Leadership in Modern Times: Youths bridging the Gap

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Being a Paper delivered by Dr. Peter Ndubuisi Mbah, the Governorship Candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Enugu State on September 24, 2022 at the MEDRHUS Leadership Forum 2022, held at the Justice Mary Odili Moot Court, Faculty of Law, University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus (UNEC), Enugu State.

Introduction

I must confess that, while I had heard about MEDRHUS before today, I did not know too much about the organisation or its activities in the Society. As a result, when I received this invitation to join you for your leadership Forum, the first thing I did was to look up its website to acquaint myself with its goals and objectives. My search gladdened my heart because I emerged with a deeper understanding of MEDRHUS’ mission and interventions in the society. As a result of this, my interest and enthusiasm to join you here today doubled. I must say that going by your activities so far and your intentions in the future as indicated by your vision, you are indeed already leaders.

More fundamentally, I am excited and enthused by your choice of topic. It is an affirmation that you know that there is a dearth of the correct leadership framework in our society and that the right leadership will drive our country out of its current morass. I am thus humbled that you elected to invite me for today’s lecture which I believe will be an interesting exchange of ideas on Leadership.

What is Leadership?

It is probably best to start this discussion with a definition of leadership. This can be tough since there are many different definitions. However, I particularly like Tony Robbins’ definition, which describes it as “the ability to influence, inspire and help others become their best selves, building their skills and achieving goals along the way”.

Leadership philosophy has evolved significantly over the years, from the earliest theory of leadership, to ‘the great man’ theory. This latter theory was inspired by the lives of world figures like Alexander the Great, Abraham Lincoln, etc. and basically held that you could only be a good leader if you were destined to be one. In other words, leadership of that period was predicated on predestination. The only flipside of this theory is that it gave leaders an escapist place to hide and an excuse to rationalize misrule.

Over time, this theory was modified to give rise to the ‘trait theory of Leadership.’ This theory attempted to better define the actual traits of a good leader. It admitted that some of those traits of leadership could actually be learned by ‘lesser mortals’ and not necessarily predestined. It however also conceded that many of the leadership virtues were innate.

These two theories had one thing in common: They attempted to describe leadership solely from the perspective of the Leader, i.e. his personality, traits, destiny etc.

However, these now outdated theories have been called into question by the failures of several of these great ‘hero type characters’ both in the past, as well as even in the present. The most recent example of this could be the Ukraine misadventure, where a ‘hero type’ leader like Vladimir Putin has so far been embarrassed by a more transformational leader like Volodymyr Zelensky, who has been able to galvanise his people in Ukraine as well as global support to mount what has been a surprisingly successful defence of Ukraine, against greater odds.

Perhaps as a result of failures like these, the theory of transformational leadership emerged in the late 1970s and mid-80s, shifting the emphasis from this earlier focus on leaders’ personalities to an emphasis on the relationship between the Leader and the ‘led’ i.e. the followers. For example, Bernard M. Bass, in 1985, posited that it was not the individual traits and vision of the Leader that mattered the most, but rather his ability to influence the feelings, attitudes, and commitment of his followers, making them perform above their normal levels of achievement[i].

In other words, good leadership should not only be about the Leader’s personal traits, or his visionary nature, but also about his ability to convey his vision and most of all, about his ability to carry his team through the motion of moving from their current state, to achieving their envisioned state. Indeed, the aspects of leadership associated with recognising the current state or defining or envisioning the desired state are not the most challenging aspects of leadership. Rather, the true test of leadership is the management of the journey and the dynamics of carrying the team along to the final objective.

In Africa, we have been grappling with the flakes of the leadership model bequeathed on us by colonialism. That leadership model derives directly from the heroic person leadership. It has grown over the centuries into a heroic leadership complex. By the time the colonialists left, they were succeeded by leaders who continued in their mould and who are not empathetic to the plights of the people. The leader was and is the hero, rather than a master-servant of the people. It has led to the people literally hero-worshipping their leaders and being grateful to them for performing what is part and parcel of the calling of their offices.

