Post-2023: Deep Thinking the Leadership Function in Nigeria’s Future Transformation

Professor Tunji Olaopa

Post-2023, Leadership Function, Nigeria’s Future Transformation, Tunji Olaopa

By  Tunji Olaopa

Conversations and discourses about leadership are global events. And this is because leadership is the fulcrum around which significant events in history have happened. Leadership is defined by results, and not attributes, says Peter Drucker. And yet, leadership is a very elusive and highly complex concept that requires several levels of unraveling to become meaningful.

Despite this, it is axiomatic to see leadership as the cause that transforms reality. This implies, for instance, that performance is what signals a good leader, especially within the context of an organizational progress. Within the context of the state and politics, leadership is benchmarked, for performance rating, against governance parameters. Good governance thus becomes the veritable and verifiable effect of a good leadership. This preliminary understanding gives us a lens to direct at state performance in Nigeria.

This focus on the Nigerian state and its leadership and governance credentials align with my professional concerns as a bureaucrat-scholar whose critical outputs have emanated from the attempt to understand institutional and governance reforms in ways that will enable the Nigerian state make sense of its developmental agenda. And the concern with the nexus between leadership and governance becomes all the more auspicious given Nigeria’s preparation, towards 2023, to elect new sets of leaders into various political posts that will drive Nigeria for, at least, the next four years. This significant reason ties in with another fundamental one: Nigeria’s lackluster competitive performance and rating in global governance indices. On the continental level, Nigeria ranked 34th out of 54 African countries, with a low score of 45.5, compared to Mauritius (1st-77.2), Cape Verde (2nd-73.1), and Seychelles (3rd-72.3). At the global level, the 2021 global governance efficiency index ranks Nigeria at 102 out of 180 countries, with a score of 50.4. similarly, in the state fragility index for 2022, Nigeria stands very near the top of fragility at number 16 with a score of 97.2 (with a mere change of 0.8 from 2021). Nigeria is just fifteen steps away from Yemen at the top of the list.

Where Are the Leaders?

Anthony Lee Iacocca in his 2007 bestselling book, Where Have All the Leaders Gone? asked a most fundamental question that resonates with Africa’s dismal governance performance, even though the question was meant for the United States. Given the many years since independence, we also have a reason to query what has happened to leadership, on the continent and in Nigeria, which has yet to translate into governance and developmental progress. Iacocca’s generic question enables us to generate some other posers with the African political context in mind: (a) why has governance performance been difficult for African leaders? (b) Is it really the case that Africa is unable to produce credible leaders with the competences and capacities to make a unique difference to the frame of governance, especially given the outlier performance in Botswana and Rwanda as exception to the rule? Or could it be that African leaders have been held up to a leadership standard, in global competitive governance indices, that is too strict and unrealistic given the circumstances that define the African politics?

The launch of Waymaker

The implication of these question is simple: how do we begin to understand the nature of leadership in Africa, and especially in Nigeria, that will enable us really appreciate the context of mis-governance and how to outline a way out. In saying leadership is at the core of Nigeria’s institutional and developmental predicaments, we need to articulate a dynamic and framework of leadership that has the capacity to undermines Nigeria’s myriad challenges. For instance, in thinking about the dynamics of leading and leadership, we must consider it a dependent variable that cannot be excluded from its governance environment. As a dependent variable, therefore, it is expected that leadership will have a transformational element that will lead to the alteration of the environment which it supervises or governs. That element benchmarks global best practices to outline a vision of economic and infrastructural development that will improve the quality of life of the citizens.

In thinking about leadership in Nigeria this way, and about the possibility of transforming her governance and development agenda, it becomes logical to compare Nigeria with other countries, like the Asian Tigers (especially Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea), Japan, Malaysia, Botswana, and Rwanda. The issue is simple—what is it about these countries that connects leadership with transformational capacity? Nigeria carries a development burden complicated by a terrible mix of resource curse, mis-governance, prebendalism, economic profligacy, the rentier culture, insecurity, lawlessness, and the bad politics that the Nigerian elites play with everything touching on national progress. No wonder then that there has been serious discussion on whether Nigeria is a failing or an outrightly failed state.

