What is really behind the abysmal performance of our ‘leaders’?

Sun, 8 Jun 2014 Source: Ohemeng, Yaw

It was Sir Arthur Lewis, once an economic advisor to Dr Kwame Nkrumah, who observed during a Fabians’ Society conference at Clacton-on-Sea (UK) in April 1946 that the educated African natives and intelligentsia were principally interested in acquiring power but that few make a serious study of colonial problems and would know what to do if they acquired that power. This observation is apt today too as we observe floundering leadership and pretenders hoping to take their place.

If you reflect on recent problems – high deficits, fast depreciating local currency, rising youth unemployment, mounting garbage on streets, unreliable power supply and floods in Accra – one can sense that people are disillusioned with those in power and this may even extend to everybody in a leadership position. But did it have to end up this way after 57 years of running our own affairs?

In October last year I wrote an article titled “Ghana: is it leadership or vision that we lack?” Since I wrote that article I have had time to reflect further on leadership in Ghana. I have also had the opportunity to join in forum discussions about leadership. It is gratifying to know that there is a large swathe of the Ghanaian middle class who are thinking and discussing leadership issues. The discussions are deep and objective and have largely avoided the usual NDC-NPP turf war. These have helped me to crystallise my ideas about why our so-called leaders are performing abysmally, which I want to share in this article.

It appears the problems we are facing can be traced to two inter-related factors. The first is the calibre of people who offer themselves for elective positions, not so much their competence but their mindset and how they prepare themselves for office. The second is the type of governance systems and institutions we have created for ourselves.

As a nation, we predominantly rely on superficial considerations when electing people to lead us. We evaluate candidates as if we are seeking to appoint a manager instead of electing a leader. In responding to this, those standing for elective office also campaign on the basis of providing specific public goods. But if you follow presidential elections in the advanced democracies, you hardly ever hear promises about roads, bridges and schools; they rather campaign on higher national goals such as growing the economy, reducing deficits, enhancing national capabilities, improving societal harmony, improving general health, and equipping both citizens and companies to cope better with global competition.

I am not one to say that public goods are not needed - but they should be spoken about within certain frameworks. These frameworks help us to avoid conflicts, to sequence better, to prioritise and to harvest the benefits of reinforcing effects.

Every government delivers welfare to the governed through systems and institutions. The capability of these systems and institutions to deliver is monitored, and periodically, corrections are made where deficiencies are identified. Who has to do the monitoring and make the corrections? Even though the governed may call for changes, largely transformational changes are driven by politicians who are persistent and can inspire changes in behaviour. Such politicians are the real leaders.

Those seeking elective office present themselves as leaders but most of them have no ability to analyse the causes of failure of institutions to deliver. Hence they campaign for office hoping to use the same institutions and systems that have failed. Their campaigns tend to be full of promises with no linkages.

Since the country is resource-rich, they do not even have to do much to bring about economic growth. The economy grows and contracts as commodity prices rise and fall. In other words, the natural resources offer ‘cheap’ sources of funds with which to do the promising. When commodities prices fall, their helplessness is all too apparent. Is it not just pathetic that we are blaming current difficulties on low gold and cocoa prices and failure of donors to release grants promised? One may ask: what did we do to increase the capability of the country when commodity prices were high? Nothing much; probably a lot of the revenues found their way into private pockets.

It was clear at independence that we needed to develop. This could only have come about through continuous transformational change but such change does not come through managers – it comes through leaders. Leaders operate on the principle that: “the only time you have to change something is when it is not broken”. On the other hand managers operate on the principle that: ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Thus so far as everything is ticking along fine, competent managers do well. Their limitations are, however, exposed during crisis when they are required to think big.

I will suggest that we have been in crisis for most of our post-independent years and hence Ghana does not really need Manager-Presidents. It rather needs Leader-Presidents. The difference is what I have pointed out above. The Manager-President presides over existing systems whilst Leader-Presidents persistently pursue imaginative ways of achieving even higher performance. The Leader-President does not rule by handing down disparate amenities to a governed turned into supplicants. Rather Leader-Presidents direct the behaviour of the governed by inspiring them towards achieving higher purpose common goals.

In one of the discussions I was involved in some thought that Ghana needs a strong leader with some even yearning for a ‘benevolent dictator’ type. I disagreed with the following contribution:

“The strong leadership concept does not imply using coercive powers to ensure acceptance or followership. Such prescriptions can work but only for the short term. We need leaders who understand and have experienced our problems. We need leaders who are analytical and have empathy with their people. Above all we need leaders who have a clear view of a development destination, who can prescribe sign-posted actions and can move a critical mass of people to believe in that project. Such is only possible if political leadership emerges from people with causes who are prepared to be activists in those causes. Good leaders believe in the best of their people and are ready to marshal that energy towards realising their mission. In Ghana we need to stop ceding power to elites. We need to devolve both political and economic power to the masses.”

How do we identify people with the qualities described above? It is not that easy given that the sources for obtaining information to weigh candidates are usually distorted. I think it behoves on those aspiring to presidential office to do some self-introspection. They have to know the issues of the times. They have to know the existing systems and institutions through which governance is being exercised. They have to fashion their programs based on whether they would use existing systems, reinforce them, or overhaul them.

Being aware of the times should help them to determine which way to go. If everything is fine and nicely ticking along, they may decide to leave things as they are or perhaps tinker with them a little bit. Things are however not the same – we are living in challenging times. So the question for those tying their laces to contest to become the President of Ghana is: do you know the times we are in and what transformational changes would you make to the delivery systems and institutions?

Our collective destiny is in your own hands – do not offer yourself if you do not have some urging from inside that you have a cause to pursue that will make a favourable difference in the lives of Ghanaians. If this inner urge is not there, you can only be a Manager-President. This is not the time for such Presidents - Ghanaians do not have to endure the hardships of today even one day longer!

Dr Yaw Ohemeng

Columnist: Ohemeng, Yaw