‘Quality of leadership is determined by the quality of followership’

...or ‘Leadership is taking responsibility’

Toye Sobande, a leadership coach, columnist and a writer, in this interview with Osa Victor Obayagbona and Charles Ogwo, talks about the different components that make up his new book, The Leadership Myth. Excerpt:

What do you mean by leadership myth?

In 2010, I had the opportunity of flying on vacation from London to Dubai. I saw in Dubai a very beautiful country. It was as if I was in a paradise. So, I asked myself, why is it that our leaders who travelled and schooled abroad do not replicate in Africa all these good experiences?

I was worried that Dubai with a similar history of independence, oil producing nation like Nigeria has become a global phenomenon.

I asked myself, “What is responsible for this kind of economic and infrastructural development?” I decided to find out more about the country.

I read many books, especially books written by their prime minister. It opened my eyes to a lot of issues, and I started getting answers to some of the questions.

I found out the missing link between a developed nation and an undeveloped nation is in the quality of leadership.

I’m privileged to have travelled around a number of African countries, Asia and around the world.

I discovered that the pattern across all the African countries is the same history of bad leadership. So, I said to myself, is it that Africa is bereft of quality leadership or is it that leadership is a myth in Africa?

We want to know why leadership principles do not work in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)?

My years of research, writing and visiting different countries, made me find Burkina Faso very interesting, because of their history.

I’ve been a fan of Thomas Sankara while growing up. I wept the day I heard he was killed. I felt this is someone that espouses the kind of ideals we want to see in Africa. And that he can be killed despite that we have to start all over again.

Besides, I realised that Nigeria at independence adopted the British parliamentary system and did not allow the young nation to walk through democratic institutions.

So, our operational model of governance was not well defined! We’re just copying and pasting from different jurisdictions. We copied the model of governance that we felt would be suitable for us without being mindful of the cultural context in which we were applying those governance systems.

Culture is the prevailing mental model of the people that informs their behaviour. Our culture was interjected during the colonial invasion. Our cultural model of leadership is more of rulership and lordship than is leadership.

In Africa, we define leadership around personalities, but leadership is about the relationship between the leader and the followers. The leader communicates with the followers, here we have positional or political office holders, we have rulers instead of leaders who do not communicate or do not see themselves as responsible to people.

Leadership is a relationship between leaders and followers, and what concretises that relationship is communication, vision, and desired future. But when we look at the structure in Nigeria, do we have leadership? And if so, does this leader communicate to us? That is why those leadership principles are not working.

What are some of the leadership challenges highlighted in your book?

The most fundamental part is the semantics of leadership. Nigerians have never experienced quantitative leadership before. So we have a problem of even defining it. Even the media gets confused.

When the description is wrong, the identification becomes also a problem. And when you are able to identify leadership, you cannot measure the quality of the leadership. So that is one area of challenge.

Moreover, we do not have a leadership development system. Culturally, we used to have a leadership development system before the colonial masters. We do not have a process that produces politicians who can be trusted as emerging leaders. We don’t have a system that produces credible people again.

The followership themselves are also highly irresponsible. The followers are also guilty. After all, the quality of leadership in any society is determined by the quality of the followership.

When you get to the government, you’ll be surprised at the level your family members will pester you with their problems. They will expect you to use the power of office for personal gain and that is what is compounding our leadership problem in this country. And that’s exactly one of the issues I highlighted in the book.

How has colonial legacies influenced leadership in SSA?

The point is that the colonialists did not benefit us in some ways. They brought education for us, but when you look at the educational model in SSA, it was an educational model that was designed not to produce excellent oriented Nigeria.

They designed the educational curriculum to produce a Nigeria along the factory line where Nigerians will be suitable to carry out clerical and administrative functions. It was not designed towards research and development to solve environmental problems, health problems, etc.

And since the colonialists left, we are not taking responsibility by improving the quality of the curriculum to produce Nigerians that are vibrant.

The schooling system has often been distorted with strikes in the last 10 years. How can we continue to do the same thing over again?

What are those misconceptions and truths about leadership in SSA?

Africa is full of contradictions everywhere you go. The conversation about Africa, for example, starts with whether Africa is a country, or a continent?

There is this general misconception that Africans are lawless people. There’s also a misconception that black people don’t read. Most misconceptions as highlighted are that Africans are generally corrupt. They don’t know that not every African is corrupt.

Another misconception is that they believe that leadership in Africa is masculine. But it’s not true! We have women who have led us in Africa, we have the queen Aminas, Dr. Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, among others. We have a lot of Amazons who are doing massive work in building Africa.

Read also: Nigeria’s routineer leadership and the politics of 2023

What is your view about leadership in relation to Nigeria’s political landscape?

My position regarding leadership in Nigeria as the foundational issues started from our political party’s formation early in Herbert Macaulay days. The parties evolved around expression of individual and ethnic inclinations.

The main objective of political parties was to seek indigenisation of policies to favour citizens towards self governance, which was ideal, which was fantastic.

The problem was that we were only focused on wresting power from the colonialists, the objective of the political parties were not built around any strong ideology of developments. It was not built on any ideology of Nigerian identity; the emphasis was on ethnic diversity.

This led to military intervention; the military came in and blocked our democracy for many years. The interjection of the military truncated every possible opportunity for us to develop political ideologies around leadership principles.

We had a political structure that was so filled with religion, and tribal sentiments, hence, merits, competence and character did not become the national value systems any more. All of these things are rooted deeply into our societal values.

What is your message to the future generations of Nigeria leadership?

My message to our next generation of leaders is to acquire competence in your area of specialisation.

Whatever your profession, become an expert, when you become an expert you hone your skill, and make it globally relevant.

Secondly, is to have some value system. Be a man of your word, a man of integrity, be honest, etc. Besides, they should be interested in politics, not be an analyst. And I like to say, too much analysis leads to paralysis.

Our nation has been paralysed in the last 30 plus years because we have failed to take action. When we do all of this, we have an aggregate component of all these actions taking place at local government levels. You will find out that those who are in governance who fail to do their job will be exposed.

This book looks more academic than corporate. How do you hope to drive this into leadership training in schools?

My objective is not to make money; I’m looking out for corporate sponsorship where they can pay for the printing and the distribution of the book. I want to give at least 10 copies to the library of every university in Nigeria.

My plan is to have enough copies to distribute across for free so that we can use it to school people.

I hope to leverage on my relationships with people like the media, leaders in the corporate world, and with religious organisations to raise sufficient funds, and distribute this book across all the school libraries, starting from Lagos State.

What do you think is the way forward from these leadership challenges?

The way forward is to master our history. Many of our historical narratives are distorted to suit some class of people. I always try to inform myself with history. But I found that the history of Nigeria is completely distorted, and this leads to bitterness in our hearts.

That’s one of the things that I found that led to writing the book. I like this quote, “if you don’t know the history, if you don’t know the path, you cannot compute the future.” A lot of our leaders are very mysterious, they are releasing books or writing articles to distort history.