Within the rubric of failing or failed state, the template that must distinguish leadership in Nigeria is the transformation of the Nigerian state into a developmental one. And that demands that leadership must be hitched to a change management that serves as the catalyst for redirecting the developmental process on a path that transform the lives of Nigerians. This development process, we need to note, has hitherto been characterized by high-sounding policy initiatives, programs, visions, and strategies which have become paper tigers lacking in any tangible and implemented outcomes. When these visions and strategies have produced any changes at all, these have been insufficient to generate the kind of transformation that are noticeable in the developmental agenda of the Nigerian state.

The development challenge is therefore that of closing the gap between sound policy initiatives and development plans and the democratic dividends they are supposed to yield in ways that make democratic good governance a tangible benefit for Nigerians. Putting the development process this way clarifies the urgent responsibility of a transformational leadership. This is: interjecting between the development process and the democratic governance with change management dynamics that enable democratic governance yield visible and efficient service delivery and infrastructural development to Nigerians.

To pick up the thread of Iacocca’s fundamental question again, we can begin to highlight the qualities of an impactful leadership that can start hitching together Nigeria’s resources and developmental visions and strategies to make democratic governance good? How does leadership become transformational and impactful? The conventional sense of a leader that transforms reality is captured by the strong or great man theory: a leader is a decisive, intelligent, charismatic and even heroic in his or her capacity to strategize based on compelling best practices and scientific and evidence-based data that are sold in a rational manner to the citizens, and which in the final analysis yields excellent outcomes.

Unfortunately, this vision of a strong, visionary and technical-rational leadership is too idealistic. Every leader is situated within a context of practice. The complex terrains of governance, development and politics, like those presented by the Nigerian state, cannot be that personalized around an individual, no matter the personality traits of such a leader.

Leadership in the Change Space
Being impactful or transformational is about generating legacies that transcend the one who initiated the positive contributions as well as the period the developments were initiated. This automatically implies that an impactful leadership cannot be reckoned with in terms of a solo or individual heroic effort alone. The real heroic element derives from the managerial capacity of a leader to influence—inspire and empower—others, teams and groups, to reach peak performance in achieving some objectives.

A leader that wants to be defined by a legacy is saddled with the responsibility of creating an organizational culture that connects team work, loyalty, trust and capacitation to organizational sustainability, efficient performance and optimal productivity. Leadership in this context subordinates itself to the organizational objectives. These are individuals that Robin Sharma speaks about in his 2010 bestselling book, Leader Who Had No Title—anonymous and silent game changer who works behind the scene of organizational and government decision-making machinery to get things done. These are the type of leaders that Iacocca was searching for. The transformational leadership practice, James McGregor Burns insists, is one in which the leader and the followers are united in the collective dynamic of influencing one another to increasingly higher levels of “morality and motivation”.

In seeing impactful and transformational this way, we strategically contrast the strong/great man theory to the change-space model of leadership. It is easy to read the trajectory of Nigeria’s leadership dynamics since independence in terms of the strong-man theory of leadership—individuals who stand at the apex of the executive decision-making process and direct the policy process according to vision and charisma. Unfortunately, the framework of Nigeria’s development has invalidated this understanding of leadership. To be able to move the Nigerian state and her developmentalist orientation forward, we need new thinking that connects leadership with democratic governance and the aspirations of the citizens with developmental progress.

The change space model is concerned about the change that development ought to bring about; a change that sufficiently meets the aspirations of citizens and transforms the growth and productivity curve of a country. This, as we have noted, derived from the gap between the change envisaged in development plans and vision, and the one actually achieved. And so, to be able to achieve development that facilitates real change, there is the need for a change space. This is because, according to Andrews and others, “organizational and social capacity to change depends on the space to identify change, shift focus towards change demands, and embrace new forms and functions that aid progress and development.” So, the change space emerges when there is acceptance, authority (and accountability) and the capability to facilitate ongoing as well as episodic adjustments. Acceptance has to do with the committed ownership of the change required by both the political leadership and the citizens. Change also requires norms, convention and legal codes that undergird authority and accountability with regard to commitment to the change. The last requirement to certify the change space is the resources—human, fiscal, infrastructural—needed to fast track and implement change.