The collapse of leadership in Africa has had a reverberating effect on youths of the continent. Nigeria for example reflects this collapse in the different malaises suffered by the youths. For instance, the level of nepotism that is currently in the country, the collapse of security, the menace of students staying at home for upwards of seven months simply due to the inability of government and the lecturers’ union to come to an accord on issues of funding of universities has a linkage to this collapse. More significantly is the fear that the Nigerian economy can go bankrupt if no urgent steps are taken to halt the decline. From whatever prism you may want to look at it, students are victims of the leadership failure that has afflicted Nigeria.

Youth bridging the Gap in Modern Leadership?

The theme of today’s discussion has as a key component the idea of youth bridging the gaps in modern leadership. We have considered the youth for the purpose of this lecture in line with the National Youth Policy of 2019, to be all persons aged between 15 and 29 years of age[ii]. In considering this topic, one must first ask if there is indeed a gap in the modern leadership landscape?

 A quick overview of the environment around us, both in Nigeria and even Africa as a whole, shows a deplorable leadership situation, where despite undeniable potential and natural resources, our leaders have been unable to generate any meaningful scale of economic returns for our peoples.

As a result, we are faced with high poverty rates across the country and even the continent; huge infrastructure gaps that prevent our teeming youth from expressing themselves in their chosen endeavours; very low rates of job creation, resulting in high and rising rates of unemployment across the country. All of these result in the youth, our most valuable resource, seeking expressions for their dreams outside the continent, sometimes even at the risk of losing their lives in the process.  

If I ask a cross-section of our leaders of tomorrow gathered in this hall what their most enduring aspiration is, after emerging from the laborious and tedious academic journey in the university, at a conservative estimate, nine out of ten of you will confess that you aspire to travel abroad. What that “abroad” means is vague to you. It is like aspiring in a void. “Abroad” in this circumstance could mean jetting off to Europe and America to do menial jobs which have no correlation to the course of study you have studied. For Nigeria, it is a loss but the youth are so disillusioned and so angry with the status-quo that they don’t care. The hopelessness they see in the horizon is so benumbing that all they want is to be able to contribute their own quota to society, no matter what or which that society is.

This brain drain is what has culminated in that queer and innocuous lingo devised by the youth and delivered as a coinage of a Yoruba slang called Japa which has now become popular. Japa means escape from calamity and destruction to come. When any youth succeeds in escaping out of Nigeria, it is celebrated with fanfare on social media as if they had escaped from a Hitler Concentration Camp. It is bothersome.

In the last one or two decades, the youth of Nigeria have been escaping out of the country in very lamentable circumstances. They pay through their noses to travel without papers and most especially through the Mediterranean route where they journey endlessly on the sea. Many of them perish in the process and when asked why they chose such risky adventures in the bid to leave the country, they said living in Nigeria had become as risky as travelling on the Mediterranean!

I must point out that in this bid, Nigeria has lost hundreds of her prime human assets with potentials to rescue her tomorrow from the tragedy that lies ahead.

So in summary, it is indeed accurate to describe the leadership landscape in Nigeria in particular and perhaps Africa as a whole as being replete with gaps which need to be bridged if we are to achieve our aims and objectives as a people or Nation.

Having established the existence of this gap, the next consideration would be whether the youths are ready or equipped to fill this gap in question. This question is a critical one, given the low average age of the youth, as well as their relative inexperience in the area of leadership, moreso given the virtual absence of any form of instruction in leadership studies in the Nigerian educational system.

Considering these factors, one can only say that the average youth in Nigeria is not yet equipped for leadership. However, this is a shortcoming that can be addressed by consciously deepening the youth’s understanding of the concept of leadership.

In view of this, we will spend the rest of this discussion examining the make-up of good leadership, in the hope that this will give the youth here today some basic understanding that will spark their love for leadership and set them on the lifelong quest of learning to become good leaders.

The early interest in leadership in our youth as exhibited by the MEDRHUS is truly commendable, for many reasons. First, the youth make up the large proportion of our society in Nigeria, just over 26% for the age brackets under consideration[iii]. An improved appreciation of leadership among the youth is bound to filter through and escalate to all other segments of the population, with the potential benefit accruing to the country as a whole.

