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.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Motlana’s legacy has a powerful message for us

Dr Nthato Motlana, who died recently, leaves a legacy that speaks volumes about where South Africa has been and what it is striving to become. In terms of his political role, Motlana's life speaks of humanitarian opposition to injustice and of a leadership approach that places the stress on its substance rather than the trappings of the leadership role.

Although he had been active in politics before, Motlana shot onto the national stage in 1976. He stepped up as a founder member of the Soweto Committee of Ten to coordinate a wider response and an effective follow-up to the Soweto uprising. He brought links to the broader anti-apartheid struggle; he enhanced those turbulent developments through his stature and focus; his clear, consistent and persuasive communication was a welcome complement to the anger and fervour on the ground.

Motlana paid a stiff price for taking on that leadership role. The state tried and convicted him, detained him without trial, banned him and denied him a passport for over 30 years.

The good doctor ranks among the most admirable and more exemplary nationalist leaders. His involvement was not informed by a desire for political power. He never interacted with others in a superior or domineering manner, was free of airs and graces, and when asked to speak at events – although he expected proper organisation – took part without putting forward a list of VIP-related requirements.

Motlana's passion for education was unquenchable; it pained him that the new South Africa had, by and large, not yet succeeded in bringing quality education to poor and black households. In a sense, he remained dissapointed and concerned that the education struggle he embraced so fervently had not been resolved. Quality education remained stubbornly inaccessible to all - a few got the strawberries and cream of private school education; a bigger number get the bread and cheese of former model C government schooling, but the mass of scholars - multiplied millions - get a type of schooling that includes a glut of poorly trained teachers, broken and absent facilities, budget shortfalls and consistently 'badly performing' schools.

Motlana worked exceptionally well in creating broad fronts – he instinctively understood how educational organisations, community organisation and faith-based organisations could and should work together around a common agenda. His easygoing and inclusive nature meant that – mercifully – he never added to the ego problems one sometimes encounters in multi-stakeholder collaborations. Although no socialist, he worked particularly well with trade union leaders. He could see the common ground, and the possibilities of building a force for change with them.

Long live Motlana's legacy!

Thursday, 4 December 2008

DA recruitment of parliamentarians steams ahead

With all eyes focused on the ANC and its breakaway child, we sometimes forget to track moves within interesting other parties such as the Democratic Alliance.

Some months back the DA startled everyone by advertising for potential parliamentarians – a first for Mzansi. In an advert that was bold and (at least for other parties) provocative, it called for dynamic people who identified with the DA to apply to be considered to become parliamentarians.

Many sloggers and some stalwarts in the party resisted the step (I believe), but Zille stared them down and insisted it was the way to go. Her approach - it seems - is that, if previous attempts to woo voters and people of substance from the black community through the usual membership drives were largely a flop, the party should try new ways.

The recruitment of parliamentarians through an open competitive process combines the following:

  • For 'dynamic' young black people who are partial to public service, a powerful incentive to get involved with the party.
  • Shortening the path to meaningful and leadership roles in the party for talented black professionals.
  • The prospect of immediate rather than long tem change in the party's profile.

That process has now steamed ahead. With applications closed, the DA has apparently netted a bountiful harvest of would-be parliamentarians.

The candidates have been shunted through an assessment process involving interviews, psychometric tests and other 'checks'. This assessment, and I imagine the production of the short list, was conducted by consulting firm Deloitte. In the interviews, candidates were scrutinised regarding their identification with DA free market philosophy and approach to democracy. They were also grilled regarding relevant skills and abilities.

My information is that the DA is extremely chuffed at the haul. They are crowing about the numbers of sharp, talented and potentially high-impact black professionals that have come on board for the process.

Of course, the party that I've supported for yonks, the ANC, is highly aggrieved about the DA move. They believe advertising for parliamentarians is a regrettable development in politics. They accuse the DA of underhand tactics and of unfairly exploiting the unemployment crisis.

The DA initiative does bring to the fore the tension (and the question of balance) in politics between skills and depth of loyalty. The DA seems to be emphasizing the former. Just as in an arranged marriage the idea is to find someone with good qualities and possibly the right genes (and bank on the fact that they can learn to love you), so the DA believes that deeper emotional bonding between party and talented potential leader can come later.

Although the ANC would state that its expectations of representatives include leadership, policymaking and oversight capabilities, the ANC appears in practice to emphasize depth of loyalty.

It is true that, in the old days, when the ANC used the term 'tried and tested' to describe a leader, it referred both to devotion to the party, as well as to effective and tireless service, organising ability, sound understanding of strategy and an ability to enrol new members.

But there is no evidence that this high standard of leadership was not applied when filling the many spaces in national and provincial parliaments. In all likelihood, it would have been too high a benchmark for that purpose.

While many leaders came from the ranks of 'tried and tested' cadres, some got into parliament iprimarily on the basis of inclusiveness, floor crossings manoeuvres, the give-and-take of local list processes and the war games of poaching leaders from other parties.

The ANC shies away from assessing performance of parliamentarians – a step that would foreground the importance of skill and capability, and would create a platform for more focused and result-orientated skills enhancement. However, indications are that such an assessment is far too sensitive. Barely concealing their resistance, many politicians who might be the target of any proposed performance assessment will ask: Who will undertake it, (even if outsourced) who is likely to exploit the findings, how will data be managed and secured and who has the credibility to lead such a process.

And so the question is left hanging: how can the capabilities of parliamentarians be improved so that (a) they have the neccesssary skills to complement their commitment to a political party and (b) they serve democracy and the public interest better?