Leadership in the change space is not defined around traits, positions or authority. On the contrary, it is defined by distributed functionality across different social structures—teams, networks, groups, coalitions, etc. In other words, within this leadership approach, the issue is not who leads but how leadership occurs in actual strategic actions. A change leadership is the one that initiate the change space and motivates it efficiently to achieve desired transformation. This model therefore emphasizes not only the idea of an individual leader with the capacity, competence, authority and charisma to influence and inspire change, but also the model of a graduated or multi-level leadership based on the paradigm that “multiple functions are required to effect change through multiple stages, requiring multiple parties to provide leadership.” This implies that we can switch comfortably between “leader” and “leadership” in understanding how the change space is created and people, ideas, resources and infrastructures are mobilized to catalyze change. The leadership is therefore expected to: (a) build coalition for change; (b) assemble a team with sufficient IQ, wisdom and commitment to initiate, implement and deliver the change; and (c) grant required authority, incentive and support, with accountability, to these team of leaders in their own right, so they could achieve optimal productivity, performance and impact, that will deliver the change.

The significance of the change space demands that the leadership possess four competences that allows it to function efficiently. The leadership must be able to (i) manage attention—this has to do with the introduction of an organizing vision that guides the organization of state; (ii) manage meaning—this speaks with the capacity to communicate this vision to all dimensions of the change space; (iii) manage trust—this is the demonstration of reliability within the space; and (iv) manage self—having to do with the how of engaging others and delegating responsibilities for change. These competences tally with the three levels of deployment. First, there is the strategic level. This concerns CEOs and their capacities not only to assess competences that address management and leadership issues, but to also confront each sector’s demand, and therefore the capacity to proffer solutions without compromising the leader’s accountability for decisions. The second level is tactical. This speaks to the ability to assess available capacities that support management efforts of the CEOs, assess the quality and clarity of strategic thinking as well as the capability to deliver and translate the leader’s statement of intent into excellent service delivery outcomes. The third level is operational. And it includes identifying and working to remove obstacles to performance, as well as encouraging the different units of the government operations to work in harmony to achieve overall results and outcomes.

The Asian Tigers Experience

The narrative of the Asian Tigers becomes critical in outlining the fundamental significance of this understanding of leadership as a core factor in the change space. The development trajectories of Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Taiwan is so incredible because these countries used to be categorized as third world with Nigeria from the 1960s, until their various leadership catapulted them in developmental terms beyond Nigeria’s development hesitancy. This is all the more crucial because these countries, lacking in significant natural endowments and advantages like Nigeria, leveraged strategic intelligence and cognate soft assets to drive national productivity in a measure that launched them into the knowledge age in a generation. The first crucial factor, as we have observed, is leadership. From Lee Kuan Yew and others Tigers, we got the decisiveness of leader-thinkers who, for instance, correctly discerned within the context-specificity of Asia that the neo-liberal approach to economic policy was not a suitable state policy that could accelerate socio-economic status of vertically underdeveloped postcolonial states that are already locked into unequal international political economy dynamics within a dependency structure. Instead, they chose a different path that favored the developmental state model. And this model required harnessing and building internal experts’ capacities while being constantly alert to external interference and distractions. Lee Kuan Yew once emphatically reiterated this commitment:

“Political reform need not go hand in hand with economic liberalisation. I do not believe that if you are libertarian, full of diverse opinions, full of competing ideas in the market place, full of sound and fury, therefore you will succeed.”

Furthermore, the Asian Tigers put some serious emphasis on meritocracy as the critical principle for public service. This enables them to place a zero-level on mediocrity and the sundry politicization of governance and development issues. This allowed for significant discipline placed on development policies, programs and projects implementation, within framework of technical-rational accountability practices, and the performance management of the entire development process. The Confucian spirituality framework also played a significant role in accentuating the role of frugality and investment in productivity. There was also a scaled-up investment in education, as well as research and development, that enhanced human capital development to improve the productivity of the workforce across all sectors. All these states, as the developmental state model demanded, invested heavily in public service reform and reconstruction to enable an administrative strengthening of government’s policymaking capacity.

The examples and development trajectories of the Asian Tigers, as well as those of states like Rwanda and Botswana, reflect badly on Nigeria’s unimpressive leadership and development progress. At sixty-two, we are still struggling with a sustainable development direction to take. The optimism however derives from the fact that the task of governance and institutional reform is always ongoing, and subject to hopeful possibilities. The change space required for governance and institutional transformation, especially in Nigeria and taking the Asian Tigers example, creates an open access for the civic, political and technocratic cum bureaucratic change agents, with all the team members, collegially empowered and incentivized to pursue the change through problem-solving.