Second, the youth comprise the core of the Nigerian labour force, and an improved appreciation of leadership within the labour force will make for a more effective labour force and thus improved productivity in the Nigerian economy as a whole.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the youth, as we all know, are the ‘leaders of tomorrow’. This is especially so because leadership is a very broad phenomenon which finds application at virtually every segment or level of life. Thus, we can all aspire to become leaders either on campus, in church, in our village associations or even just within our families. As a result, deepening the youth’s grasp of the mechanics of good leadership would position them better to take on the mantles of leadership. This will be achieved in the medium to long term, and thus successfully bridge the gaps in the modern leadership landscape with positive effects for the Nigerian society and economy at large.

Characteristics of Good Leadership

Leadership history is replete with accounts of people who have excelled in their roles as operatives, but who, upon promotion to positions of leadership, either performed at average levels or failed altogether. Some other people as well, of only average operational ability, have risen to be world class leaders, leading their teams to unparalleled achievements over successive years.

This well-known phenomenon goes to show that there are other factors involved in good leadership apart from possession of good technical or work skills. This element has been variously defined as emotional Intelligence[iv].

Emotional intelligence may be decomposed into five individual components that ultimately inform the make-up of a good leader[v]. These include:

  • Self-Awareness – This entails being acutely aware of one’s strengths, weaknesses, emotional triggers, values, goals and their impact on third parties. This character allows the leader to arrange his affairs, so as to take advantage of his strengths for the benefit of the team, while mitigating his weaknesses and limitations. This can be done through delegation, team composition, etc.
  • Self-Regulation – which means the ability to rein in one’s potentially disruptive tendencies for the benefit of the team. This would make a leader who has a bad temper or a ‘caustic tongue’ for example to consciously hold self from venting in the presence of their team or verbally abusing team members to avoid demotivating the team members.
  • Motivation – This is the critical element which leads the good leader to drive towards his goal, just for the satisfaction of achieving the set objective, rather than for the reason of any material rewards. This is informed by a passion for the work itself, which then becomes an unflagging source of energy for the leader and the team as a whole.
  • Empathy – which is the quality of considering other people’s feelings and interests when making decisions. This is an especially critical characteristic in today’s modern world with many cross-cultural and cross professional teams where people with diverse backgrounds and skill sets are expected to collaborate seamlessly.
  • Social Skills – this entails the quality of managing relationships very well with people, resulting in building strong bonds between team members, which are important in moving people towards a shared goal.

Styles of Leadership

In trying to better understand good leadership, either with a view to becoming a more effective team member or indeed in aspiring to take up the mantles of leadership wherever we may find ourselves, it is obvious that not all leaders operate with the same style. In line with this, there are three broad leadership styles, which are:

  • Transactional Leadership – Leaders with this style engage with their followers strictly based on economic influence, relying on reward or punishment to motivate their team members. These leaders tend to be good managers, able to deliver clear and consistent results with reasonable increments over time. However, this style of leadership is generally unable to deliver any revolutionary growth or any performances outside what is contractually agreed.
  • Transformational Leadership – Leaders with this style go beyond the basic transactional relationships with their team members, employing in addition, professional influence. This influence involves motivation of the team members with the challenge offered by the tasks to be undertaken, the learning opportunity for the team members and the overall appeal of the work in question. These leaders tend to be more visionary and charismatic than the transactional leaders. This style of leadership is prone to becoming selfish or narcissistic whereby the leader becomes carried away and builds the vision around himself. A situation Bass described as pseudo-transformational leadership, whereas authentic transformational leadership would involve the leader being guided by ethics.
  • Transcendental Leadership – involves leaders who go even further to motivate their team members with not only reward and punishment, professional learning and capacity development, but also with the promise of satisfying real needs of individuals, groups or societies in general. These leaders are just as visionary and charismatic as the transformational leaders but also exert an even deeper influence through offering the team members the opportunity to satisfy that innate longing in every human being to do something worthwhile for which they may be remembered by posterity. These leaders tend to be servant leaders and therefore tend not to restrict the authority of leadership at the topmost level. By this willing delegation of powers, they therefore tend to be better at developing new leaders within their teams[vi].

What it takes to be a Good Leader

Becoming a great leader is a fairly complex process requiring perseverance, humility and commitment. In summary, this is leadership with a strong sense of mission, where the mission essentially helps discern who is to be served and how, thus giving transcendental leadership which we mentioned earlier, a specific meaning and objective[vii].

