Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

Lately I’ve been thinking about leadership. Much has been said and written, many trainings are available, but, basically, an effective leader is someone trusted by the community (voters, villagers, employees) to represent and protect them to their satisfaction. When people lose faith in their leader(s) and take matters into their own hands – whether by vote or revolt, the leader(s) and sometimes the entire government quickly become obsolete. When this happens the leader in question often turns his attention to consolidating power rather than leading for the benefit of his constituents. 

For decades here in the US, distrust among the citizenry has played out primarily in the form of voter apathy and public demonstrations, to little avail. Politicians’ distrust of democracy and the electorate has manifested in more insidious ways: gerrymandering, covert actions at home and abroad, lobbying, PAC’s, and the infamous Citizens United decision that legalized bribery via unfettered campaign ‘donations’.

In traditional Liberia, as recently as the 1970’s and 80’s, leadership was inherited but not guaranteed. A Clan Chief or tribal leader retained that position so long as the community was satisfied with their leadership. Many Liberians told me that a good leader was identified as ‘the person the people could rely on to help them’. Simple as that. So long as the community was satisfied, the leader remained in place and the position was inherited. If that confidence was betrayed, he was out.

One colleague who was raised from childhood to become a leader - and went on to serve in the government - literally spent his childhood sitting at his father’s feet, observing the myriad ways his father served the community: Everyone must be sheltered and fed. Conflicts must be settled. Complaints must be heard and resolved. The leader must retain the trust of the community. There can be no favoritism, no bias, no personal gain resulting from back-room deals.

Traditionally, the public face of leadership was almost always male. A woman’s role was subtler. Women would meet privately when gathering water, for example, usually at a spot some distance on foot from the village. There, in nature, at the water’s edge, women could freely discuss the specific dilemmas a family or community was facing. After a decision was reached, they went home to their husbands, particularly the wife or wives of the leader, to advise him what to do. Raucous laughter among the women accompanied this point in the explanation: men could then go to their council gussied up in their best robes, to deliver the ‘solution’ to the problem and be praised. (Many well-meaning NGO’s from Europe and the US foolishly drilled wells in the center of a village, so that the women ‘wouldn’t have to walk so far’.) 

On the other hand, the Pakistani UN peacekeepers sent to Liberia after the civil war felt that their leadership required a soldier’s discipline. Colonel Raza Malik (now Brigadier General, retired) was commander of the Pakistan Battalion II. He spoke passionately about the ways that he and his soldiers served the community: the battalion doctor treated everyone in the community free of charge, often seeing over 100 patients per day – ultimately over 30,000 people, in addition to being on call for the 600+ soldiers in his care. The officers voluntarily fasted one day per week so they could give their rations to the sick, to hungry children and to teachers who were not yet receiving a salary. They distributed books, stationery, and rice as well as clothing they brought from Pakistan – enough for 7,000 people. They gave food and blankets to detainees in the prison. Col. Raza told us, “They were expecting food, they were expecting medicine, they were expecting security, they were expecting peace from us. And so… we had to go much beyond our mandate. And we tried our utmost to come up to their expectations.”

The compound was decorated with quotes from the Koran, with sayings such as, “Killing of a human being is killing of entire humanity, and saving the life of one person is as saving the life of entire humanity.” The soldiers built a community park with a splendid view of the town and the mountains of neighboring Guinea. At the barracks, there was even a small enclosure for animals that needed protection or medical care. 

Col. Raza told us, “Basically, a good soldier is a good peace keeper.  If… he has good discipline, he can lead by personal examples. If he’s a good human being, if he knows the psyche of the people, if he knows their needs, these are the qualities of a soldier, that as a commander I should know the psyche of my soldiers, I should know their requirements, I should know their strong points, I should know their limitations, and accordingly, I should get maximum out of them. Similarly, a good peacekeeper, by making use of these qualities, can even win the hearts and souls and minds of everyone. And then he has to prove that… we really want to establish peace.”

I can’t think of many folks in Washington DC who meet these criteria. Can you? Democracy that circumvents its own legal structures is counterfeit. Foreign aid that is delivered with a political, religious or economic agenda is also counterfeit. NGO’s and church groups who follow their own agendas without input from the community and are more accountable to their funders than to the communities they are supposed to serve, perpetuate ‘learned helplessness’ and rob the community of its own creative genius. By what criteria have we in the West earned the right to call ourselves ‘leaders of the free world’? By whose standards are we to be considered ‘experts’ at peace and democracy?