Thursday, 11 December 2008

Give me hope Obama: comparing the leadership of Obama and Mandela

Can Obama's leadership be compared to that of Mandela? Well, it has - and there seems to be merit in reviewing the former's achievements and standing in the world through a comparison with Nelson Mandela, the esteemed former liberation fighter and South African ex-president.

This blog piece (comparing Obama as a leader with Madiba) was sparked by a cellphone text message I received on the day of Obama's election. A friend advised me that Obama was "the new Mandela".
At first I thought any such comparison - comparing Mandela's leadership style as well as his leadership prowess - was far fetched, something to be discussed in jest or a notion that relied far too much on the colour similarities of the protagonists.

I thought: how can we compare the two? Although we rave at his electoral achievements and applaud his immense potential to effect global change, Obama’s leadership capabilities have not yet been deployed and tested to the hilt. Given my location on Africa’s tip, I at least am not aware of major leadership exploits on his part outside of presidential campaigning. Obama's leadership abilities are similarly not yet known to the many who revere him around the world.

Mandela on the hand has led solidly, with integrity and in a principled manner over a substantial period of time; he has been the dignified and powerful focal point of a historically significant process of change. He has done the time – laying down tracks and pathways that facilitate hope and progressive change in the present and all the way into the future.

His leadership style and greatness has also been forged in the fires of racist repression and enormous personal sacrifice, with himself enduring jail for 27 years. How can Obama be measured against the greatness of Mandela, one may well ask.

But, on further reflection, I realise that a review of their respective leadership approaches can be useful. Though not always a fair and meaningful exercise - and in many ways a discussion of each one's leadership style in relation to the other rather than a comparison of two people – such an exercise can be used to trigger debate and deeper thinking on leadership.

It is worth discussing two interesting views that I have come across in recent months.

According to another close friend, Obama's main appeal – and here similarities with the Mandela phenomenon are very strong – is that he is a peddler of hope. Millions of people in the world project their hopes onto him. In this friend's view, it matters less what Obama is and what he is able to do. What matters is that people who see and hear him have their hopes rekindled and their faith in the future restored. Just as it happened with Mandela, Obama emerges as a leader against a backdrop of worldwide pessimism, worry and fears about the future; at a time when millions wonder whether a better world will be achieved, if armed conflict can be reduced, poverty eradicated and major environmental challenges overcome. Untold millions across the globe are desperate for leadership and a powerful message that can propel us into joint action against the threats we face.

This view – that Obama appeal is linked to the state of the world and to a widespread yearning for a politics of hope – correlates with the view that leaders are (largely) products of their context, and that great leaders often emerge in times of great adversity and uncertainty. In such situations, a leader with a bold vision and a clear message can become larger than life.

Another comment to consider is one made by persons such as Fons van der Velden and Harry Boyle (the latter an academic involved with the Obama campaign). Their view is that Obama's leadership style is distinctive in that he constantly affirms the 'agency' of ordinary people and explicitly eschews the notion of the leader as saviour. (Clearly this view is to some extent in tension with Obama fever in which he as leader is seen as the embodiment of hope). Their view is supported by the narrative that Obama spins. His famous chant is 'Yes we can' rather than 'Yes I can'. At his post-victory speech he announced: "I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to. It belongs to you (meaning the volunteers, organisers and active supporters)". Van der Velden and Boyle see Obama's mode of operation as a reflection of what they term citizen-driven democracy, where the knowledge of experts and the leader's hunches never take precedence over the importance of ensuring citizens have the space to express themselves, make choices and take action.
In comparing Mandela and Obama (as I do below) I see important similarities. Both fare exceedingly well (or so far seems to, in the case of Obama) in terms of core leadership capabilities: framing reality, offering vision, communicating vision, strategic direction, integrity, enthusing people, enrolling others, building teams, developing leaders, guiding action, organisation-building, managing change, building bridges, dealing with setbacks, etc.

But I also see differences. Differences arise from differences in their personal attributes, in their backgrounds, in the challenges they face(d) and in the contexts from which they emerge. Although both operate(d) in the global domain, they address(ed) the world from different platforms and particular vantage points. These differences ensure variation in the patterns of their leadership style – desite great similarity in the underlying fibres, patterns and colour of the raw material. I consider aspects of their leadership profiles below:
Shaped by specific historical circumstancesShaped by specific historical circumstances
Beat the odds: it was unlikely that a black person would be president of the United States. Beat the odds: unlikely that he would be president in his lifetime.
Personally articulates specific policy solutionsBacked by strong party on major policy questions. Less 'hands-on' - greater contribution in the area of vision and high-level objectives.
Bridging leader – brought people together against backdrop of deep-set dividesBridging leader – brought people together against backdrop of deep-set divides
Through moral leadership and expression of powerful vision, communicates an appeal that extends far beyond the party support baseThrough moral leadership and expression of powerful vision, communicates an appeal that extends far beyond the party support base
Ardent democrat &, explicitly, a stalwart of participatory democracy Ardent democrat
Position on imperialism unclear – wants to 'rebuild' the greatness of the US 'block by block' an ensure the US's beacon burns brightAnti-imperialist
(Main focus: to restore pride in the US and to 'reclaim' the American dream)Clear vision to change Africa's position in the world
A source of inspiration and hope; advances the 'politics of possibility' which asserts that change is always possibleA source of inspiration and hope; advanced the 'politics of possibility' which asserts that change is possible
Massive global expectations to use US leadership to being positive change in the world on economic, social and environmental frontsExpectations that he would help shift global power relations and positively change the position of African and developing countries in world affairs
Realistic about what he can do as a leader. Eschews the role of 'saviour' and rejects being cast as a superior being raised into power by The Divine. Has stated: "There will be setbacks and false starts … (b)ut I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face."Realistic about what he alone as leader can accomplish. Eschews the role of 'saviour' and rejects being cast as a superior being raised into power by The Divine. Strove to constantly acknowledge the contribution of others, despite the blind adulation of 'groupies' and past blunders in this regard by bodies such as the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Humble enough to voluntarily step down as South Africa's president after his first term in office
Listens to people; develops campaign strategy and party processes in a manner that facilitates and enables listening to 'the people'Listens to people
Engages ordinary people and constantly advises them on relatively specific and active roles in bringing about change Engages powerfully with ordinary people

What is your view? Do you agree that Obama is, as it were, the younger version of Mandela (as my friend informed me in his cellphone text message)? Or do you share my view that there are important similarities but that these men not only operate(d) in different contexts, but their contributions to the world differ in important ways according to the respective challenges each faced? Please share your view.

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