Thursday, March 29, 2012

The traits of good leadership

In a world bereft of great leaders we suffer collectively from a failure to resolve important issues and make the kinds of progress to improve people’s lives. In the political realm, there are certain traits reflected in great leaders but these traits will vary based on the political terrain one must navigate.  The most challenging times cry out for great leaders who move people and move society forward. The United States had Franklin Roosevelt and Dr Martin Luther King. We had Dr E f Gordon. Latin America had Simon Bolivar. And Africa had Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and Jomo Kenyatta. While we have few great leaders today we can identify those characteristics in them that may prove instructive for those to come.

Former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher demonstrated tremendous leadership skills; and I have no trouble asserting this even while disagreeing with her position on most issues. Mrs Thatcher conveyed an image of the kind of society she wanted to create—“putting Great back into Britain”—and set about doing so with steely determination. There was never any doubt about what her objective was and she rallied her parliamentary members to this cause. Unfortunately, too many leaders today lack the conviction to hold true to their principles and work to win over public support; rather, they shift and shuffle based on the latest opinion polls. Thatcher would have none of this.

If any leader embodies selfless and principled determination to improve the lives of her people it is Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Her National League for Democracy won 80% of the seats in the 1990 elections but was never able to hold power as the military held control; Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest for more than 20 years and she became a beacon of hope and progress for her people through her stoic defiance. Rather than leave her country for a life of comfort she knew that her presence would keep the global spotlight on the military dictatorship in Burma and help push forward progress that we are seeing today. 

American President Barack Obama is that rare politician who captivated the hopes and aspirations of people worldwide. At a time of disquiet and sober reflection about tomorrow Mr Obama has been able to inspire millions that, yes, we can create a better place. Americans will have their own divisive battle on the merits of Obama’s leadership as they lead up to November; and the sub-text of a large part of this battle will involve issues Americans have yet to resolve.  For the rest of the world, where America remains the dominant global force, we look to President Obama as a sincere advocate for positive change to better the lives of ordinary people. 

The best leaders inspire, they create hope and they improve people’s lives. We need better leadership in the world today since the issues confronting us will never be resolved by competing commercial interests or ossified bureaucrats; the challenges, moreover, have gotten deeper because of self-interest. The issues will never be resolved if our leaders lack the courage to act decisively and set a vision for our future.  We need clear and decisive action.

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