When talk comes round to leadership in the office where I work – which, let’s face it, is fairly often – I’m constantly reminded of the legend of the Sword of Damocles. Damocles was a vain, ambitious and probably ruthless nobleman in the court of King Dionysius of Syracuse, a city on the island of Sicily.
Damocles basically coveted the crown for himself and spent all his time telling Dionysius how lucky he was to be born into such a great, wealthy and powerful position to the point where it all got a bit too much for the king and he invited Damocles to try out being king for himself. Only Dionysius didn’t tell the Damocles that he’d arranged magically for a massive, razor sharp sword to hang above his throne, held mysteriously by just a single strand of a horse’s hair.
All of which is to say that Damocles learned quickly that with power and authority came a price, and being a leader wasn’t so easy. It’s a lesson we might remember today. We’re often very keen to criticise leaders, and often rightly so. In fact, I’m about to do so myself. But before I do, I want to give a big shout out to two African leaders that have recently done their office proud, Macky Sall of Senegal, for proposing a referendum to reduce his own term in office from seven to five years, and Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan, for accepting defeat graciously in Nigeria’s own recent election.
We need more of these examples in Africa, we really do, and this is where I’m going to get critical. Leadership responds to the needs of its time: in a more distant past, for existential reasons, we might have followed a leader that was the strongest in the pack and this blueprint still survives in many respects today whereby a leader is selected on their perceived credentials for best protecting the interests of the group.
Times change, though, and social structures, flexed and melded by trade and migration, have evolved. The Igbos of Eastern Nigeria, from where I hail for example, evolved an interesting governance structure based less on centralised, hereditary leadership and instead on networks of councils of elders whose decisions were upheld as law. Other societies across the African continent developed more centralised political kingdoms along the lines of European monarchies.
But here’s the thing: society needs to adapt its leadership structures to match the challenges of the time. The slave trade and the colonial era may have both left ravaging scars on the structure and fabric of our society but it’s no longer an excuse for the miserable leadership so many of us suffer. Today, more than ever, we need to look ahead, not backwards, to define the leadership to make the 21 century Africa’s century but instead all too often we are left to get by surviving under power structures that are well past their sell by date, propped up by institutions that are not – and probably never have been - fit for any kind of purpose.
So here’s my wish list for a modern Africa leader: first they need to be democratic. It sounds obvious but in too many parts of our glorious continent it is still lacking; in practice even if not in name.
Second, I want an end to strong man politics. Leaders that legitimize their power through force and physical manifestation of strength are basically dictators. They belong in the dustbin of history like all the other wrong ones from times past.
Next comes a commitment to dialogue, followed by inclusiveness and vision. These are the attributes that should inspire trust and followership; not bribes, inducements or threats. And lastly agility; to be able to spot the fast-moving, fast-looming dangers ahead and steer ones people towards calmer currents.
I’m really not asking for much but that is the point: this is leadership 101 and as a continent, as a people, we Africans need to get it right. If we do, we can build the institutions, nurture the talent and unlock the growth to make our emerging continent a place where people want to live. There is no other way to banish the poverty, hunger, extremism and intolerance that has haunted us for too much of our past. Damocles taught us the perils of being attracted to leadership for the wrong reasons: only those with a good heart and grim determination need apply.