Whenever our developmental issues have had to be discussed, discussants have been unanimous that our problems can be blamed on Leadership. Interestingly and ironically, they equally agree that, the solutions rest also with Leadership. In essence, everything rises and falls on Leadership because, “Leadership is cause, everything else is effect.” For the sake of ensuring order and accountability, we – as a people – get things done through leaders, who should be held responsible for whatever results that come out. In Ghana, our Leadership challenges are further compounded by the widely held notion that, ‘Only old people, perhaps forty-five years and above, can lead and also that, a good leader must be ‘hard-nosed’ or a ‘tough’ one.’ This is the ‘Ghanaian Leadership Myth’ that must be broken to allow for the much needed accelerated development. In this piece therefore, I’ll be highlighting the fact that, young people can be exceptional leaders, and thus, they must be given the chance; and also that, being ‘tough’ or ‘hard-nosed’ does not necessarily make a person a good leader.
Interlude: This article was originally written for the the HRFocus Magazine, and appeared as “When The Young Break the Ghanaian Leadership Myth” cover story / theme for the June 2010 Edition of the Magazine. For the HRFocus publication, you may click here.
I also had the occasion to address various concerns about Leadership, in an interview on CitiFM’s Breakfast Show hosted by Bernard Avle. Much of my submission, and this write-up also, were / are based on my books: The Eagle in You, and The True Leader. Listen to a playback of the interview using the link below, or scroll down for the rest of the presentation.
A good working definition of Leadership to help our discussion says, Leadership is the art and science of influencing a person or group of persons (on whom cooperation depends) with the aim of achieving a desired objective or an intended goal. Dr. John Maxwell, the internationally renowned authority on Leadership puts it simply: “Leadership is ‘influence.’” Decades of psychological research has established that, the ability to lead (influence) people is an aptitude (knowledge and skill) like any other technical discipline that can be learnt and practised in repetition with the right attitude, to become a master. This gives credence to the fact that great leaders are made! A person may inherit certain genetic or character traits that may help him or her in leadership, but various research points to the fact that such genetic inheritance plays a rather insignificant role compared to what training (grooming) does. Obviously and scientifically, the young are more predisposed to learning, better than the old, and this innate ability consequently predisposes the young to being better leaders, and even exceptional ones. We see this in the achievements of Jesus Christ, Dr. Marthin Lither King, Bill Gates, Jerry Yang (Yahoo!) Larry Page & Sergey Brin (Google), and the latest kid on the block: Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook). These are persons who have commanded empires in their twenties and thirties. Mark Zuckerberg (The Lead Founder, CEO and President of the world’s most popular social networking website company, Facebook, Inc.) is only 26 years of age.
The Ghanaian Leadership Myth stems largely from our widely held traditional and cultural belief that a person’s level of wisdom is a function of his or her age. In this sense, the older you are the wiser you’re thought to be and therefore, traditionally, the old is considered the ideal choice for a leader and not the young. It is worth noting that there is no scientific justification for this notion and so it still remains just an opinion. Let us agree with Job who says in the Good Book that, “It is not the old that are wise, nor the aged that understand what is right.” (Job 32:9 NRSV) Indeed, psychologists are emphatic that a person’s abilities are more of a function of exposure rather than of age.
The making of Mr. Benjamin Debrah (then 36 years of age) the Managing Director of Barclays Bank Ghana received mixed reactions; likewise the appointment of a few ‘youthful’ ministers in the current government. These were obviously contrary to the norm; positions that had typically been the preserve of the old. For instance, Mr. Benjamin Debrah was being made to lead a large group of people some of whom could be of his father or mother’s age. This was strong enough to bruise the leadership myth. It was easy for Barclays to do it, being a multi-national company that believes in ability to perform rather than age, titles and entitlements. Indeed, Mr. Benjamin Debrah was recruited into the Barclays Fast-track Management Training system, and this is the way we should be going. Engen SA, the oil-marketing company also did it by making Mr. Caleb Ayiku (then a young University graduate with just a few years working experience) the Managing Director of the Ghana operations; a position he occupied for some years and then moved to continue with their Tanzania operations after growing the Ghana business successfully.
