English is one of the world’s most widely spoken languages. The language has evolved significantly over time, transforming from a cultural to a functional language. It is now a global communication tool, rather than a codification and expression of the values and practices of the English people. I am a first-generation immigrant, originally from Nigeria and of the Yoruba tribe. However, some people might consider me to be English, simply because I speak the language and I presently reside in England.
One can be English without any reference to culture. Not so, my mother tongue, Yoruba, which is still very much cultural. The English colonialists referred to the Yoruba as a tribe or ethnic group. Actually, Yoruba is an identity; it spans geographies and crosses racial boundaries. Unlike English, you cannot be ‘Yoruba’ without a sound understanding of the language and its many nuances, inferences and practices. The culture and the language are inseparable. One does not have to be black to be Yoruba, and one could be of black Yoruba parents and not be Yoruba.
It is therefore not surprising that, when translating between Yoruba and English, most words do not have an equivalent. But there are a few notable exceptions. One such is the word “leader” in English. The equivalent in Yoruba is the word “asiwaju”, often shortened, as is common in Yoruba, to the form “asaaju”. It is very interesting to note that in Yoruba and in English, the word is both a noun and a verb. In both languages, it is mostly used in the active sense, i.e., as a verb.
In his world-famous book, “The Road Less Travelled”, M. Scott Peck tells us: “Love is as love does. Love is an act of will — namely, both an intention and an action”. One could say the same for the leader and leadership. Leadership is not an emotion. It is not goodwill or good intentions. Leadership is what a leader does for the good and progress of their community.
Real leaders are an asset to a community. However, in addition to any benefits that are imparted, the connection to, and immersion within, the community, are important. The leader must be a part of the community, else they become a benefactor, a sponsor, or a controller; in order of increasing detachment. He or she feels the community’s emotions and their aspirations. They understand the problems and difficulties inherent in the status quo, and they know what good might look like for the community.
It is important to stress the subjectivity of “good”. What one community considers to be progress might be a step down from the status quo for another. That is why it is important that the leader has unfiltered access to the community’s concept of good. They also need to be aware of the gap between the community’s current and desired future states. Paradoxically, the aspiration to close this gap also presents a quandary. It is allegorical of a critical crossroads where every choice, including hesitation, holds significance. Without change, the undesirable status quo perpetuates, but either delay or a wrong step could plunge the community to even greater depths of despair. Interestingly, this inertia presents a potential leader with a prime opportunity.
Sometime in 2022, I had the good fortune to be invited by my friend @Igbaun Okaisabor, to a talk given by @Soji Apampa on the topic of Professional Ethics and Morals. The session was part of a series of talks organised by the Kaiser Foundation for Social Development (KFSD). One major takeaway for me was the fact that every whole is a product of the synergies between the parts. Good, proactive parts are required to craft a sound and progressive whole, whether that be a country, organisation, institution or neighbourhood.
Soji’s message was that, at all times and in all places, we are all potential leaders, having the choice to be active, indifferent or detached. It was enlightening. I gained new perspectives on latent tensions between each one of us and our environments. It was also challenging. It reminded me that indifference or passivity is not a true option for any, except the hypocrite. There is no neutral ground. We choose, even in apathy, to be part of the problem and to part ways with the agents of positive change.
He deployed illustrations to explore leadership, two of which struck deep resonance with me. The first was the boiling frog apologue, and the second was a quadrant on ethical leadership. The apologue is reactive or reflexive. It speaks to how we respond when thrown in with bad apples. The quadrant is proactive. It shows how we all have some measure of authority or influence, and we can impact our environment in some way. In the illustration below, I have adapted the quadrant, merging ethics and morality on one axis and setting them against strength and resilience of the person on the other axis.
This adapted quadrant reveals four forms in which individuals interact with their environment (context). They are; as a figurehead, a manager, a hypocrite or an inspirator. These are types of roles that a person can play in one context at a given time. However, it is important to state that, at that time, the person will be playing different roles in the various contexts in their life. For example, a person might be a manager at home, a figurehead in church, a hypocrite in the political party, but an inspirational leader in the community football team. The role does not define the person, it merely describes how they engage within a certain context, and at a given time.
Soji stresses the importance of a proactive exertion of influence. But he also states that ethics and morality must form the core of “good” personal or corporate activity. According to him, actions may seem right, but without moral undergirding, they lack lasting goodness. Consider the case of a truck driver aiding stranded bus passengers; initially commendable, until it is revealed that each passenger was obliged to make prior payments in cash or property. True goodness has its roots in ethics and morality.
