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The role of leadership in economic development



Leadership is an age-old problem in political philosophy as well as in the more modern science of strategy. There has been an abiding debate on whether leaders are born or made. The great-man theory of leadership is as old as the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle. According to this school of thought, leaders are specially endowed with a unique gift that sets them apart from the common run of men and women. Leaders are therefore perceived to be a special breed of heroes and heroines who make the world a little better than they found it.


The other tradition, on the other hand, insists that leaders are made, not born. According to this theory, every one of us can become a leader. You and I can become leaders if we put our minds to it – if we learn the art and science of leadership and apply its fundamental principles to how we manage our lives and those of the people around us. The Harvard teacher Warren Bennis wrote the famous book, On Becoming a Leader (Addison Wesley 1989). It is a book I would recommend to everyone. Bennis takes the view that leadership can be learned.


Bennis is a man of great wisdom. He has cautioned that leadership, like beauty, cannot easily be defined. But we know it when we see it. He defines leaders as men and women who are able to give themselves scope for the highest expression of the human spirit.


Self-knowledge is the foundation of all leadership. Leaders know themselves in the whole gamut of their strengths as well as weaknesses and vulnerabilities. They also master the context in which they find themselves, able to “conceive and articulate goals that lift people out of their petty preoccupations, carry them above the conflicts that tear a society apart, and unite them in pursuit of objectives worth of their best effort”.


Leadership is supremely about virtue ethics – about character and integrity. You can never be a true leader if you are, in your heart of hearts, a conman. You have to be able to earn people’s trust. You must also possess moral vision and the courage to mobilise people around that moral vision and purpose.


How does all this apply to the issue of economic development?


I have one single proposition to submit to you: it is that leadership matters in national economic development. Economic performance and the foundations for accelerated growth does not happen by accident. It is achieved through the moral agency of great statesmen who make things happen. In our twenty-first century digital civilisation, such leadership requires high levels of intelligence and intellectual awareness. You do not need to be a professional economist to be a successful leader in economic development. But you cannot escape knowledge of the principles of economic science. You should also have the ability to grasp fundamental economic concepts and to be able to work with economists in designing and implementing economic development strategies. It also helps if you are a student of world history. You must be able to identify the historical moment in which your nation finds itself within the whole sweep of human history. You must also be able to map out your country’s place in the global hierarchy of the international division of labour.


Development leaders are keenly aware of their nation’s principal challenges – from issues of poverty to the crisis of the environment, industrial development, youth unemployment, gender inequity, regional disparities, urban renewal and agrarian transformation. Development leaders are conscious of the fact that development challenges must be viewed in holistic terms. Political and social problems often reflect and indeed reinforce economic challenges. From the viewpoint of national challenges, all economics and all politics amount to political economy.


One of the greatest development leaders of the 20th century was Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. Lee passed away in 2015, universally mourned by his countrymen and women and eulogised as one of the visionary of the last century. He had been on the saddle as prime minister for more than 3 decades. He is widely acknowledged as the architect of Singapore’s remarkable developmental achievements – a world leader in high tech, environmental sciences, pharmaceutics, petrochemicals and international logistics. Singapore is also a global financial hub, being home to nearly all the Fortune 500 corporations. Singapore currently has a per capita GDP of US$85,253, easily one of the highest in the world. It is sobering when you compare to Nigeria’s more modest GDP per capita of US$3,000. Lee built a team made of the best people he could find. He also created a first-class civil service to implement the vision he laid out for his people.


Another development leader I would like to cite today is Deng Xiaoping of China. Before coming to the high magistracy as President of the People’s Republic of China, he had been incarcerated as a renegade and traitor. His family suffered harrowing tragedy, as his brilliant son, a university student, was thrown out of the window of a high-rise building becoming paralysed for life. Deng learned wisdom from the fiery furnace of tragedy and suffering. He understood that China could not live up its promise of greatness unless it changed its economic development. In that sense he was a pragmatist. He famously declared that it did not matter if a cat was black or white so long as it could catch mice.


In Africa, I would single out Thabo Mbeki of South Africa as a great development leader. He was Vice-President when Nelson Mandela became president in 1994. Everybody acknowledges that he was the architect of his country’s remarkable post-Apartheid reconstruction. When he succeeded Madiba as President, he consolidated those achievements and went on to establish himself as a visionary harbinger of Africa’s economic renaissance.


I would also note the role of Paul Kagame of Rwanda. I know there are many who might express concern about his human rights policies and the rather draconian manner in which he handles the political opposition. But it is also clear that Kagame’s is perhaps the best development leader in Africa today. A statesman of singular vision and supreme moral courage, he believes that nothing but the best is good enough for his country and for our benighted continent of Africa. Every political appointment that he makes comes with a contract of performance. If you do not perform you are out. It works. Rwanda, with limited resources and a looming backdrop of one of the worst genocides in human history, has become an African Lion that roars well above its actual weight.


(Being Text of a Presentation to the DCP Thinking and Learning Lab at Jabi, FCT Abuja, Thursday 28 July 2016).


Obadiah Mailafia