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Let old wisdoms guide new leaders

Aug 21, 2022 Leadership, Sunday Nation

Our tumultuous Kenyan elections are (mostly) done, and a whole spectrum of fresh leaders has emerged across the land—the usual controversies notwithstanding. We have many more women, many younger folks, many new faces in leadership positions. This is to be applauded. We have, yet again, the opportunity to reboot the nature of our leadership. Will we take it?

Let us this Sunday gather some wisdom to share with the new flock of leaders. What is it that makes leaders good and great, rather than just mediocre and ineffective?

Let’s begin with these excellent words from Imam Ali: “A just leader is better than abundant rainfall.” Emerging as it does from a desert setting, this advice carries extra meaning. All parched communities pray for rain; this wisdom asks us to instead pray for our leaders to be just. This is because good leadership really matters. It is one of the most powerful ways to achieve uplift in the human collective; and yet we continue to get it wrong.

What might a just leader look like? The one who truly serves the collective, without fear or favour; the one who is fair and even-minded and impartial; the one who is not trapped in special interests and favouring just an elite group; the one who feels the sting of injustice on behalf of others; the one who acts with conviction and determination when the cause is righteous.

Such wisdom is not new; it is age-old. The idea of servant leadership is thought of as relatively new in management circles, but here is Mark 10:43-44 in the Bible “…whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave to all.” 

A remarkable teaching: those who wish to be great must learn to serve, not to command and coerce and bamboozle; and those who wish to be above the others must be their slaves! I say it to leaders I advise all the time: this thing called leadership that you yearn for is no piece of cake; it is a set of shackles that will be placed around your legs. You will be trapped, for you will have assumed the responsibility for the betterment of others. Do not take it lightly!

The Hindu Gita spells out some more qualities, advising that the best amongst us is the one “who is incapable of hatred towards any human being, who is kind and compassionate, free from selfishness, without pride, equable in pleasure and in pain, and is forgiving.” Let us understand why these qualities are so important in leadership. Hating other humans makes us unjust; kindness makes us able to feel what our followers feel; selfishness makes us narrow in our interests and actions; pride makes us egotistical and prone to bravado and fatal error; equability keeps us calm and centred; and forgiveness releases us from resentment and makes us able to deliver gains for all.

Wisdom in leadership is not a new set of learnings; it is rooted in all the spiritual traditions of the world. And yet. We have to repeat these teachings again and again because our experience of leadership is often the exact opposite. Bitter, vengeful leaders. Selfish, narrow-minded leaders. Proud, arrogant leaders. Weak, feeble leaders.

Is there any possibility that any of our new stable of ministers and governors, representatives and technocrats, will pay any attention at all to these deeper lessons? Let’s be real: most will not. But that is no reason to give up. The path of enlightenment is slow and arduous and full of reversals and failures. But it is the only path of any meaning, and we must try to walk it.

A better way to get to the destination is not to wish for the messianic wisdom of individuals; it is to build the power of institutions. Just leaders are not the ones who dish out justice in their time; rather, they are the ones who build the systems and processes of justice, so that it can be served by others. Servant leaders are not only those who make a show of serving; they are the ones who inspire service through their example, and by changing the rewards and incentives of leadership.

So, as newcomers pick up the mantle, let them be ready to be judged by their flock. We should hold them accountable—not just on the surface measures of success, such as GDP and inflation—but on the deeper drivers of longer-term wellbeing. We should judge them on the structures and mechanisms they leave behind.

To do this takes a lot of insight, and a lot of hard work. Some of those who have won important elections have already shown a great sense of strategy, and the ability to pull off a ground-game of effective execution. Let them now bring their brains—and hearts—to the business of betterment.

(Sunday Nation, 21 August 2022)

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Picture credit: Aaron Burden on Unsplash (adjusted)