For the perceptive, Soji’s main thrust was to our collective midriff. If the beam was on black Africa, the spotlight was on Nigeria. Without mentioning Succubus by name, he challenges the shallowness or absence of leadership in Nigeria. Nigerians often speak of a shadowy unelected cabal that, in the popular imagination, runs a parallel government to the elected executive. This is a crystallisation of the portentous “Unknown Soldier” album, released by the late Nigerian musical icon Fela Anikulapo Kuti. The mononymous Fela spoke of the failure of critical parts of the governance infrastructure, culminating in what he termed ‘unknown government’. The ship of state being on the high seas, but there is no one on the bridge, only smoke and shadows.
One might glibly say that this is to be expected where figureheads predominate in the leadership of a given context. But from Soji’s thesis, we gain an alternative perspective: that this is an indication of a high density of ‘parochial cultures’ throughout the context. Because, as he asserts; we all are potential leaders. Each one of us has a scope of influence, by default. We choose, either to impact our environment, or like the frog try to be conformed to it: good or bad. In the illustration, the figurehead sits at the bottom and has the least influence of all the types, as described by the shape and area it occupies. This is the default setting for most of us, until we choose to engage and take responsibility for change.
The figurehead is an exemplar of apparitional power and typifies a deviance that Robert K. Merton identifies in his Strain theory. This is a contradiction, because the person behaves as if they have no influence. While playing this role, we interact with others as one that has given up on the goals and values of the context. The figurehead exhibits a lack of conviction or strength of character, in the context. In an organisation or other formal structure, such a person may have been around for quite a while, but it is not apparent from their interactions. They may be a beneficiary of undeserved elevation, or have had expectation or responsibility foisted upon them, but fail, or refuse to take up responsibility.
As a consequence, the figurehead comes across as aloof or unaware, and is often viewed as distant or lazy. They simply show up. Like a billboard, they point at something, but are totally disconnected from the reference. They appear unconcerned about honesty and integrity, personally or in the collective. This role is a magnet for those at the very bottom of the personality and conviction axes. These persons have also given up on the values of the context and simply survive for as long as they can. The figurehead leaves them alone, lacking the desire or will to challenge or inspire others, and so inertia perpetuates in the context.
However, this lack of engagement means that the figurehead is caught in a hell of sorts. Without change, dissatisfaction will continue and frustrations will grow, further undermining the stability of the context. But, we all start somewhere, and there is good news ahead. Most contexts have few long-standing figureheads. People start out as figureheads in a new context, but they soon move up. Over time they grow in confidence and influence, evolving to exert their influence in a number of ways.
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them”
– William Shakespeare: Twelfth Night
One evolutionary path for the figurehead is towards the hypocrite. The hypocrite exerts powerful influence, but in a limited area. He/she has a strong character (personality) but either lacks moral depth, or has limited overlap with the values that underpin the context. It is not uncommon for hypocrites to be competent and even hardworking, but their disconnection and/or moral shallowness creates tension. This person, by dint of their role or socialisation, knows what is right and good, but, either as an act of rebellion or for personal gain or comfort, chooses to disregard them. If we operate as a hypocrite in a context, we succumb to domination by the ego. Within that context, we would live, mostly to serve ‘me’, and it is often the case that we see the end as justification for the means.
“Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth… We do not have to love. We choose to love.”
– M. Scott Peck
Another evolutionary path for the figurehead is to become a manager. Many more of us evolve to be managers rather than hypocrites, probably because it takes more energy and effort to be and sustain the hypocrite role. The manager is very connected with the context and shares its values. She/he is one that has found resonance with, and is an exemplar of the values of a context. Manager types will often be elevated by their context (community, organisation or group) to a position of relevance, prominence or responsibility. When we function as a manager, we act as value custodians and gatekeepers of what has been achieved along the path to what the community considers to be good.
The manager is therefore a person who has similar aspirations of “good” as the community. They hold themselves up to high standards within the community’s definition of good. Unfortunately, this is not often supported with courage and resilience. The manager type often constrains their ambition and scope of influence to like-minded people. While they always mean well, their aspirations are tempered by a conservative pragmatism. They tend to be risk averse and would rather tolerate the status quo than provoke unpredictable change.
Very few of us start out as an inspirator in any context. Even for those positioned to lead from the outset, connections and relations must be established with those to be led. Some time is required to develop the relationships that open up vistas for nurture. It is important to mention that the opportunity for transformation into an inspirator is a transient portal. When it opens, one must approach it with the utmost enthusiasm and an open mind. Allow me to reframe the concept. There are a variety of vehicles that will conduct a person to their appointment with destiny. The hypocrite flies in on the wings of ego and an enlarged sense of self. The manager arrives under the weight of the cares of the context and those in it. Upon arrival, it is crucial that they both understand that the same vehicle may not be suitable for subsequent voyages.
