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Leaders do more than exercise authority.

When organisations, small or large, corporations or nation-states, fail or succeed we point to leadership. Rwanda's transformation is attributed to President Paul Kagame. Conversely, the chaos obtains in Sudan because of President Salva Kiir.

There is a cry for leadership. Nations are gripped by political dysfunction. Corporations are burdened by incompetent boards and executives. Schools and universities are staggered by the winds of unenlightened stewardship. The Brexit fiasco is a most elegant testament of failed leadership.

President Vladimir Putin's assertion that liberalism has become obsolete is a stinging indictment on the leadership of the liberal West. Interestingly, Putin's evisceration of the liberal order resonates with populist politicians such as Donald Trump, Hungary's Viktor Orban, Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro and the man who could be the next prime minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson.

What is leadership? A precise definition is neither possible nor necessary. I will focus on what leadership is not.

Leadership is not management. Many people often believe that getting things done is necessarily leadership. Managers manage things; their roles are mundane and operational. Leadership is about people; leaders lead people. Moreover, leadership has nothing to do with rank or status in society. Politicians, presidents or CEOs have rank and position but they are not necessarily leaders.

Leadership is not about titles; governor, senator or member of Parliament. However, these titles and positions present an opportunity for individuals who hold them to lead. The point is that one does not need a title to lead. Similarly, one does not need attributes such as charisma to lead. That you have a King's or Obama's oratory prowess alone won't do. Having a commanding baritone won't do it either.

Leadership emerges from and is sustained by social influence, not authority or power. There are good examples such as Rosa Parks, America's civil rights activist best known for her role in the Montgomery bus boycott. Another example of exemplary leadership is Rachel Carson, marine biologist and author of the timeless book Silent Spring that galvanised a global environmental movement.

Leadership is about people; it is not about subservient followership, like a shepherd would lead sheep to pasture. Any great leader would tell you that great things happen when the topmost leaders are goaded from the bottom. Essentially leadership inspires or enables participation and contribution from team members. Being first among equals is a good attitude for a leader to have, especially if the leader believes they have the best talent in their team.

Finally, leadership requires that we are childlike; infused with unbounded curiosity, and endowed with a huge tolerance for making mistakes. It would help that those who lead are not overwhelmed by what they think they know but are humbled by the understanding that what they know is a minuscule island in a vast ocean of ignorance.

Vexing global problems such as climate change, xenophobia, terrorism and the march of illiberalism cannot be solved using the same business as usual, flawed leadership, which got us here in the first place. We can do better.

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Publication:The Star (Nairobi, Kenya)
Date:Jul 9, 2019
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