This type of leadership involves the leader first connecting strongly with his mission in his mind, and then cascading this connection and focus on the mission across the team or organisation, thus converting the team members also into ‘leaders’. Because these mission-driven leaders serve the mission, their commitment encompasses all areas of the mission apart from the team members extending even to customers, shareholders and any other stakeholders to the mission.

Needless to add, this sort of leaders must subjugate their ego as a large ego would negatively impact their ability to achieve success in any of these dimensions mentioned above. It is only then that a youth leader can truly bridge the leadership gaps that exist around us today.

Building the Leader in Us

In line with our conviction that everyone can be a leader, not only in the future, but even now wherever we may find ourselves, today’s conversation would be incomplete if we didn’t spare a thought for how we can all cultivate our leadership qualities in the immediate.

Sharing from my experience over the last 20 years of business leadership, building and running my various businesses, political leadership while serving in the Enugu State Government, as well as my exposure to good leadership in other aspects of life, I would recommend the following approaches:

  • Never stop learning – the world has always been very dynamic. However, today, with the impact of technology and other emerging influences, life is evolving at supersonic speed. As a result, any leader or aspiring leader who is not constantly upgrading his knowledge base will lose relevance rapidly. This is even easier now with the internet replete with online courses, many of them free of charge! Start today, develop a personal learning plan and stick to it.
  • Seek out opportunities of responsibility or service – Practice makes perfect. The best way to build leadership skills or better understand leadership is to take on positions of responsibility at whatever level you are today, e.g. the Departmental Students Associations, Students’ hostel administration, churches, town and village associations, etc.
  • Build your self-discipline – the leadership elements we mentioned above i.e. self-awareness and self-regulation require high level personal discipline which is not easy to cultivate. Challenge yourself to develop yourself in some way or the other and exercise your personal discipline by convincing yourself to do something beneficial even when it might not necessarily be ‘fun’. Simple areas to use in sharpening your levels of discipline would include punctuality, early rising to prepare before each day, adhering to a personal study plan etc.
  • Learn to be a good team player – It is difficult to be a good leader if you cannot be a good follower. Thus, a critical help in building your leadership skills is building the ability to function well within a team. Learning to think ‘we’ rather than ‘I’, understanding that you can only win when the team wins; working to support weaker members of the team, etc.
  • Build your communication skills – Probably one of the most central responsibilities of the leader is communication. The leader needs this qualification and quality to convey their vision to the team, as well as to settle conflicts within the team, or even in coaching team members etc. This entails the three key skills namely:
    • Speaking or verbal communication. This implies skill sets like tone of voice, grasp of grammar and language, etc.
    • Writing as well as mastery of related technology aids. This is necessary for writing, such as email, various technology tools and applications, etc.
    • Listening
  • Build your decision-making skills which involve honing your ability to absorb and process information (again part of the communication skills mentioned above), the ability to analyse the alternatives available to you, but most critically the courage to take a decision and follow it through with full commitment.

These practices have served me well over the years of my career, and I will attempt to illustrate this using a couple of anecdotes which I shall share with you presently.

The first occurred during my time as a Law student at the University of East London, UK, where I became the President of the Law Students Society during my time in the school. This was in spite of several disadvantages, not least of which was my racial background as a black African. However, I was able to appeal to the electorate (the law students) during the students electioneering campaign by highlighting our areas of common interest in a shared mission, which emphasized issues like:

  • Our need for a revised constitution for the Society
  • The need to introduce the popular practice of mooting in the school for law students for the first time
  • The idea of inviting great alumni of the faculty to address our students from time to time
  • The need to establish a strong relationship with the county courts to give students a real life experience of watching courts in operation
  • The need to pursue the validation of a number of our courses in the school which at that time were not validated

My ability to highlight these areas of common interest removed any attention from my skin colour or country of origin and soon won me a throng of followers who became known as the ‘Peterites’. Building this team (the Peterites) required a careful communication of my vision but the real task as always was being able to carry them along, settling conflicts that came up from time to time, encouraging them during the many trying times and generally ensuring that we never ‘dropped the ball’ along the way. Thus, employing the style of transcendental leadership enabled me win the elections, something I could never have achieved if I had tried to work alone.

