COMMENTARY – When Eric Williams threw his hat (or his crown as some would say) into the political ring in 1956, he dazzled his compatriots with his enlightened and visionary leadership, amid all the turbulence and confusion of Trinidadian politics.
As the founder of that nation’s first modern political party and principal architect of independence in 1962, the brilliant scholar-politician inspired almost an entire generation of Caribbean people to dream more, become more and learn more in the pursuit of socio-political change and economic development.
Against almost insurmountable colonial odds, Williams was determined to translate his social and economic vision into reality and unlock the people’s potential to become better and responsible citizens. That outstanding ability to reach people in a way that transcends the intellectual and social is the mark of a truly great leader. Eric Williams was a transformative Caribbean leader who recognized “education for the masses” as a political force. For him, politics was a continuation of education by other means. Alas, in the region today, such authentic and exceptional “servant” leaders are a rare breed – perhaps almost freaks of nature.
By all accounts, he was an indefatigable political servant committed to the welfare of his people, as well as an avid reader whose broad reading habits, by and large, defined his leadership ethos – saliently manifested in his unparalleled command of the issues, communication skills, emotional intelligence and organizational effectiveness. One of the things I admired most about him – both as an educator and politician – was the manner in which his character amplified his humility and goodwill, despite a daunted reputation for intellectual erudition and articulate oratory.
So what else defines a strong leader and what lessons can we learn from the stewardship of other luminaries? Firstly, a leader is one who inspires, an agent of change, a developer who shows the way forward and a dealer in hope. Pat Dixon, author of the book “Making the Difference: Women and Men in the Workplace”, says that leadership is about “making things happen through people who are as enthusiastic and interested as you are.” A good leader should be able to speak out articulately and with conviction. It’s having the confidence to say “I believe” instead of “I think”, maintains Dixon.
What is more, strong leaders create their own horizons and are “masters of pursuitology”, i.e., they optimize the impact, nature and value of relationships, knowledge, results and excellence. It’s widely accepted that almost everything a leader does is amplified in the culture of the organization. Research on leadership effectiveness has shown that institutions, especially weak ones, take on the personality of their leaders.
In other words, if a leader promotes division, exercises vindictiveness and instils fear in his people or workforce, the organizational culture is likely to reflect that attitude. That very same research supports the view that the words of leaders reveal their psychological states especially in terms of their needs and defences.
At any rate, the irreducible truth is that not everyone is cut to lead, and there is no magic wand for leadership success, either. Above all, it is particularly advisable to steer clear of leaders who over-promise but under-deliver, as well as those who are popular but incompetent and unproductive. There is even a special breed that pretends to be unreasonable but tactical.
When Donald Trump started attacking other presidential candidates as well as the media, many thought he was crazy but, judging by his poll numbers, there’s obviously method in his madness.
Today, strong leadership, whether in business, social organizations, political parties or in government, is widely seen as a function of not only visionary thinking and competence, but also of personal character and integrity. Often people buy into the “leader” before they buy into the vision or strategy. Norman Schwarzkopf, the United States army general who led all the coalition forces in the Persian Gulf War believes: “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character.
But if you must be without one, be without strategy.” Outstanding leaders do accept and understand that the extent of their character fundamentally shapes how they engage their followers, what they observe and value, and most importantly what they decide and choose to act on. That is why a person of poor character essentially is likely to be lousy in the broader process of leadership.
Invariably, the vexing question for leaders is to determine how to get disparate groups to work together in a common interest. History is replete with examples of charismatic leaders who kept the loyalty and affection of their people and who were able to keep their organizations or countries together by showing a high degree of conscientiousness, trustworthiness and emotional intelligence.
In the same vein, Sir Winston Churchill believed influence and impact to be more important than tactics and strategy. “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results”, he once advised.
Just as a good manager can keep an inefficient company running relatively smoothly, a good leader can transform a demoralized country or organization into a vibrant, functional and forward-looking entity. Quite instructive are the successes and transformational impacts of Jack Welsh at General Electric (GE), Steve Jobs at Apple, Ludwig Erhard in Germany and Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. Those leaders were able to motivate, direct and organise their people and organizations to achieve a common goal and execute their vision and grand ideas by process, power and promise.
In large measure, the success of those leaders entailed the sense of direction, orientation and guidance they provided to their people and organizations – first by defining their mission and then surrounding themselves with the right people with the right mindset and skill-set to get the job done. This idea of having a leadership compass is expounded in the works of Jim Collins, a management thinker and author: “Great leaders did not start to make their companies great or successful by setting a new vision and a new strategy, but instead they got the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats – and then figured out where to drive”.
Having taught leadership courses for many years, I’m fully aware of the diverse views and insights on the subject, and how leadership and management are often quoted together, incorrectly believed to be interchangeable, and misunderstood. Whereas management is a transactional position entailing work and functions performed within and according to set boundaries, leadership is a transformational quality which primarily focuses on the development and welfare of people.
I remember having a class discussion about the difference between a leader and a manager, where the German students practically rejected every idea posited by their Asian counterparts. There were times I would be amazed at the various unconventional responses given by international students on the question of leadership effectiveness. In any event, such discourses made me realize how cultural values and social structures help shape the definition, role and outlook of both leaders and managers in various parts of the world.
With so much rapid social and economic change taking place due to globalization, competition and technology, the need for strong leaders as agents of change to help strengthen and build capacity at all levels in our nation, is indispensable. There is no doubt in my mind that the poor leadership in companies, schools, public hospitals and national institutions is a major cause for the declining quality of service, morale and productivity in our nation.
The feeling is that in many of our institutions, there just isn’t sufficient accountability and personal responsibility. Oftentimes, productivity, efficiency and morale suffer on account of that poor leadership. Those who can actually lead hesitate and instead people who shouldn’t come anywhere close to leadership roles avail themselves for such.
Eric Williams like other great Caribbean leaders, demonstrated that leadership is not about breeding or height – taller being better, as the early theorists believed. It’s not simply about intelligence and charisma, either. When we’re inspired by great leadership which promotes inclusive growth, social justice and institutional effectiveness, we give the best of ourselves and produce amazing work. The imperative of people empowerment should always guide the actions and motivations of a good leader.
In the final analysis, leadership is about influencing and impacting people as well as getting results. Benjamin Franklin couldn’t have expressed it any more explicitly when he said: “Well done is better than well said.”
Clement Wulf-Soulage is a management economist, author and former university lecture. He lived and lectured in Germany for 17 years and writes and delivers commentaries on globalization, economic development, social advancement and education policy. For comments, please forward your emails to [email protected]de