Critical Success Factors

There are two further critical success factors that an impactful leadership requires to make a success of the change space. The first is a disciplined tapestry of performance management enables the capability readiness of state institutions, especially the public service, through troubleshooting and impact-oriented interventions. It also anticipates everything that could possibly go wrong with corporate strategy, decision rules, institutions, processes, and people. and the concern for a transformative change space really ties in with the dominant concern of contemporary performance management which is the objective of productivity improvement—capacity to deliver more and better outcomes with less—with greater attention placed on such factors as (a) political will and commitment, (b) application of performance standards and indicators, (c) installation of performance management system, (d) supervision and motivation of staff, (e) staff training, (f) performance budgeting and accounting, and (g) involvement of community and non-state actors. Thus, to get public institutions capability ready, the leadership must institute the following measures. One, there is the need for system rationalization and benchmarking to raise baseline standards to be applied to the assessment of the operational efficiency of methods and processes, competence in the performance of assigned tasks, quality, cost, and timeliness of outputs. Two, the leadership cannot escape the critical relevance of performance contracting to hold managers obligated to specific delivery outcomes using legal and management instruments. Three, the urgency of introducing impact-oriented performance evaluation through design and administration of instruments that attach appropriate weights to, and accurately measure attitudes, aptitudes, competence/job knowledge and skills, outputs and outcomes/impacts. And four: the need to strengthen synergy between contributions and rewards, while also implementing skills upgrading and attitude modification programs.

The second critical factor a leadership needs with regard to the change space of governance and institutional transformation is risk assessment and management. The idea of risk introduces an anticipatory element into the change space. The leadership needs not only to understand, first, that risks are not synonymous with the idea of the “unexpected” emanating from uncertainty. On the contrary, a risk really is a development that is expected to happen at a particular, though unknown, time in the future. Risk analysis and assessment therefore imposes on the leadership the need for scenario analysis and simulation that calculates the probabilities of an institutional repeat of history. Risk assessment thus entails matching the independent with the dependent variables and, based on a review of past trends, coming up with possible scenarios that avoids the expected and the unknown. Besides constructing models that simulate the future, the leadership ought to also ensure the establishment of early warning systems, to anticipate and prepare for unforeseen development like desert encroachments, climate change, floods, rise/fall in oil prices, and possible economic meltdowns.

