Call for Recruits: The Cult of Leadership Personality

At one point, the qualitative study of presidential leadership was popular with social scientists. That was before they discovered the credibility of quantitative research. In those numberless days, political scientists studied presidencies behaviorally and placed a high value on the unique, but sadly unquantifiable, attributes that successful presidents leveraged to influence other political actors, such as personality, style and reputation.

At one point, the qualitative study of presidential leadership was popular with social scientists. That was before they discovered the credibility of quantitative research. In those numberless days, political scientists studied presidencies behaviorally and placed a high value on the unique, but sadly unquantifiable, attributes that successful presidents leveraged to influence other political actors, such as personality, style and reputation.

Despite its falling-out with current social science, the presidential cult of personality might merit the indoctrination of some new recruits.
I might be one of them.

With eleven other students, I participated in the Harris School’s International Policy Practicum (IPP) course. The intent of this year’s IPP was to focus primarily on institutions and economic development in Rwanda, and environmental protection in Madagascar. But the contrast between the two nations’ presidential leadership could not have been starker.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame, a rebel army leader-turned-president, restored stability post-genocide. And he oversaw a return to pre-genocide levels of GDP in the first seven years of his presidency. President Kagame combines lofty vision – becoming the ‘Singapore of Africa’ by developing into an information technology hub – with implementation. If Kagame wants IT bandwidth, the cables were laid yesterday, an efficiency that one foreign donor characterized as “awe-inspiring and scary.” Critics question the likelihood of democratic transition at the end of Kagame’s seven-year term. But others feel the more crucial question is if Rwanda’s success is due to Kagame’s particular brand of strong leadership.

Where Rwandan leadership borders on autocratic to its critics, Madagascar’s leadership might count itself fortunate to be called autocratic by its proponents. This would imply some semblance of control in a country whose 2009 coup d’etat installed a 35-year old former DJ and mayor of the capital city Antananarivo, Andry Rajoelina, in the presidential palace. Under the current constitution, Rajoelina is too young to hold the office of president, and maintains that the suspiciously high turnout rates in a recent referendum legitimize his position. Rajoelina’s regime is unrecognized in the eyes of the U.S., the EU, and the African Union.

Pinpointing how the qualities of a leader trickle down into lower leadership, bureaucracy, and citizens is tricky and subjective. Yet, the differences between good and bad leadership, especially in the context of traveling from Rwanda to Madagascar, are inescapable. The contrast is most pronounced in three areas:

Attitude – This is dangerously unquantifiable, but in short: Kagame has focused on cultivating pride in Rwanda. Vision 2020 is the government roadmap to progress, and citizens from the Minister of Health down to his volunteer coordinators quote its content. Malagasy people, on the other hand, expect the status quo in governance. Rather than pride, attitudes tend more toward resignation.

Bureaucracy – Rwanda lacks technical expertise in the lower levels of bureaucracy, but officials are incentivized to seek citizen participation. Mayors sign contracts with the president to meet performance requirements, like enrolling citizens in the universal health insurance plan. The linkage between citizens and bureaucracy comes from the top.

President Kagame dedicates a day to answering the calls and texts of Rwandans on live radio. Last year, that day turned into two. In contrast, Malagasy bureaucrats vary from the competent to the downright corrupt. Many aid agencies pulled out of the nation in the aftermath of the coup. Those who remain look not to leadership but to the technical level of bureaucracy to facilitate what programs still exist.

Corruption – From the highest levels of governance down, Rwanda has succeeded in eradicating corruption. Some argue that Kagame’s crusade against corruption was excessive.Yet, the results are striking: corruption simply is not an issue. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Transparency International once ranked Madagascar as the fourth most corrupt nation in its corruption index, giving some Malagasy citizens cause to joke that their government probably bribed its way out of the top slot.

Bribes are expected in many instances, and it is common knowledge that the government is complicit in the illegal but lucrative sale of natural resources.

International development has, over time, cycled through solutions – from human capital to conditionality measures to good governance – each factor thought to solve the puzzle of prosperity.

The disparities between Rwanda and Madagascar suggests that we cannot dismiss leadership from the development equation. But if developmental success depends heavily on a factor as fleeting as leadership, that is indeed both awe-inspiring and scary.

Susan Parker, is a student at the Harris School, Chicago. She focuses on international policy and national security studies.

 

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