One traditional example of a very successful, and possibly exceptional ‘youthful’ leader, is the CEO of Engineers & Planners Group. Currently in his late thirties, he has successfully grown his organisation(s) into an empire from his twenties through good business and organisational leadership.
Leadership has never been a function of ‘age’ but rather, of the ‘will;’ particularly, the willingness to learn, and we agreed that the young ones are better disposed to learning. You know that when the youthful exuberance is properly channeled and focused on any worthwhile goal, great things happen; so it is in the interest of our national development to get more young ones occupying key corporate positions; preceded by the requisite grooming though; like Barclays did! This is more imperative in view of the rate at which the corporate world is quickly becoming ICT driven. The young ones will cope better!
The young ones themselves must understand and appreciate these issues, so that they can make themselves available and viable to attract leadership roles; because, the key here is the willingness to learn. They must have self-confidence and also be hardworking; because, as it is said that, “Big jobs usually go to the men who prove their ability to outgrow small ones.” Thomas Edison said, “We should remember that good fortune often happens when opportunity meets with preparation.”
The other side of the Ghanaian Leadership Myth rests with the different leadership styles found in our organisations. There are three popular leadership styles: democratic, autocratic (authoritarian), and the laissez-faire. The laissez-faire leader remains indifferent to what goes on in his or her circle of influence, and accepts whatever comes out. Obviously one cannot guarantee the attainment of worthwhile goals with such an approach, and it is thus largely ineffective.
The autocratic leader is one who ‘pushes’ his or her people to achieve the set goals without much regard to their feelings; consequently, the psychology, “Workers work just hard enough so that they will not be fired,” strongly comes into play at such a work environment. Such approach (though achieves the set goals) is only partially effective; because, the full potential of the people never gets tapped, no matter how hard the leader pushes. The people will always offer just the least commitment that will retain them; but nothing beyond that, though they may have the potential to achieve far more than the set goals. This is because the people usually feel offended and constantly resent the leader, and would withdraw their commitment at the least opportunity. That’s why the saying, “People do not leave their organisation; they leave their managers (leaders),” is largely true, and thus, worrying. Initially, the leader and the organisation will seem to be winning but the people will be losing; ultimately, the leader and the organisation end up losing. Many otherwise profitable organisations collapse from this.
At the opposite end of the autocratic leader, is the democratic leader; the type of leader who has the feelings of the people at heart above everything else, and is often hesitant at taking the hard decisions because he or she has to exercise extreme care in order not to offend his people. Such a leader is hardly able to get his people to achieve the set goals, even though the people may be happy working in such an environment; the people will seem to be winning whilst the organisation will be losing, and in the final analysis the leader, the people and the organisation all end up losing. This type of leader is only partially effective; just like the autocratic. In either cases, it’s like being a half-leader and not a full-leader.
So then, who is an effective leader? An effective leader is one who is able to – with little time and effort – inspire others to cooperate with him or her and with each other (if in a team) to work together in harmony to achieve intended results or even more (in both quantity and quality), without resentment so that everyone involved feels good about himself or herself, the other people they work with, and the team as a whole. The effective leader must therefore be results-and-people-oriented at the same time, all the time. That means the leader should be able to lead (influence) himself or herself and the people so well that, together, they produce great results in comparatively little time, and the leader, the people and the organisation all benefit in terms of happiness, health and wealth.
In conclusion, the notion that young people may not be able to measure up when given key leadership positions, has no firm grounding. It is just a myth, and for that matter, every well-meaning Ghanaian must consciously embrace the reality that the young ones can perform exceptionally well in leadership. Indeed they are more predisposed to excel as leaders, because they can learn better. If the young ones display the willingness to learn, let’s give them the chance to make the real difference in leadership, especially in the light of the current trend of globalisation and technological advancement, and the need to compete soundly against other countries. We shall be better-of as a nation.