Attributes of an Impactful Leader
To conclude this exercise in leadership narration, I will outline five cogent attributes of a change space and transformational leadership that could serve as a focus of attention as Nigeria looks with anticipation and apprehension towards 2023. Together with the idea of leadership as a change space influencer, these five attributes keep the leadership on its toes to keep the change space radiating the energies required to make transformation happen. First, the change leader needs a Nehemiah complex to succeed. When Nehemiah heard about the broken walls of Jerusalem, he broke down and lamented what was then obviously an institutional matter. The wall of Jerusalem was significant to the well-being of the city—it was serious breach of protection. But then, that was not all; Nehemiah then acted in the manner of a determined and pragmatic change leader. It was only when he had put all his thoughts together and acted on them that he called together a team.
Carol Pearson, in The Transforming Leader (2012), puts this even better: “Thus, if we want to make significant and long-lasting changes, we must look within before we look without. By bringing our inner world (our thought processes, perspectives, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, capacity for staying centered in the midst of turmoil) into alignment with our outer world (our actions, how we lead, how we live the work, how we work with people), we are better able to transform our leadership and bring about the change we seek.” Leading transforming change entails the leader changing his or her thought processes, emotional intelligence, and capacity for staying centered in the midst of the change. This suggests, within the Nehemiah complex, that change dynamics is a learning process, entailing cognitive re-definition, initial frame disruption, and personal and relational re-alignment. And all this requires from the change leader some significant quantum of honesty, integrity, and leadership by example.
The second attribute is that the change leader must be sophisticated enough to know that there is no one-size-fits-all approaches or styles to leadership. Change process is an untidy cocktail that involves complex iterative steps and feedback loops. While therefore some development problems require transformational approaches, with a measure of ‘big bang’ changes and adjustments in core factors like mission, culture and strategy, some other problems might require a transactional solution, that involves adjusting the incentive structure, system of motivation, strengthening of internal control mechanisms. In other words, for an impactful change leader, there must very often be an initiated balance between transformational and transactional strategies in achieving transformational objectives. Thus, by inspiring others with a larger vision that brings out the best in them, such a leader also gains cooperation through bargaining to get things done, while deferring to rules, regulations and due process as transactional leaders are inclined to do. This does not preclude other development challenges requiring adaptive and technical solutions, and the need to enlist technical expertise to reengineer existing business processes and standard operating systems.
The third attribute follows from the second: the need for the change leader to possess a seminal spirit that opens him or her up to ideas and continuous learning. This is significantly critical within the context of VUCA—volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous—administrative environment that requires that leaders must inevitably manage variables that keep changing with varying circumstances. This implies that there cannot ever be a skill and competency set that would be sufficient for all circumstances. Instead, impactful leaders need to keep building core capacities that are suitable for meeting unanticipated challenges.
A transformational leader cannot a populist or a people pleaser. This is one of the contributions of Niccolò Machiavelli to leadership studies. It is also one solid lesson that the life of Israel’s King Saul teaches. We have seen how being in the change space demands that a change leader must have the collaboration of others to succeed in transforming the environment. However, that cannot be reversed to then mean that such a leader must always act to implement the will of those he or she must influence and inspire to make change happen. The interdependent relationship that obtains between the leadership and its network and teams is that of co-transformational partnership. It does not however make the leadership a slave to opinions and the whims of the change space.
Success is one of the most significant landmines that undermine the transformation demanded by a change space. Thus, a change leader, as the fifth attribute, must come to the axiomatic understanding that success is a moving target. Therefore, the impactful leaders must ingrain in the change teams and networks the crucial point that success is not a destination; only the occasion for more vigilance to keep a watch. Success, either within an organizational perspective or state’s developmental objective is the site for constant renewal of goals. This means that the change space must be built around the resilience that keeps pushing the boundaries of problem-solving, rather than on any modalities that accumulate complacence.
The sixth characteristic is that the change space is founded on the objective of institutionalization. This means that the change leader must institutionalize leadership in the process of inspiring the change teams and solving problems. Structures and systems are required to tackle the challenges for which the change space was created. But they are also meant to constitute the institutional legacy that the change space must leave behind when the leadership changes hands. Transformation cannot be deemed to have taken place if best practices have not been institutionalized to survive the change leadership. A good leadership construct a framework of transformation and change that subsumes and transcends the leadership and the change dynamics.
A corollary attribute is the need to keep investing in culture change as a necessity that confronts and seeks to undermine institutional anomalies. Within the context of the public service, especially in Nigeria, the change space must engage with bureau-pathology to engineer an adaptive organizational culture in the public service system. This might require identifying and enlisting passionate change agents—public administrators, change management strategists, communication specialists, etc.—with the ability to correctly assess current environmental threats and opportunities, and to take steps to create the institutional energy necessary for accomplishment of mission and vision.

Leadership is everything. But contrary to the idea of a stand-alone individual pushing the complex buttons of institutional reform, an impactful and transformational leadership insinuates itself into the change space in ways that inspires and transforms groups, teams, coalitions and networks into working interdependently to achieve specific objectives. The fundamental challenge as Nigeria approaches 2023 democratic transition is the need for such a transformational leadership to emerge that will not only turn Nigeria as a change space that requires the composite leadership class—political and bureaucratic—to formulate policies and inspire a network of change agents to that see Nigeria’s development predicament as what dedication, commitment, foresight and change management can overcome. This is the type of change leadership Nigeria requires from 2023, going forward.

* Professor Tunji Olaopa

Retired Federal Permanent Secretary
& Professor, National Institute
For Policy and Strategic Studies
(NIPSS), Kuru, Jos

(Being Paper Presented at the Launch of Rev. (Dr.) Olasupo Ayokunle, CON – Immediate Past President of the Christian Association of Nigeria & Nigerian Baptist Convention – Waymaker International Ministry, Held on the 21st of October, 2022 at Orita Mefa Baptist Church, Ibadan.)