“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”
– William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar
There is a popular African proverb that has many attributions on the web. It says, “if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together”. If one obtains the opportunity to be an inspirator, that person must become comfortable with heterogeneous company. It is not a solo trip, and you don’t get to choose your co-travellers. Other changes are imperative. The manager must develop strength of character, determination and master how to engage with “strangers”. The hypocrite must learn persuasion, soft power and the importance of compromise.
Both must rise above their initial impetus and be prepared for further metamorphoses. Ego, strength of character, energy, loyalty, value resonance and empathy will be needed to sustain the role of inspirational leader. Those who manage the transformation get to leave enduring footprints in the sands of the context. Others will lose the desire or means to remain, falling back into their previous role, and be soon forgotten.
The inspirator is strong on both axes of the quadrant. They combine deep personal conviction of what is ethical and moral, great courage, imagination, empathy and passionate perseverance. Inspirational leaders hold themselves to the highest standards of commitment, diligence and integrity, and challenge those around them to aspire to similar heights. The core motivation of the inspirator is love. When we choose to love in our context, we are elevated to the highest level of consciousness, as Steve Barrett says, in his book, ‘A New Psychology of Human Well-Being’. The book explores the concept of service consciousness, and can be understood as an exposition of Mahatma Ghandi’s saying: “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of other”.
The Inspirator is a positive example to others. They embody the values of the context and work continuously to evangelise and nurture those values throughout the context. In almost every context, there will be those that just happen to be there, or show up, because options are few or non-existent. People in this state are unreachable by the figurehead, hypocrite or manager. These persons do not have the desire to reach out to others, and the values of the context lack the gravitational influence to draw them in. Their lack of independent propulsion (drive, ambition, goals) means that change will have to be initiated and sustained by an external entity. The hypocrite will not, because they add nothing to his/her corner. The manager cannot, because they are averse to engaging with passivists or non-conformists.
The risks are high and the chances of success are slim. Furthermore, significant resources will need to be invested over time, irrespective of outcome. Only an inspirator can reach or help such person, despite the costs and risks, because they see beyond the present to the potential. The inspirator is a kind of Jesus-bolt. They act as a counterweight to the hypocrite, an ally and motivator to the manager, and a mentor to the figurehead. Every context needs one or more inspirational leaders. Without them, the lifespan of the context could be limited and/or the lifetime be marked by dissatisfaction and disquiet.
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. …
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love
I Corinthians 13
Fortunately, inspirators are not as uncommon as one might think. When most people conceive of this type, their imagination conjures up the usual suspects: religious, political or military leaders, successful business people, daring entrepreneurs and adventurers, distinguished professionals or individuals singled out for public honour. In reality, most of us will play this role in one or more contexts during our lifetime. If you are a loving parent, an unpaid caregiver, a dutiful child, a devoted spouse, a coach or counsellor, a teacher, a champion of causes less spoken for, or a selfless friend, you are an inspirational leader. Yes, you are the one. Surprised? Well, I am not. Here is a paradox. The inspirator, by very nature, does not see themselves as anything special, and might even question the plaudit. Whereas some figureheads or hypocrites might be chafed by those who see them as otherwise of inspirational!
Before I conclude, I should add two qualifications. First; no human being is an inspirational leader in all contexts of their life at any point in time. We all start out as figureheads in most contexts, we soon move on to become managers, which is why we endure in those contexts. But in some places, we are hypocrites, and tellingly, those are contexts where, they don’t like us, we don’t like them, or both. Second; only a few human beings live out their lives without ever being an inspiration in any context. Almost everyone will combine the inspirator in one or more contexts with the other roles in all other contexts.
We are all wired with the capacity to inspire others. When and where we do, we are intentionally selfless, or as Scott Peck says; we choose to love. While it is great that most contexts are dominated by the manager type, but that is like rowing the boat gently down the same river. What if we could attach some skint-hulls to the sides, mount an engine on the aft and remodel the bow? Perhaps we could have a Catamaran and head off into the bay, or venture out onto the open seas! But for that to happen, we need inspirators on the bow and aft, as well as the port and starboard sides. Ghandhi says, “be the change that you want to see”. If we can inspire in one context, we could do same in two, three, or more. It’s time to metamorphosise folks! Let’s change the world, one context at a time. Anyone for the aft?