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Recognising and seizing your moment of leadership

“Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discovers its mission, fulfils or betrays it”- Franz Fanon

The world is changing rapidly and so is our need, and even understanding, of leadership. Leadership students will remember the Great Man theory of the nineteenth century (1840s actually), which states that certain people are born with some special attributes that put them in a class of their own when it comes to leadership. Such people have special traits that give them the capacity to do very easily what others cannot do, or do with much difficulty, the theory says. Under this theory, a leader is a natural hero who accomplishes goals, even in the face of great odds, and in the interest of his group or followers. There are still modern theses, and new research, on genetic factors propelling leadership behaviour. Here, the leader is a hero, often thrown up by circumstances around him. Many famous scholars and thinkers such as Plato, Lao-tzu, Aristotle and even Machiavelli, contributed to this way of thinking – that a leader was born, not made. That thinking is still persisting in some schools of thought.

The Great Man theory of leadership however lost steam, over time, as research began to show that even the traits that made the Great Man great, were not consistent. The real turning point came when Stogdill’s in 1948, carried out a survey of 25 years of research work and came away with some key conclusions, including the fact that “a person does not become a leader by virtue of the possession of some combination of traits”. This finding redirected the research on leadership towards external factors and away from internal or innate qualities. As of now, the trend is that there is a correlation between certain personality characteristics, such as integrity, charisma, empathy, conscientiousness, the capacity to motivate followers, and leadership ability. While this is true, the use of traits to identify potential leadership capacity in an individual is not completely out of fashion.

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Since the 1990s, certain theories on the role of followers have continued to emerge. The choice of some leaders to serve their followers has led to the Servant Leader theory. Some Nigerian Leaders found this topic very alluring. One, it connotes a departure from the master-servant leadership mentality left behind by the colonial masters and quickly adopted by their local successors. Two, it looks like a fitting term in places where sloganeering thrives. Politicians have used it effectively to sufficiently deceive their ever-gullible followers. It was Robert Greenleaf, who in his 1970 work emphasized the Servant Leadership idea as the choice of certain leaders to “serve their followers, empowering them to live and work to their full potential”. Many governors in Nigeria touted this concept but their impact on the people, with regard to the real tenets of Servant Leadership – empowerment and development of the people – is anybody’s guess.

There have been many new ideas about leadership but what seems to be lacking in many entities, including governments of countries, is what James MacGregor Burns described as Transformational Leadership, in his seminal work, Leadership, published in 1978. According to him, transformational leadership is one embodying “…a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents”.

Evidently, many developing countries have remained what they are – developing in perpetuity – because their leadership does not stimulate the adrenalin of patriotism. It does not elevate the followers, nor does it inspire them. Therefore, followers have no possibility of being converted to leaders; talk less of leaders becoming moral agents. Undoubtedly, if a leader cannot be a moral agent, then the search for transformation of the entity, be it a corporate organization, a nation or its subnational components, is an exercise in futility.

There is even a much bigger challenge in leadership that we must recognise. I would like to call it the issue of Leadership Moment – that point in time when everything a leader stands for and everything he has put into his work comes calling for a decision – a decision he must make and make correctly, failing which all his labour is wasted and his name will never be written in gold. As Franz Fanon said, “each generation must, out of relative obscurity discovers its mission, fulfil it or betray it”. The moment a leader seizes the Leadership Moment and does the right thing his legend is born. Every enterprise or nation has its leadership moment. The challenge is how to get those leading these entities to recognise and then seize the leadership moment.

All over the world, and in history, many people have changed the course of events by their decision to seize the leadership moment. Roy Vagelos, who was chairman and CEO of the American pharmaceutical company Merck & Co, attracted research scientists who developed major drugs including one for River Blindness – Meetizan. The drug came out at $3 each. Nobody with the sickness was going to afford it. It was a drug needed only by people who couldn’t afford it. The drug was an orphan – a term used in the pharmaceutical industry to describe drugs without economic value. Vagelos gave it away to the sick and save d humanity.

According to John F. Kennedy, “to be courageous is an opportunity that sooner or later will be presented to all of us”. How do we use it? With all the problems that befell Apollo 13, Eugene Kranz returned it to earth by a split-second great decision. The battle of Jena Auerstedt fought on October 14, 1806, between the forces of Napoleon of France and the mightier army of King Fredrick William 111 of Prussia, ended in favour of Napoleon, who seized the Leadership Moment by empowering his army to freely decide how to deal with the problems in the field and not run to headquarters to get permission. King Williams ‘mighty army could not lift a pin if the King and the commanders at headquarters did not say so. Napoleon made that decision in a split moment.

Goodluck Jonathan’s Leadership Moment happened when he became the first Nigerian president to accept defeat in an election without a fight. That decision, however one views it, saved Nigeria both human and financial resources of gargantuan proportions. Allen Onyema of Airpeace seized a leadership moment when he single-handedly evacuated stranded Nigerians from South Africa, thereby saving many lives. When is your leadership moment coming or has it come and gone without your knowing it? Life and death in the corporate battlefield often depend on the ability of the leader to seize his Leadership Moment. As we speak, Nigeria is in need and must seize the leadership moment that has appeared, so as to save it from losing the only country Africa can say has the real capacity to change the world.

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