How to Succeed as a Leader in Tomorrow's Liberia
By: Jackson Fiah Doe Jr.
September 2, 2009
A couple of decades ago, Liberia witnessed a classic battle between supporters of change and those wanting to maintain the status quo. Although the agents of change put up a good fight, it wasn’t enough. They lost the battle and were crushed. For instance, my dad, the late Jackson F. Doe, a well-known and respected politician, wanted a break with the past. Therefore, he contested the 1985 presidential elections and was the presumptive winner. However, the elections were rigged, and he did not get a chance to lead his beloved country. Undaunted, he continued his struggle for change. But in the end, he was tragically killed by those determined to keep things the way they were. For a while, it seemed my father died in vain, as the supporters of the status quo solidified their power base, crushing their enemies and silencing the voices of dissent. They proceeded to perpetuate the “tragedy of the commons”, that is, using public resources for personal benefit.
However, things are different now. The winds of change are blowing through the hallways of Liberian politics. For instance, citizens are now demanding accountability from their leaders. This was something unthinkable a few decades ago when my dad was alive. At that time, people were afraid to criticize the government, fearing reprisals. Those who did so paid a heavy price; some spent months in jail, while others lost their lives. Now, the Liberian people are able to speak their minds with impunity. I am pretty sure my father and other change agents - who paid with their lives trying to make our country better - would be delighted with what is happening. It is worth noting however, that the change we see in our country today is just a preview of what is to come. More changes are on the horizon. These changes are irreversible. That is why those wanting to maintain the status quo are on the losing side. I liken them to a guy hanging onto a cliff with his fingernails hoping not to fall further down. Supporters of the status quo will inevitably fall off the cliff. Therefore current and prospective leaders should be aware of what is happening in the political environment, understand the drivers of change, and prepare themselves to thrive in tomorrow’s Liberia. This is because the leadership styles and attributes that made people successful in the past may no longer be useful going forward.
The drivers of change
There are a number of major forces which, in my judgment, are driving change in Liberia: Ubiquitous access to information, enlightened citizenry, and increased freedom. Thanks to the internet and cell phones, anything that happens in Liberia can now be known to those within and outside the country in a matter of minutes. Journalists are no longer privy to breaking news. Anyone with internet access or a cell phone can disseminate information around the globe. Another driver of change in Liberia is an enlightened populace. As a consequence of the civil war, many Liberians fled the country; some migrated to the United States and Europe, while others settled in other African countries. They were able to learn about what it means to live in truly democratic countries. Many of them are returning to Liberia, and will work in government and non-governmental agencies. These people will demand that government be accountable and transparent. Liberians are no longer naïve. They know what democracy is all about and want the same in Liberia. They will make the government more efficient and effective. Finally, people are now able to freely express themselves without fear of arrest or retribution. This change is very welcome news. Decades ago, it was difficult if not impossible for citizens to criticize the Liberian government; people were simply afraid to speak up. Those who dared to do so paid a heavy price. Some even lost their lives in the process. But things are different now, thanks to democracy.
Additionally, increased freedom in Liberia has enabled some people to fight for the rights of others. There are currently many human right groups or organizations in the country championing the cause of the disenfranchised. This was certainly not the case years back. But things are different now. For instance, about two years ago, a thirteen year old girl was found hung in the bathroom at the home of her guardian. Many rights groups suspected foul play and pressured the government to dig deeper to find the truth. Her guardian and his fiancée were subsequently arrested. The two are now in a Liberian jail, accused of murder. But for the efforts of local human rights, they would probably not have been detained.
Some attributes of tomorrow’s leaders
There are a number of skills which prospective leaders must possess if they are to be successful in tomorrow’s Liberia. These skills include emotional intelligence, boundary crossing, human capital development, and effective management.
