Tuesday, 12 November 2013

(79): “Seven lessons of leadership”: An overview (I)

Let me start by saying that the title of this contribution is not mine. It is the title of a chapter in the book Eye Witness to Power written by Professor David Gergen. Certainly if you watch CNN and perhaps other American networks, Professor David Gergen may not be new to you. He is one of the leading pundits on American politics. So what is interesting about this gentleman? Well he is basically what in countries like Nigeria would be called AGIP (any government in power), but perhaps David Gergen is not the typical AGIP, as his approach to politics may be different from what we know in other countries.

I came across the book under discussion in 2008 during a conference in Boston organised by the American Political Science Association (APSA). After purchasing the book, I met a former Nigerian minister at the house of a friend, who by coincidence was pursuing a postgraduate degree at Harvard University, and was taught by Professor Gergen. After a brief discussion about the book, while enjoying the hospitality of our host, who provided a superb tuwon shinkafa and miyar taushe (pounded rice and vegetable soup), which even as a Bakano (someone from Kano), I must confess that I enjoyed the delicious food provided by our host from Zaria, whose house has become an assembly point for Nigerians in Boston.

The former minister said Eye Witness to Power is a must read for everyone trying to understand the challenges of leadership. I couldn’t wait longer to finish the book. I do not necessarily agree with everything that Professor Gergen said in the book, especially his comparison of Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. But the meat of the book is in the last chapter which is the subject of this article.

David Gergen had the opportunity to serve four American Presidents, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Regan and Bill Clinton as an adviser. After retiring from government he took a Professorial Chair at Harvard University’s school of Government. Part of his contribution was to write this book which essentially is a summary of his experience in the White House. The last chapter of the book, “Seven lessons of leadership” is his thesis on the qualities a leader should possess, and the lessons to learn from the hassles of leadership, if the leader is to be successful, based on what he observed from the four leaders he served.

I chose this topic because of the politicking one is seeing in different African countries. Since many, if not most African leaders are products of Western educational system. It is perhaps important to remind them about their role and responsibility using the language they understand and the countries they look up to.

The first leadership lesson of leadership according to Professor Gergen is that “leadership starts from within”. From what Professor Gergen observes, a leader should understand himself first. According to him one thing he observes is that American Presidents are well read, and “politically savy” yet those of them who failed were the architects of their downfall. “The inner soul of a president flows into every aspect of his leadership far more than is generally recognised” said Professor Gergen. “His passions in life usually form the basis for his central mission in office”, he added.

Here it is interesting to note that the personal characteristic of a leader stems from his character, upbringing and interest. One question I would like to ask is whether political parties, and other stakeholders consider the passion of a politician before giving him the chance to lead people? Of course I can be academic here looking at the reality in African nations, but that does not take away the relevance of the question, because inadvertently, the interest of the leader and his passion in life would have bearing consequences in the way he leads.

I found one example cited by Gergen about Bill Clinton, he stated that despite what Gergen described as “the flows in his character”, Bill Clinton is well read, and during meetings, he normally makes reference to issues he reads about countries, his travels and the rest, which sometimes can checkmate advisers who would like to mislead the leader. So use your judgement to weigh the consequences of having a leader who is not well read, and does not understand the world we live in. The example of Bill Clinton’s successor is still fresh in the memory of the world. One interesting issue mentioned by Gergen at the end of the first quality of leadership is that “No one can succeed in today’s politics unless he or she is prepared to fall on a sword in a good cause”.

To be continued

(Views expressed in this and other opinion articles are strictly personal)

7th Muharram 1435
11the November 2013

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