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Your “Good Leader” Might be Another Person’s “Worst Nightmare”

Henriette von Kaltenborn-Stachau's picture

This summer I was asked to evaluate Timor-Leste’s Leadership and Communication Capacity for National Renewal Program (LCCNR) and provide strategic recommendations for the future of the program. I did so with great interest and developed a high appreciation for the LCCNR. Its design is built on extensive research and reveals deep insight into Timor’s culture and current governance challenges. I believe it is a program of potentially great value for the future and stability of Timor-Leste.

In the absence of functioning governance institutions and processes, individual leaders take on a central relevance in fragile environments. Recognizing these dynamics, leadership programs in post-conflict environments have been enjoying an ever growing popularity among international aid providers. The Timorese LCCNR program faces a challenge that I believe applies to all of these “behavior change” programs. The central problem is that leadership training programs build up a skill “supply” that is most often not matched by societal “demand”, which basically means there is no reward for altering one’s behavior. In Timor, as in many post-conflict places, a good leader is equated with someone who has a “strong hand”, someone who takes unilateral decisions and is not afraid to push them through; someone who quells any opposition; someone who holds power, not shares it. It is an understanding of leadership framed by a history of military resistance. In such an environment displaying “soft” leadership skills does not get much societal recognition, nor improve ones power-base.

To be truly effective on a systemic level, post-conflict leadership training programs need to be part of a two-pronged approach that, while building up leadership skills also builds up societal understanding and demand for participatory leadership approaches. Only by simultaneously generating and matching supply and demand can such a program become an important engine for societal change. Programs like these require time, creativity and sustained engagement but they are worth it; in the long run they can truly make a difference in the future of a country. Leadership matters, it always has.

Photo Credit: Flickr user shoothead

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