Post-2023, Leadership Function and the Lessons of History for Nigeria

Professor Tunji Olaopa

By Tunji Olaopa


In this piece, I want to further explore deeper issues relating to the lessons that political history of the world around us offer in focusing on the leadership challenges that Nigeria needs to urgently engage with, as we approach the change of leadership baton in 2023. The worry for me still revolve around the concern, that we are focusing more on the dynamics of electing another administration; rather than the far more weightier issue of outlining the critical elements of success for such an administration; etched against the various landmines which explain why previous administration since independence have failed. Leadership success hinges around the capacity to elaborate and implement a change space that harnesses vision and strategy to the managerial capacity to deploy capabilities. That is the key factor that the new administration will and shall be judged by. Chris Hadfield, the Canadian astronaut, once remarked: “Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It’s about keeping your team focused on a goal, and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high, and the consequences really matter.” And he is absolutely right.

It is not really difficult, except a country has become really immune to transformation, to learn specific leadership lessons from the many country-specific transformations that history outline for us globally. There are several countries that have faced down the odds of progress and development to achieve transformative metamorphosis through the deployment of change management with unstinting focus and political will. These are the various lessons that I hope to bring to light in this piece. And I want to start with America’s vision of landing a man on the moon.

In 1962, at the Rice University stadium, President John F. Kennedy gave the now famous “Moon Speech” that gave political will to what is now the series of Apollo Mission to the moon. In his attempting at persuading the American people to sign on to the Apollo program and own it, JFK noted that it was “an hour of change and challenge,” and in a “decade of hope and fear”; and yet he insisted that

We shall send to the moon 240,000 miles away, a giant rocket, more than 300 feet tall on an untried mission to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to Earth. But why some say the moon? Why choose this as our goal? …. We chose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we’re willing to accept. One we are unwilling to postpone. And therefore, as we set sail, we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure that man has ever gone.

Behind the Apollo missions was a marvelous feat of scientific and engineering organization that speaks to the capability of the United States. But beyond the attempt at pioneering what has been called the “greatest adventure in the history of mankind, there is the singular leadership frame that mapped the vision of space travels to national goals and objectives and capabilities. How could mining the space enable a better service delivery for the American people? That is a question that came out of a genuine desire to make democratic governance a template for servicing the social contract. And JFK was committed to that leadership responsibility.

It was also the same leadership commitment that led to the stretch of visionary focus that transformed the United Arab Emirate from a wasteland to an industrialized territory. The Al-Maktoum royal family saw clearly what needed to be done, and they put together a change management framework, backstopped by a stringent political commitment, to push it through. And again, the question is similar to that which got the United States to the moon: what could be done to transform this desert and its entire crude oil resource into a fertile industrial and creative hub that will draw millions of people every year round?

It is this same leadership thrust that runs through the transformational experiences of Japan, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and the Asian Tigers. Thus, for example, the leadership dynamics of post-1945 Japan and the Asian Tigers—Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea—latched onto the developmental state paradigm as the framework for national economic recovery and transformation. With the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), Japan in 1945 forced itself into economic transformation through policies that favored economic development. And in the same sense in which post-war Japan managed the intrusion of external forces in the rehabilitation of its economic growth trajectory, the Asian Tigers also crafted specific policies that undermined the limitations of neoliberal economic agenda and its dependency ideology.

Now I return to the powerful leadership lessons the Apollo missions in the United States can teach a postcolonial Nigerian state yearning for transformation. The secret lies in the change management elements that makes the change space a context of institutional reform and transformation. The first lesson is that, in leadership terms, visions and ideas matter as the fundamental conditions, in development planning, for undermining difficulties. JFK recognized the hard times, but insisted the moon landing must be done in spite of the challenges of the time. Ideation is courage to dare difficulties. And sometimes, these ideas come from the most unlikely of places. The idea for the machinery that transported the Saturn V from the assembly line to the launch pad came from a mere operation team member. A leader who lacks foresight would have ignored such a mere individual. In the change space the incoming administration must create, post-2023, ideas must be sought everywhere.

The second lesson is that leadership in the change space is concerted and collaborative. It is a function of a seamless synergy that ensures that members—government officials, functionaries, politicians, professionals, all work together efficiently even if they are not on speaking terms! The three fundamental astronauts that made the first Apollo mission successful—Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin Aldrin—all had different personalities and temperament. And yet the Apollo landed on the moon. In Nigeria, ethnic and religious affiliation need not constitute barriers to efficiency. In Nigeria, there are so many ideas that had died in the furnace of ethnic rivalries. How can an Igbo person have any idea? What can an Ijaw person ever hope to achieve? A Hausa politician is cunning. Stereotypes that kill ideational initiatives and possibilities.

The third corollary lesson is straight forward: not everyone in the change space can be the leader but everyone matters. The truth about the change space is actually that everyone is a leader, even if not everyone makes the commanding decision. Michael Collins was just satisfied with orbiting the moon while waiting for Armstrong and Aldrin to return. And in turn, those in the commanding seats, like Armstrong, must possess the confidence to go through with the most difficult decision, no matter the circumstances.Within Nigeria’s dysfunctional political and developmental space, Collins would have rebelled against such a “demeaning” responsibility. Collins did not. A vice president can be content with being the vice president as long as he or she sees the significance of that position in the larger picture of things.

The fourth lesson is enormous. The change space that made the Apollo project possible and successful was made up of over 300,000 people. This speaks to the inevitable element of partnership. Governance is no longer the sole preserve of the government in the twenty-first century. If the Apollo mission required the collaboration between the government and the private sector, as well as the American public, Nigeria’s post-2023 governance frame does not require less. The public-private partnership model must become a fundamental template for making governance work, and the Nigerian state genuinely developmental. Governance is too fundamental to be left to the government all alone! The fifth lesson is close to the fourth: the workforce strength of the Apollo mission did not just rely on motivation. That motivation was incentivized. Those involved in the eventual success of the mission were motivated by job satisfaction. This is even more critical in the context of the public service institutional reform that the incoming administration needs to urgently factor into the transformation agenda. Workforce culture change and professional satisfaction play significant role in performance and productivity achievement. This is simply axiomatic.

The last lesson is the willingness to learn from mistakes. Apollo 11 was successful because of the lessons learnt from the failure of Apollo 1. In governance, successes and failures are opportunities to learn institutional lessons. And that is even more so for the Nigerian state whose reform measures often lack evaluative components. We have approximately sixty-three years of trial and error to learn from in making post-2023 Nigeria an opportunity to eventually get it right. When the Apollo mission eventually became a success, America was the better for it. The UAE is now unrivaled in terms of governance vision. So also are those places, from the UK to New Zealand where the leadership made things happen, despite and in spite of difficulties and terrible circumstances. Nigeria is not peculiarly different in this sense. If we have to mine the sea-beds to get the materials that make the highways solid and motorable, then we have to do it. If we have to import foreigners to make our healthcare system super-efficient, that is the right way to go!

*Tunji Olaopa, a retired Federal Permanent Secretary, is a Professor at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, Plateau State.