• Friday, July 19, 2024
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Preparing to lead in the 21st Century


There has been a long-standing debate as to whether great leaders and entrepreneurs are born or made. Some would argue that people like Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Aliko Dangote are wired differently from the rest of mortals. Harvard Business School professor Warren Bennis, in his book, On Becoming a Leader, starts from the presupposition that leaders are made, not born. Every one of you has what it takes to be a great leader and entrepreneur.

Bennis regards self-knowledge to be key to the process of becoming a leader. Leaders, according to him, “…know who they are, what their strengths and weaknesses are…They also know what they want, why they want it, and how to communicate what they want to others, in order to gain their cooperation and support”.

Transformational leaders are those leaders who make things happen. They offer a purpose for their followers that transcends short-term goals while focusing on higher-order ideals. According to the medieval Jewish sage, Rabbi Hillel, ordinary leaders create good followers, while extraordinary leaders make leaders out of others. Transformational leaders bequeath a legacy of creative change while building and mentoring other leaders who will carry on their work.

Seven qualities, in my opinion, are essential to successful transformational leadership.

The first is character. Character maketh the man. Character is destiny. A good name is worth more than gold. Character entails adherence to virtue ethics — honesty, loyalty, humility, respect, loyalty, goodness and faith. The ideal of the omoluabi (the good man) is deeply ingrained in Yoruba ethics. It is analogous to the concept of “mutumin kirki” in Hausa society.

Secondly, leaders possess vision. According to the ancient Hebrew sages, “without vision, the people perish”. Leaders are those who are able to see tomorrow; providing a clear vision that rallies the people together for great national undertakings.

A third element is passion. Leaders are deeply passionate people. They believe in the cause they espouse. The American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. once noted that unless we can find something worth dying for, we haven’t begun to live.

Fourthly, leaders possess integrity. Because they believe in a cause that is greater than themselves, they are ready to make all the sacrifice necessary for the achievement of that goal. From Obafemi Awolowo to Nelson Mandela, the greatest leaders are incorruptible. They identify with their people in their struggle for a better life.

Fifthly, leaders are learners. They are extremely curious people; always on the quest for truth. If you desire to be a success in life, you must make books your companions. Leaders also tend to be of an objective bent of mind. Whilst remaining faithful to personal principles, they are ready to succumb to superior argument if logic and evidence are compelling enough.

Sixthly, leaders are men and women of courage. The late Nelson Mandela once confessed: “I learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers fear”.

Seventh, leaders have mastery over the context in which they operate. Being learners and being supremely curious people, they tend to master their environment. Their feet are always rooted firmly on the earth; and they are ever ready to roll up their sleeves.

Lastly, leadership entails the pursuit of excellence as a life-long objective. Excellence is about continually improving yourself in all areas; in intellect, soul and body. Centuries of racial oppression and humiliation have broken the spirit and confidence of the African people. We have been led to believe that we came into this world to be spectators and that we would forever remain on the margins of world history. It is a lie from the pits of hell. Nobody on earth is superior to anybody. Nothing but the best is good enough for our Africa.

My friends, it is never too early to start. Begin today. Put down on paper the seven goals of your life for the coming five years. Be realistic. Articulate life-goals that are feasible within the context of our country and its realities and constraints. Never under-estimate your God-given powers. And let it be said of you, as it was said of Daniel of old, that “an excellent spirit dwelt in him”.

The greatest danger that can ever befall a young man or woman is to not have a clearly defined goal in life. You cannot afford to be drifter. Know your destiny and be clear about your life’s goals.

Above all, learn to think for yourself. The British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell famously noted that most people would sooner die than think. The ability to think is the defining attribute of Humanitas. Rote learning is dangerous. Imitation is suicide.

Always think in terms of service. Be unselfish in your innermost motives. As you give of yourself, so will the universe open up to you in greater measure.

Nigeria is at the threshold of an industrial revolution. But there is so much ground to cover — so much that is dispiriting about our country. Poverty and suffering abound. There appears to be a deficit in leadership. In the north east, murderous devils are killing and raping school children while slaughtering defenceless peasants in the villages. But we must never despair. Out of the travails of the moment, a New Nigeria is soon to emerge. It will be a land of hope and glory; a land of excellence and enlightenment. I believe we will not only triumph; we will prevail.

In the New Nigeria that will emerge, you must resolve to carve out a place for yourself as a leader, entrepreneur and dutiful citizen. The bells do not toll for anyone; they toll for you! And in that journey of a thousand miles, may God’s work also be yours.


(Abridged Text of a Keynote Address to the Annual Congress of the Nigerian Economics Students Association, Obafemi Awolowo University, Wednesday 12th March 2014).