The problem with our wrongheaded ideas of leadership

Or, How we help those leading us to handicap us

There’s a very worrying way of thinking that’s pervasive in Nigeria (and maybe Africa), we take its normalcy for granted, when it’s really very deadly.

  • The child who turns out poorly is blamed by elders for being a fool.
  • The student who fails is blamed by the teacher for not being serious.
  • The citizens who misbehave are accused by government of not being sensible.

But leadership means taking responsibility, or it means nothing.

A leader doesn’t ask whose fault it is. That’s a question so irrelevant, the answer doesn’t matter. Not because there’s no one at fault. But because someone has to take responsibility for fixing it, and why is the leader the leader if they are waiting for the follower to take the responsibility?

Taking responsibility doesn’t mean fixing it yourself. It means taking it upon yourself to make sure it gets done. And, yes, being prepared to take the blame if it doesn’t.

  • The wise parent takes responsibility for figuring out how to work with the child, however recalcitrant.
  • The serious teacher takes responsibility for figuring out how to help the student get it.
  • The sensible government official takes responsibility for figuring out how to incentivise those he leads to act for their own good.

And if you’re a new employee, a new football coach — and yes, a new president — you don’t get to complain about the mess your predecessor created.

That “mess” is why the job is yours now. Get to work.

A leader asks whose responsibility it is.

That’s what leadership means, or it means nothing.

And as long as we who follow—children, students, citizens—as long as we refuse to separate the person leading from their job of leadership, as long as we fail to recognise that you don’t have to be a bad person to be a bad leader, and that in fact, good but misguided people can be among the worst leaders, we not only give these leaders permission to carry on passing the buck, we prove that we don’t understand leadership ourselves.

For any human being to lead other human beings is not a right. It’s something that should be earned. And we don’t help those who lead us—or ourselves—when we let them forget it.

Because you’re who?

Of course, important as it is to recognise the failure of leadership, the solution, paradoxically, isn’t to simply blame them. The solution is to ourselves prepare to lead. To take the responsibility. There’s a tension there, yes, but the two are different. It’s the difference between, “You messed up and now we’re all doomed!” and “You messed up, but I’ll fix it.”

P.S. This isn’t just about — well, whatever.

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Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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