By Mahmud Tim Kargbo
Trust in government today is almost non-existent. No sector received a passing grade, not one even come close. Genuineness, authenticity and integrity are at an all-time low. The question is: Why is leadership in such disrepute and why is trust at such an all-time low? There are several factors that contribute to the deterioration of leadership trust in Sierra Leone.
First, the term leader is used extremely loosely. If there are that many thought leaders in Sierra Leone, why is the same old stuff continually regurgitated? The imprecise use of terms causes significant problems. For example, often people in organisations say things like “I have a problem, I have to select a vendor.” This person does not have a problem; they have a decision to make. The imprecise use of terms either leads the individual to the wrong thinking process that is not suited to the true issue. The same dilemma is true with the terms leader and leadership. Many authorities and companies in Sierra Leone advocate, “Everyone can be a leader”. This is used to motivate the unschooled people or employees, and sometimes even academics; to make them realise how much they are valued and how important they are. The problem is it waters down the true definition of leadership. If you don’t believe this, observe the level of poverty in our country with all our huge mineral deposits since independence to date. Or how organisations continue to send their employees through leadership training courses with nothing positive to write home about.
We don’t know who our true leaders are, so we elect anyone as a leader or we will train everyone as leaders. The truism is when everyone is a leader, no one is. When everyone thinks they are a leader, then the tendency is to take positive criticisms personal and start to hunt down right-minded nationals in our society with the intention to silence them and execute their wrongs with no objections. If a person believes he or she is a leader, the tendency is to evaluate others’ positive actions in light of how I would eliminate them. (after all, I tolerate no one that fails to dance to my tuning, do I need to?)
It is simply not true that everyone can be a leader. By definition, a leader produces change (progress) over time toward a specific vision. This is the most distinctive characteristic of a true leader – direction, change and movement. Leaders point others outside of the status quo; they stretch people; they move them toward results others never thought were possible. But pointing direction is not only what leaders provide. They also create movement and change. They stay ahead of the group and “lead the way”. And this is where the lack of trust de-rails many in our social positions of trust in Sierra Leone. They do not lead the way in their truthfulness. But every direction is not a wise direction. Articulating a positive direction and engaging people to move in that direction is what true leaders do.
By comparison, non-leaders and managers may perform well inside their boxes. Hopefully, they consistently produce quality and excellence, but colouring inside the lines is not leadership. Every staff member should be a good example. Professionals should show others how to work hard and how to give 100%. However, while good examples are critical, simply being a good example is not leadership.
Non-leaders may influence others. They share what they think. They may accurately diagnose a situation. They may even offer the right advice and influence the decisions of others. But influence by itself is not leadership.
Finally, non-leaders can be skilled craftsmen. They can produce excellent and skilled work, but being a master craftsman does not make one a leader.
The most common confusion in Sierra Leone is the distinction between leaders and managers. The difference is best described by comparing what they do. The tasks of leaders and managers are similar and parallel; they do similar work; they must work hand-in-glove. The similarity of the work is one reason we often confuse the two roles and in confusing them, we water down both. The real distinction is not in what is done, but in how it is done.
These distinctions can be further illustrated in the following ways:
Managers and non-leaders are focused on the present. Their value is in improving today’s results. Do what is expedient today to achieve the current goal. This role is needed and, when done well, is critical to an organisation’s success. This does not mean they do not think or innovate; it means these skills are focused on the immediate. Great managers influence people and they provide examples of what professionalism looks like. They keep things in order and in line; they meet deadlines and accomplish results; they make it easier for people to be successful and productive. But management is not leadership. Managers operate in the present and inside the box. They tweak the current. They are concerned with immediate results and efficiency.
Leaders, on the other hand, are change agents; they create movement toward worthy and meaningful goals and as a result, live in the world of possibility. Leaders have a restless dissatisfaction with the here and now; they are focused on the future. They cause people to lift their heads and look at the horizon and assess possibilities and potential. (One of the common dilemmas in today’s environment in Sierra Leone is that in most organisations, “leadership” positions call for people to be both leaders and managers. This means that managers have to learn how to lead or leaders have to learn how to manage; capabilities are not generally found within their skill set.
There is a second reason why true leaders are rare in Sierra Leone. Leaders grow from great character development. The dilemma is that in our society character development is declining. Our families, churches, mosques schools and government are failing us. Values are viewed as situational. They are to be followed when they are personally beneficial but are to be discarded when they get in our way. Years of this philosophy are taking a toll on leadership. One only has to look at recent events for examples of a lack of character. Lying is common today among our politicians and others in social positions of trust. Whether for enhanced reputation or financial gain, truth and integrity are viewed as situational niceties, not absolutes. Our politicians continue to lie on oath, they even lie at the Well of Parliament and get away with it and a host of others in our social positions of trust provide current examples that integrity is considered situational. Integrity is valued only if it fits a personal agenda or if it is a standard that can be conveniently applied to others (to make oneself look better?) Lying is becoming more common and as it does the distrust in our leaders continues to decline. As James, the brother of Jesus wrote, “but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation” (James 5:12). Today our leaders increasingly fall into condemnation for failing to heed this basic admonition.
There is a third reason for the decline of true leaders. There are no leaders without followers. The lack of character development creates a second impact on the leadership crisis. Not only does lack of character development mean that genuine leaders are not being formed in Sierra Leone, but it also means that followers no longer value character and integrity when true leaders demonstrate it. This creates two leadership dilemmas:
When a true leader does exist, he or she often does not appeal to the masses because the masses want leaders created in their own image. This creates the impossible leadership challenge of trying to be everything to everybody. Rather than leading according to a set of values or beliefs that are applied regardless of cost, appealing to the masses (consensus leadership) has become the standard of “successful” leadership.
Character in leadership has become difficult for our people in social positions of trust in Sierra Leone because followers do not hold leaders accountable. Followers are willing to rationalise the lack of character in those occupying our social positions of trust if it furthers their own personal goals. See the behaviour of political parties in covering up for their own stakeholders’ less than stellar behaviour. The sad state of affairs is that making sure our side wins has become more important than the practice of character.
Is there a solution?
Unfortunately from society’s point of view, there are no immediate or easy solutions. Our institutions are failing us (or maybe giving us what we truly want, but will not admit). As a result, leadership is slowly sliding toward the lowest common denominator. Societal failures (i.e., make up for the low quality produced by the education system; create meaning in work so that staff have something to live for; teach values and character not taught in families, mosques, churches or schools) are being placed on the doorstep of organisations to resolve. Productivity and profit are no longer the major foci of business; creating meaningful, challenging work within a healthy culture is supposed to be the new expectation.
So what is the government or organisation to do? There are several questions that must be asked and answered:
What do we believe leaders to be and do?
How many actual leaders do we require?
Where do leaders need to be located?
How do we align leaders and executors?
How can we identify potential leaders earlier?
What is the optimal method to develop them? (Hint: it is not classroom training!)