'Strong leaders do not just "read" opportunities; they make them – by moulding public opinion, bringing new blood with new ideas and initiative into government, reaching beyond safe and traditional constituencies to build coalitions in support of change and by taking political and managerial risks that broaden the possibility of change.'
OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — I arrived in the Sahel on a four-country trip thinking of the trouble in the region: drought, hunger, and conflict. I left impressed by the political leadership and the resolve of the people. To learn more, please watch this video blog.
“Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable. Otherwise someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made that decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.”
- Barack Obama, President of the United States of America
As quoted in Vanity Fair, October 2012, Obama's Way, by Micahel Lewis
Let’s be clear about this: to successfully influence leaders, that is, to have your views, your suggestions, your criticisms of their actions and so on, be taken seriously by them, you are not allowed to cheat. Cheat and leaders will ignore you. Worse, they will treat you with contempt. Above all, you will deserve their contempt.
The subject is important because a fundamental part of producing change is the ability to influence leaders…the leaders of the organizations you need help from, and the leaders of government at different levels without whose support very little can get done. I know this suggestion flies in the face of the current romance of the streets, of the current idealization of grass roots mobilization using cool new tools that magically launch revolutions, and produce wondrously effective pro-poor social and political change.
Now, I am a great believer in active citizens but I also know that real change is delivered by effective coalitions, and people in leadership positions are at the very heart of effective coalitions. It is the classic Inside-Outside strategy: leaders in government and leaders in civil society collaborate (sometimes quietly because of the exigencies of power play) to produce change.
“When talking with young leaders in Brazil and elsewhere, I like to tell them this: Even when you are discouraged with everything and everyone, don’t give up on politics. Participate! If you do not find in others the politician you seek, you may find him or her in yourself.”
- Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. A Brazilian politican who served as president of Brazil from 2003 to 2011.
Listening to an expert discussion of the role of elected representatives in social accountability interventions at a recent event hosted by the Mwananchi Governance Programme and CIVICUS in Johannesburg on 16th May 2013, I was reminded of this quote by Joe Khamisi, a former Kenyan MP:
“Save, you may not see Parliament again”, one two-term Member liked to tell us. In many cases non-performers with deep pockets are preferred than stingy doers. “As much as possible, avoid your constituents in the first three years and show up only towards the last half of your term, with plenty of money!”
In response, a Member of Parliament (MP) from one of the countries where Mwananchi works said, “You need to put premium on leadership”. In other words, we should not expect leaders to deliver the change we want if society encourages them to pursue perverse incentives to attain and remain in office, and to achieve solutions to collective action problems.
Looking at the backgrounds of MPs in many countries in Africa, you find that some MPs have been activists in civil society, respected civil servants or faith leaders, often suggesting that things would be very different if it was them that were in office. This is a clear case of a common African saying ‘one finger forwards, four fingers backwards,’ reminding us how easy it is to criticise without examining ourselves. This is why it should not be surprising that again and again we find that when the ‘self-imagined’ leaders get into public office they are equally caught up in the quagmire of perverse incentives as their predecessors.
Local boys look on during the visit of World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim to the low income suburb of Gwaltoli on his tour of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh state, India.
"India must take advantage of having a young population. Never doubt the possibilities for this country,” said World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim to youth in India. During an hour-long NDTV program, President Kim answered questions that ranged from reducing poverty to tackling water crises in the country.
Long-established bureaucracies can, sometimes, appear to be a little cynical. Toward their mission, toward their work routines, toward their staff, toward their chances of success. This cynicism can damage morale and become a self-fulfilling hypothesis. So it doesn’t hurt when bureaucratic organizations get an infusion of optimism from time to time that lets them rethink goals, capacities, and strategies.
One of my favourite Oxfam projects is Chukua Hatua (CH) in Tanzania, which is using an evolutionary/venture capitalist theory of change to promote accountability in a couple of regions of the country. CH is now looking for a new coordinator, because the wonderful Jane Lonsdale is moving on – if you fancy taking over, check out the job ad (closing date 20 July).
Talk of ‘Evolutionary theories of change’ all sounds very abstract, so here are six specific examples of the kinds of change the project is bringing about.
Alex Knapp wrote a blog on Forbes earlier this month on how James T. Kirk of Star Trek embodied good leadership lessons. This got me wondering whether there was anything we could learn differently about leadership from Kathryn Janeway (fans of Star Trek will recall she was the captain of the USS Voyager).
So with a nod to Knapp and a bit of tongue in cheek, here’s my take on the five lessons of leadership from Jim and Kathryn: