ActionAid is a global movement of people working together to further human rights and defeat poverty for all.

Civil society’s crisis of leadership and implications for social justice struggles

Monday, June 5, 2017 - 13:07

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This week, I reflect on the important question of leadership. The pretext to the section on ‘our people, culture and structure’ in the 5th Strategy Paper states:

 ‘People will continue to be at the centre of the change that this strategy intends to achieve, individually or collectively. This will be done by aligning our goal with effective leadership, a conducive organisational culture, structure, capability, processes and systems’.

 So, what is effective leadership to which our goal must be aligned and what is the difference between a leader, manager and leadership? Prof Warren Benni distinguishes a leader from a manager in very simple terms - ‘leaders are people who do the right thing, while managers are people who do things right’ - we need both! On his part Dwight Eisenhower looks at leadership as ‘the art of getting someone else to do something you want, because they want to do it’. For leadership to succeed, a leader must therefore be exemplary and inspirational.

All this is particularly important at a time civil society organisations are facing immense credibility challenges and good leaders and leadership appear to be in short supply - some organisations are under investigation; civil society leaders have been accused of being corrupt or abating the vice and trust in leaders by staff appear to be waning. In such a situation, it will be nearly impossible to advance the agenda for social justice. Without getting the right leaders and leadership, at the stage of civil society growth we are in, we will not achieve our goals.

So, if you aspire to be a leader in the next phase, be prepared to subject yourself to a test along the following 10 important traits that we all must demonstrate high ratings on:

 First, you must believe in the new direction and the cause. While some staff may have doubts, and need to be persuaded, a leader who has doubts about the direction of travel will not succeed in providing the effective leadership being looked for.

Second, you must be transformational and not transactional - transformational leaders are the ones who will make other staff believe in themselves and the cause while transactional will simply look at every engagement as a transaction of give and take.

 Third, you must have the courage to lead a social justice struggle. If you are not ready to lead from the front in some instances, it will be difficult to inspire others. It will get tough at times and troops will lose morale, that is the time your leadership will be needed.

Fourth, good leadership is about decentralizing and making sure that others take greater responsibility and are supported to deliver. If as a leader you think you can do everything, you are doomed to fail yourself and the cause. It is not enough to blame staff for not being able - you must inspire them to be able.

Fifth, good leadership comes with responsibility, sometimes even for team members’ failings. A leader who blames everyone except themselves will fail to deliver. Instead of fearing to fail or make mistakes, we should instead have the humility to take responsibility and learn from failures.

Sixth, leadership requires innovation especially around systemic challenges we shall face. At times of stalemate, people will look for leadership and leaders - we must thus be solutions oriented.

Seventh, leadership and leaders for the next phase of our struggle should be intellectually rigorous. There will be many dilemmas we shall face and if a leader has a low appetite to read and think and relies on street talk, they will become the bottleneck at the top of the bottle. 

Eighth and extremely essential is zero-tolerance of corruption, one of the leading injustices in our country. If a leader is corrupt, the entire struggle will get corrupted and such a person’s leadership would never compel others to do right, like Dwight Eisenhower suggests.

Ninth, a leader for the next phase must connect ActionAid Uganda with other social justice struggles. Leadership that is inward looking is not just arrogant but will not achieve what can be achieved in collaboration with others.

Finally, leadership must lead to results. As the saying goes, you can do one hundred things and achieve nothing - don’t make your team busy doing nothing. What constitutes results in a social justice struggle is our ability to shift power and power relations and not just getting leaders to praise us because we are not doing anything that challenges unjust status quo. To this, we shall return next week.

Looking forward to staff and partners who can rise to the occasion for the kind of leadership we need for the new direction.