The subject of leadership has been the stuff of research, study, theory and teaching, certainly since the 5th Century when Thucydides, perhaps the father of study in this area, wrote about the Peloponnesian War and inter alia set out to identify the reasons for Athens’ defeat.
He did this with the examples before him of Pericles, one of the greatest of all political and military strategists and leaders, and of several very unsatisfactory leaders too.
Many theories of leadership have been formed since, and many “solutions” to the problem of producing leaders have been developed.
Some have followed the ‘ideal qualities of a leader’ approach – an approach which suggests that leadership is an inherent innate skill, exemplified by, for example, Nelson Mandela and also arguably Napoleon of France.
Others like John Adair have focussed on the task led approach which suggests that leadership is simply a technical skill which can be taught.
Some have even suggested that leadership qualities can be learned by a sort of osmosis; that all that is required is to identify clearly apparently successful leaders of the past like Pericles – who is regarded as arguably the most influential and prominent statesman in Greece’s history, and of course, South Africa’s hero, the late Nelson Mandela, and imitate them.
With this in mind, how can leaders in the public and private sectors apply leadership qualities to improve their respective institutions? But before coming to that, to me, leadership is first and foremost about getting things done through people.
Without goals and people there is no role for a leader – a blinding glimpse of the obvious but nonetheless true. And if nothing has been done, there has been no effective leadership – by definition.
Also, in the military where leadership qualities are easily traced, leadership is about getting people to do unhesitatingly, and with certainty, dangerous and life threatening tasks which nobody would normally be prepared to do.
Principles of leadership
To begin with, leadership is about two things – first and foremost the task, and secondly the people. Here, the identification and communication of a clear vision of what is to be achieved by the organisation is very critical to achieving success.
Strategies must be clearly explained so that employees understand the benefits attached to that given strategy so that they may give it their all.
Also, as a leader, it is vital that you become easily accessible to your employees or subordinates.
This is firstly because, it allows you to assess the level of your organisation’s morale, which can undoubtedly affect productivity levels, but also, getting close to your employees helps you to understand whether the task ahead is achievable.
This can be done through feedback provided by frontline employees who implement the policies or business ideas of your organisation.
More importantly, praise is as important as reprimand, but much less easy to remember to give.
Leaders ought to set themselves a target of how many people they praise a day simply because it shows employees that their efforts are valued and that someone senior recognises that.
Secondly, leadership whether in the public or private sector, is all about setting clear, comprehensible and obviously justifiable goals. Over the years, many a time, leaders in different settings have failed to set clear goals for their organisations – and this has the ability to affect short, medium and long term plans.
For example, I was shocked when I recently discovered that the now split up Energy, Water and Sanitation Authority, a critical institution in Rwanda charged with providing services as critical as water and electricity, had no formal structure and strategic plan to guide operations.
It then begs the question – how can such an organisation achieve any goals if there isn’t a clear comprehensible plan in place?
And, finally, leaders must remain flexible and agile in the face of changing circumstances. Management and process change is only made because the present situation is not working satisfactorily.
You would be astonished how often this is later forgotten and blame for failure is placed on the fact of change rather than on the failure to implement it properly.
The writer is a UK Parliamentary Intern and holds a Master of Science in Public Services Policy.