What do visionary leaders have in common? Trials. History’s greats went through travails unimaginable. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela quickly come to mind. They are fabled as much for their triumphs as well as their travails. Their lives and deaths were dominated by strife. It is the preparation they needed to lead. Providence forces strife and loss on the chosen precisely because a leader’s sense of empathy and responsibility is never genuinely felt otherwise. Mandela is perhaps exceptional in that he had the good fortune of both preparation and good luck. To reach his destined height in history, providence sent him to the one place he would be protected from his own weaknesses. And in that period, the memory we had of him was, as he would have liked to be thought of. He certainly wouldn’t have been able to achieve such a stature bordering on sainthood without those troubles. His greatness came at great personal costs, however. Costs that only the leader must bear; alone. That great African icon must have gone through unimaginable tribulations. One is not talking about his well-known long stay in prison. I refer to the other prison. The prison of the mind; that inner sanctum where the greatest battles are fought. For the naiveté of youth (no relation to age) to give way to the maturity that is required of leadership, the mind requires molding. That process is unbelievably difficult and lonely. A leader must contend with the lifelong loneliness that is his/her fate. The neophyte leader in error thinks company means shared responsibility. Leadership is lonely. The maturity of the leader happens when he masters his loneliness; a process that starts with first realizing it is lifelong. A leader reaches his own when he realizes his true friend and enemy is himself. To one’s mind, all of the leaders in history that have failed or triumphed know that their success or failure first happened in their minds before its eventual projection on their cause or responsibilities.
It is why people who aspire to leadership for its potential glory never achieve it; because that covetousness is precisely what makes leadership elude them. You can easily pick these types of “leaders” from a mile. They are the types who are particular about the pomp and pageantry of their offices. They are those who worry about how they are perceived on an issue not for its strategic necessity (since that is required if your leadership relies on interest groups, a voting public, etc.) but for its vanity. The kind of vanity that comes naturally to all of us. It is thus why men and women who make the ascension to leadership are those who finally happen on their purpose and go headlong with determination, passion, and wisdom towards achieving it. That triumph of self is often achieved through spirituality; but never without preparation. A leader must first define his essence before determining if and when he has the firmness of mind to achieve what providence lay in his path. A leader must first master his mind before even contemplating the thought that he may be deserving of followership. Guardians of the Abrahamic faiths when in possession of political power have always found it necessary to block the path of those covetous of leadership positions. The leaders we celebrate today, our heroes, never wanted power for its sake. Of course, they understood its utility. But they also understood its failings and what it does to a man. It is the reason guardians of institutions (kingmakers of monarchies, human resource units of corporate organisations, leadership scouts) look for leadership potential early on and then mold their potential leaders over time. Countries, kingdoms and institutions that don’t make their leaders go through this painstaking process almost always pay for it in the long run; often at great costs. Unfortunately, a lot of institutions today are mostly structured to notice what could be called “chronic perception managers”. The shallow and insecure types who know how to say the right words to the hearing of power. The types that make the strenuous effort to be liked for its sake. Of course, it is often too late before their character deficit becomes writ large; often in the most public way at great costs to the equity and reputation of their institutions.
The focus of this article is on the leader of a country, however. That President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria is a man of tremendous good luck is widely known. That is, if your interpretation of good fortune is the ascension to opportunities for leadership. Tribulation is as much a common experience of great leaders as it is the reason for their metamorphosis. Periods of crisis in a leader’s stewardship call on his lifelong preparation. The benefit of experience is often that you know when action is an absolute necessity no matter the consequences. The followers of such a leader become the fortunate beneficiaries of the leader’s earlier trials and tribulations. A leader’s evolution must thus first start with those earlier troubles; the costs of which are usually inconsequential during those early years. A student prefect, a local councilor, manager of a small unit, a squadron leader; all these are leadership opportunities that provide preparation for the budding leader. They provide him/her the opportunity to make mistakes; lessons from which become invaluable when the cost of a mistake could mean the difference between life and death. President Jonathan’s naiveté in the face of Boko Haram’s brazenness is a cost all of Nigeria’s 170 million people must now bear. When a people elect a leader, they must live with his failings as well as his strengths for the term of his/her mandate. That it took three weeks for President Jonathan to express a view (or show empathy) on the over two hundred girls kidnapped by Boko Haram borders on the highest level of recklessness. And now it seems the whole incident could have been prevented. Never mind how our national security and sovereignty have perhaps now been compromised. After all, a man who does not mind his house inevitably gives room for the nosy neighbor to adjudicate his affairs. Help that we could have discreetly asked for and accepted is now being symbolically and publicly offered to us; at great cost to our national pride. As a people, we cannot escape blame, however. Our culture of self is partly responsible for our current travails.
“Leaders” are products of their followership. At any time there is a major negative event, the average Nigerian picks up the phone to call his/her family members and that is it. Once we find our family members are fine, we go about our businesses as if nothing happened. We forget how randomness is a crucial factor in the governance of God’s earth. Anyone of us (or our family members) could be a victim of these attacks. When our sisters and daughters are finally rescued, Nigerians must go beyond #BringBackOurGirls and begin to require leadership of our public officials. We should speak up when our elected leaders take on stupendous allowances. We should refuse to renew mandates of those of them we believe have failed us. It is hard to say what prevented President Jonathan from demonstrating leadership in regard of our kidnapped sisters; for he was certainly quick to visit the Nyanya bombing site near Abuja. It is perhaps because of this that a lot of us are beginning to believe the President and his officials considered this matter too trifling. Make no mistake about it, the contemplations of those of us who have not lost loved ones before or haven’t had our dear ones kidnapped before pale in comparison to the anguish of those whose daughters are perhaps going through unimaginable traumas at this time. Their troubles are the culmination of our failings as a people. Our taciturnity in the face of the brazen recklessness and insensitivity of our leaders is finally costing us in the most painful way. #BringBackOurGirls must therefore be the beginning of the regeneration of the soul of our nation. It must mark the beginning of a realization by all of us that our individual actions and inactions inevitably bear upon our commonwealth. President Jonathan may have failed as a leader in this instance; but his failing is also a reflection of our own failing as a people. We, all, are bearing the costs of our passivity in the face of the corruption (in character and in office) and sense of impunity of our elected officials. If after our sisters are rescued (and they will, God-Willing), we all go back to our passive ways; we would have no one to blame but ourselves when our leaders fail us again.