Emotional intelligence, according to Daniel Goleman, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey, has five components: self awareness, self regulation, empathy, motivation and social skills (What makes a Leader, Harvard business Review, Jan 2004). Self awareness has to do with knowing one’s strengths, weaknesses, value, drives, goals, and impact on others. Self regulation allows someone to control his or her disruptive emotions and moods. Put simply, it is about self control. When one has empathy, that person is able to take into account the feelings of others, especially in times of decision making. Motivation means being able to work for reasons other than extrinsic or monetary rewards. Finally, social skills relate to having the ability to properly manage relationships and develop social networks. It is safe to assert that although a leader needs to have some cognitive abilities, without emotional intelligence, he/she will have a pretty tough time dealing with people. To win the hearts and minds of followers, who have become increasingly touchy-feely, aspiring Liberian leaders must possess a high level of emotional intelligence.
It is imperative that the leaders of tomorrow’s Liberia be able to relate to people of diverse backgrounds. In the past, our leaders did a very poor job of uniting people. They instead subscribed to the mantra “divide and conquer”. This strategy will not work going forward. Tomorrow’s leaders must reach out to people of various ethnicities, religions, educational levels and social strata. If a leader favors one group over another, there is bound to be some discontentment, which will not be a good thing. Additionally, prospective leaders must be a conflict mediator, settling disputes within and outside of government. Had past leaders done so, Liberia would not have suffered many political crises which ruined the county. For instance, if the Late President Samuel K. Doe and General Thomas Quiwonkpa had made every effort to settle their disagreements, perhaps Liberia might not have had a civil war.
Moreover, future leaders will need to collaborate with others - supporters or critics - in order to make decisions regarding the direction of the country. We now live in a web of interdependencies and relationships, where no one person has a monopoly on good ideas. Therefore, prospective leaders must come to grips with the reality that they will need the advice, skills and expertise of other very competent people in order to make very good decisions. Finally, future leaders of Liberia have to be strategically intuitive, that is, combining successful ideas into something new to solve a problem. For this to happen, they need to learn from history, have a presence of mind, a flash of insight or a creative idea, and resolution to move forward (William Duggan, Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement, 2007).
Developer of other leaders
Liberian leaders have not fare well in terms to grooming potential leaders. In the new Liberia, it will be critical for leaders to lead from behind, like a shepherd guiding his flock. They must create the context in which others are able and willing to lead. Like most African leaders, previous Liberian presidents did everything they could to hold on to power. Succession planning was not a priority. So whenever a leader died, there was a leadership void. In the new Liberia, it will be important that leaders surround themselves with a cadre of competent individuals they can groom to assume leadership role, if the need arises. As such, there won’t be a leadership crisis should they die or become incapacitated.
Leaders in tomorrow’s Liberia will have to be great managers. They need to hire the right people for the right jobs. In other words, people should be hired on the basis of competence. They should not hire people based on favoritism, ethnicity, or nepotism. Additionally, tomorrow’s leaders must to hold people accountable for what they do. In essence, leaders must manage by walking Around (MBWA), a strategy employed by the former US Defense Secretary, William Perry. MBWA implies that a leader has to be inspecting what officials of government are supposed to do. People will mainly do what is “inspected of them, rather than what is expected of them”. Leaders must put managers’ proverbial feet to the fire. If someone is not getting the job done, he or she has to resign or get fired. Also, future leaders must motivate others to do the best work by providing extrinsic (monetary) and intrinsic (nonmonetary) rewards. Moreover, it is important for tomorrow’s leaders to put in place a continuous training program for middle and top level managers to keep them abreast of changing developments in their respective fields.
It is crystal clear that the Liberian environment is changing. The forces that are propelling change - Ubiquitous access to information, enlightened populace, and increased freedom will continue to alter the political landscape. This is a good thing for our country. However, it has implications for leadership in Liberia. The skills and styles that made leaders successful in the past may no longer be relevant to the country’s rapidly changing political environment. Therefore, current and future leaders of Liberia will have to develop new skills if they want to succeed in tomorrow’s Liberia. Those who detect these changes early and make adjustments, will survive if not thrive; others who ignore it will inevitably become politically extinct, suffering the same fate as the dinosaurs.