The second instance in my experience comes from my stint as Commissioner of Finance and Economic Development in Enugu State between 2005 and 2007, when I was able to galvanise the Ministry to deliver several ground-breaking achievements, not least of which were:

  • Increase in internally generated revenues by over 100%
  • Working with development agencies to restructure the State’s financial record keeping and budgeting practices

These again required me to display some of the features of a transcendental leader in bringing together diverse parties to work towards one goal, including civil servants, consultants, development partners and culminated in the Newswatch magazine at the time in its edition of July 3rd 2006 identifying me as one of the top 10 Commissioners of Finance in Nigeria.

These achievements were no mean feats, considering the general difficulty in changing long-standing practices in the Civil Service. However, it required constantly selling the mission to the various members of the team until they were all convinced, and setting the right tone through my personal commitment to the task, supporting the team members closely until the project was concluded.

Finally, the last but not the least leadership experience I would like to share comes from my leadership of my company, Pinnacle Oil and Gas Limited, from a late entrant into the already mature Nigerian downstream oil and gas industry in 2008, to what is today the leader of the industry in many respects.

This was achieved using innovation, in spite of various factors stacked against us which included:

  • The existence of large and incumbent players in the industry
  • Most of the market having already been taken at the point of our entry into the industry
  • The relatively slow growth of the industry

We were able to assert our leadership of the industry by defining an innovative vision to develop the largest onshore, offshore petroleum products handling and storage facility in Africa. Through tireless communication, we were able to sell this vision, first to my team members, then to the industry regulators and finally, to financial partners who then joined us to achieve this vision. Today, that dream has essentially revolutionized the Nigerian downstream industry. It also gave us leadership in the supply of petroleum products in Nigeria today.  

Again here, coming up with the idea for the project –  i.e. the visioning part – and conveying that vision to others, while it was not necessarily easy, it was not the most difficult part of the journey. By far the most challenging part of the journey which required a large dose of transcendental leadership was the task of maintaining the will and resolve of the team through the 7-8 years it took to deliver the project.

READ ALSO: Barr. Peter Mbah’s guber bid receives endorsement from APC chieftain, Chief Ben Nwoye.

The most awesome of the challenges was the unexampled challenge that we faced during the worst of the COVID 19 lockdown. It was unique because it could drown the best of innovations if not properly encountered. It was a pandemic that came with an unusual and I dare say, atypical situation which we had never experienced before. We had embarked on a construction of our multi-billion Naira facility at the Lekki Free Trade Zone which we could not afford to stop its construction. We had to deploy leadership ingenuity that was not written in any textbook and embark on approaches that were essentially part of the corpus of transcendental leadership that we subscribed to. These and other challenges tasked the project team and required a lot of communication, emotional intelligence, moral fortitude, etc. to successfully cross the finish line.

What then does the Nigerian society need from its leaders of tomorrow? It wants a modern leadership model that is driven by empathy for the people and hunger for the change of status-quo. In earlier discourse, I have highlighted the desirable models which have been tested by nations whose leaderships have made critical and significant differences in their societies.

A call for youth leadership is a call to action. It is a test for young persons gathered in this room and all this generation to be bridge builders in their respective areas and turfs of operations.

What assures us that this is doable is the incomparable energy of youth, the adrenaline to change society that is flowing in you. We must interrogate and demand high standards from the current leaderships of our country. The youth must ask critical questions because it is in doing this that leaders would not take the people for granted. It is no longer business as usual. Indeed, the precipice that Nigeria currently occupies makes it compulsory that we cannot be as docile as we have been over the centuries.

Conclusion

In the course of this short and hopefully insightful conversation, we may have inadvertently given the impression that the leader is a Messiah, all-knowing, perfect and infallible.

If I have, in any way, imputed or suggested that impression, allow me to apologise as nothing can be farther from the truth. Leadership is a journey.

Every leader, at whatever level, is constantly learning and growing to better discharge their ever-evolving responsibilities. On this journey, never be afraid to admit that you are human, imbued with your own weaknesses and fears. Rather, build your teams to complement your shortcomings and mitigate areas where you are likely to go over-board.

Feel free to seek advice on difficult issues from coaches and mentors, so as to keep growing to become the sort of leaders who will ultimately contribute to raising our society and the country as a whole to achieve their lofty potentials.

Thanks for listening and thank you for having me. I wish you success as you step forth to fill the leadership gaps around us.

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