Leading Rwanda: Fighting and followership

US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg embodied principled and collective leadership. /Courtesy.

Kigali – In the days since US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death at 87 on September 19, there is one particular quotation of hers that has been circulating a lot on the internet: “Fight for the things that you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

There are two key elements of this simple piece of advice that are particularly relevant to the topic of Leadership in Rwanda and beyond during this period:


“Fight for the things you care about …”


It is crucial to remember that leaders are not just managers, administrators and supervisors, who are there to fulfil their job description and meet their pre-set deadlines and targets.


Establishing and achieving goals and objectives are certainly important but true leaders need to ask themselves some more questions beyond: “What do I need to do … and how and when”? 

They also need to ask:

1. What do I really value and believe in as an individual human being?

2.What do I really value and believe in as an organizational/team leader?

3. How do these values and beliefs relate to my role within my community and society as a whole?

4.What am I prepared to say and do to promote and remain true to these values and beliefs?

5. Am I prepared to fight (non-violently) for these values and beliefs?

6. What would I hope to accomplish?

7.What challenges and risks might I face in doing this?”

8.How will I measure my own effectiveness and be accountable for both success and failure?

2.“… do (things) in a way that will lead others to join you.”

In our complex, ever-changing and increasingly dispersed world of work, leaders need to accept and embrace the fact that they cannot do everything themselves. This is particularly important if it is an issue that a leader cares enough about to fight for (non violently).

If leaders try to fight alone or come on too strong with others, US diversity consultant Karen Stinson warns that a principled fighter could actually: “Lose allies … and after a while people may begin to discount what they are saying and even avoid them.”

Instead, leaders must firstly take the time and effort to trust, engage, motivate and fully include people on their team and beyond. Then they should mentor, train and delegate to those who report to them, as appropriate.

A vital component of this more participatory type of leadership is the concept and practice of “Followership”, which has a long and rich history dating back to the times of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu about 2,500 years ago. There are also links to the traditional beliefs of native and aboriginal peoples in Africa, the Americas and Australia.

Followership for Lao Tzu was represented by the oft-cited quotation: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

In modern times, the principle of Followership is embedded in the ethos of W.L. Gore, which is a highly successful, private manufacturing company, based in Delaware, USA.

As the company itself says: “There are no traditional hierarchies at Gore, but we’re not a completely flat organization … Leaders most often emerge based on skill, capability and followership — or their potential to build followership over time.”

Because everyone has a vested interest in the company’s success, the company says that their staff: “Expects a lot from each other: personal responsibility, high ethics and integrity, dedication to high performance, and a commitment to live by our common values … We work each day with an owner’s mindset: challenging ourselves to make choices that will contribute toward … long-term success”.

On a specific, individual level, if leaders have a noble cause to fight for or even just a bright idea, they must attract a “first follower” before others will join in.

According to New-Zealand-based entrepreneur, Derek Sivers: “the first follower risks ridicule in the same way that the initiator does. Once a single person follows the initiative, however, it becomes less risky for others to join. Eventually, as enough people join, it becomes riskier to stay on the sidelines than to become part of the movement.” 

Lastly, true leaders also need to be followers themselves. Building on the earlier quotation from Lao Tzu, Greek philosopher Aristotle said: “He who cannot be a good follower cannot be a leader.” 

The views expressed in this column are entirely those of the writer who can be reached at jeremy@jeremysolomons.com


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