What makes a great leader
What is leadership? If you were to pose that question –– let’s say to a dozen or so persons randomly chosen –– you are quite likely to end up with a dozen different responses. The perennial problem in coming up with a commonly agreed definition of leadership is the tendency of most people to be subjective in their approach to the topic.
As a result, definitions vary, because they reflect what individuals feel about leadership or the expectations they have, rather than on what they know based on hard evidence gleaned through research. When leadership, therefore, is subjected to this kind of clinical examination, people are often surprised to discover that leadership is not what they had thought all along.
Three years ago, in the context of political management training, I did an eye-opening course on leadership, focusing primarily on politics and government. Entitled Prime Ministerial Leadership, this graduate seminar sought to identify common traits dominant in leaders who have been defined by history as outstanding in their time.
Our discussion this week draws on this experience. If you were to ask me to begin by defining an effective leader, I would say, unhesitatingly, someone who sees and shows a way when there seems to be no way; someone who sees light when almost everyone else sees darkness and is able, through a convincing narrative, to get others to buy in to that vision and follow through faith.
When we peruse human history, outstanding examples of this kind of leadership which readily come to mind include the biblical Moses. He offered a promised land flowing with milk and honey instead of a barren wilderness which the ancient Jews only saw. We also have Jesus Christ who offered the joyful kingdom of God as opposed to the corrupt kingdoms of this world. There is also Winston Churchill, Britain’s World War II prime minister, whose inspiring speeches showed victory as the only option.
From the time I have known myself, Barbadians have always demonstrated a passionate interest in leadership, especially the political kind, and, at one stage, also the cricketing kind. It is a recurring subject of debate in rum shops, on talk shows; in fact, wherever men in particular congregate to discuss the issues of the day.
Many Barbadians blame the current state of the country on a lack of effective leadership.
Effective leadership has defined modern Barbados. More than anyone else, the Right Excellent Errol Barrow is synonymous with providing effective leadership. I cannot speak on the Right Excellent Sir Grantley Adams; I was not around in his time. To varying degrees also, the same can be said about Tom Adams. Sir Lloyd Erskine Sandiford, Owen Arthur, and David Thompson, even though his tenure as Prime Minister was relatively short.
Effective leadership, not just in politics but other fields of human endeavour, is shaped by a convergence of various factors. It is anchored in a special kind of behaviour that produces a magnetism which is readily felt and allows an easy connection with people. It is about the exercise of influence to get things done which make a difference; the articulation of a vision which is defined by existing circumstances and is considered relevant because it offers realistic solutions to people’s needs. It is grounded in a narrative that convinces and also motivates.
Some people are naturally born leaders. A good example is Richard Williams, father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams. His taking of two poor black girls from tough Compton and moulding them into champions against considerable odds, emphasize effective leadership qualities.
Another example is David Thompson. From the time he was a teenager, many Barbadians were convinced, because of how he carried himself, that he was a Prime Minister-in-waiting destined for great things.
Leaders, however, can be made –– especially in the media age in which we live. They must be willing, however, to accept guidance from professionals who can help them to adopt the necessary behaviours.
It may not be so, but I am convinced that this possibly happened in the case of Owen Arthur who moved from being viewed initially as a likely one-term Prime Minister to a political colossus by the end of his second term.
When Barbadians criticize Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, what they are essentially saying is that they are not feeling his presence and impact of his leadership in the way they did in the case of his predecessors. In the same way that people determine which products they will or will not buy, they also determine the kind of leadership they want. It is clear that Barbadians have determined what makes an effective leader and are unwilling to settle for less.
Errol Barrow, more than anybody else, set the standard for effective leadership in modern Barbados. Owen Arthur clearly understood this and sought, in various ways, to pattern his behaviour on Barrow’s to the extent that even though he was the leader of the Barbados Labour Party (BLP), he was successful in attracting many Democratic Labour Party (DLP) supporters because in him they saw the likeness of Barrow. The genius of Arthur is that he tapped into this reservoir of goodwill for Barrow in his political branding and almost wrecked the DLP.
The greatness of every leader is determined by his or her relevance to the time in which he or she lives. Therefore, it behooves every leader looking to leave a lasting legacy to carefully study the needs of his or her time, and come up with a realistic strategy for helping people to satisfy these needs.
In the final analysis, effective leadership is not measured by the time spent occupying a leadership position or spouting fancy rhetoric, but by delivering results that make a meaningful difference.
Caribbean people see their leaders as messiah-type father-figures who look out for their interests in the same way a true father would for his children. Which explains, for example, why Antigua’s Vere Bird was called “Papa Bird” and St Lucia’s John Compton “Daddy Compton”. Caribbean people like leaders who stand out but maintain a common touch. They also like leaders who are confident, decisive and tough, wherever necessary, to demonstrate they are in charge.
It is clear, from analysing public debate, that Stuart’s leadership is not meeting the expectations of a large segment of the population. Indeed, it seems his leadership even has acceptance issues within his own DLP. We saw evidence again last Sunday when, in a repeat of what transpired last year, the audience had to be asked to show more enthusiasm after giving a half-hearted response to Stuart before and after he addressed the party’s 60th annual conference.
“Let’s show a lot more appreciation for our party leader and Prime Minister,” pleaded general secretary George Pilgrim. Such would have been unthinkable during the time of Barrow, Sandiford and Thompson. Their mere presence, without a word being uttered, would have been enough to elicit rapturous and sustained applause. If Stuart is having difficulty firing up DLP’s political base, it is hard to imagine a different response at the national level.
Barbadians are signalling a yearning for a new messiah.
(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist.