipline, engagement, fairness, justice and identifying with the people. A leader identifies and fraternizes with his people. A leader leads people and that means that he should be a team player. A leader who is not a team player creates divisions and barriers that destroy the team’s cohesion. Leaders do not just listen to the people they lead, they create platforms for such and make conscious effort to encourage their people to speak and make input in the decision making process. They create an interface for a healthy interchange of ideas and stakeholder engagement. A leader who does not tolerate dissent views will always live in self-delusion and failure.

A leader is a conflict manager. Leaders resolve conflicts effectively through peaceful means. The recommended tools for conflict management are: dialogue, conciliation, arbitration, reconciliation, adjudication, diplomacy, lobbying etc. The leader who depends on coercion solely as a means of conflict management is one bereft of intellect or one who has lost the moral right to lead. Those who rely on coercion are task masters and slave drivers. A leader who hates some of those he is supposed to lead is nothing but a slave master or at best a task master.

Conceptual skills have to with ideas and concepts; vision, strategies and policy issues. Conceptual skills enable leaders to envision future direction and articulate policies that are in sync with his mandate. Leaders are visionary; they are focused, articulate, goal-oriented andforward-looking, not myopic. Leadership is goal-oriented and leaders take decision consistent with the attainment of common goals. At the top level leadership, conceptual skills are the most important.

Generally, leadership is about making decisions consistent with task accomplishment and effective relationship management. Leadership decisions are guarded by defined principles of necessity, equity and fairness, not by sentiments or parochial considerations. In a multi-cultural setting, the decisions should be without personal biases and ethnic prejudice. Leaders take responsibility for their decisions and actions. It is a sign of humility and integrity and indication of willingness to learn. Those who do not take responsibility for their actions are not leaders at all but insincere opportunists. They are excuse-makers that are critical of others but seldom do self-examination. Ironically, those who shirk responsibility for their actions are the ones toquickly appropriate credit to themselves when things are right and apportion blames to others when things go awry.

Leaders are expected to be people of high integrity. A leader who does not believe in fairness and equity lacks integrity and cannot be trusted. Integrity is an ethical concept that has to do with principles of what is good or bad and right or wrong, fair and unfair, just and unjust. A leader is not ethical just because he claims to be. Ethical leadership is about shunning personal egoism and making sacrifice for general interest.
Without doubt, effective leadership is a necessity for growth and stability in every entity. People with valued leadership attributes are change agents but the impact of the ineffective leaders are felt in the negative direction. According to the findings of the GLOBE leadership project, ineffective leaders are ruthless, irritable, malevolent, dictatorial, asocial and egocentric.

In Nigeria, our notion of leadership is antiquated. Nigeria has a horde of hypocritical and selfish political elite with incredible bulimic tendencies, a credulous and disoriented public with unreasonable and senseless ethno-religious affiliations and a gang of self-seeking individuals masquerading as civil advocates and the result is lack of national cohesion and the political class is never held accountable for their actions. The Nigerian public sees the leader erroneously from ‘the strong man’ position. The strong man is that person who bulldozes his way into a position of authority and sustains his position by force or unconventional means. To the Nigerian people, one who is humble, tolerant and considerate is a weakling and a fool. But the one who is ruthless, harsh and inconsiderate is a leader. The one in position of authority sees himself as somebody who should be served rather the one to serve. The elected officers see and refer to his fellow countrymen as ‘ordinary citizens’ while they are the extra-ordinary citizens. They behave the way they like and make no effort to reach the electorates until during election time. They want to be feared and worshipped. They want to be the last man standing. That is why they deliberately make their people impoverished so that they can be manipulated. They do not want anybody to oppose them.

An important function of leadership is that of grooming succession. In the family, in the cooperate world and in the political spheres it is essential. But the Nigerian political leaders think only in terms of self perpetuation and when that is not possible, they would install their children or a puppet that they can remote control because they need someone who will cover up the mess they usually leave behind. This is why “godfatherism” syndrome is a dominant feature in the Nigerian political landscape.

A part of the flawed notion of leadership in Nigeria manifests in the voting pattern of the electorates. What matters most to the average Nigerian voter is ethnic affiliation. The personality, skills or the program of the candidate standing for an election are given little consideration. The late Mazi S. G. Ikoku once opined that some people in Nigeria are incapable of rising beyond ethno-regional politics and that when you bring a goat and adorn it in an ethnic garbs, he would win election in some regions.


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