The eight rules of good leadership
The world is not perfect but there are ways it can be made better, writes Wilmot James
THERE are two characters that exemplify the growing revulsion against injustice in our land. One is Charles Dickens’s Pip who, in Great Expectations, remarked that “in the little world in which children have their existence, there is nothing so finely perceived and finely felt as injustice”.
Amartya Sen introduces his famous book The Idea of Justice (2009) with the story of how Pip recollects the untold suffering he had under his sister’s regime of capricious violence.
He goes on to talk about how the perception of manifest injustice applies to adults too: “What moves us,” says Sen, “is not the realisation that the world falls short of being completely just… but that there are clearly remediable injustices around us that we want to eliminate.”
Sen continues: “This is evident enough in our day-to-day life, with inequities or subjugations from which we may suffer and which we have good reason to resent, but it also applies to more widespread diagnoses of injustice in the wider world in which we live.
“It is fair to assume that Parisians would not have stormed the Bastille, Gandhi would not have challenged the empire on which the sun used not to set, Martin Luther King Jr would not have fought white supremacy in ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ (and Nelson Mandela would not have spent 27 long years in prison) were it not for their sense of manifest injustices that could be overcome.”
It is this inclination to remedy what is possible to remedy in a world of considerable injustice and unfairness that should define the democratic project in South Africa at this time.
In his classic Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues that if we were to think rationally about human existence today a sense of fairness for all should lead us to want everyone to have (1) an equal right to the most extensive liberties compatible with the liberties of all; (2) fair access to opportunities for everyone; and (3) the greatest benefit to the least advantaged consistent with the benefit for all.
Justice would be served if institutions passed the test of Rawls’ propositions.
Then, there is the famous tale of Lion. Lion caught Rabbit in the act of stealing. Njabulo Ndebele (in After the TRC, 2000), as only he can, tells the story: “Rabbit was helping himself to a meal he had found in a trap that Lion had laid in a cave. Lion was enraged and pounced on the thief.
“As Lion was about to devour the culprit, Rabbit screamed in terror that the cave was collapsing, and that both of them would be saved if Lion, who was stronger, propped up the ceiling with his powerful limbs, while Rabbit rushed to find help.
“Lion, caught in the suddenness of a dangerous moment, and instantly grateful that he had not recklessly eaten a source of vital and timely wisdom, immediately sprung up on his hind legs, propping up the roof of the cave with his front paws.
Rabbit sprinted away, and, of course, never returned. Lion remained there in the cave, a living rafter, holding dear life in his own paws, and starting to realise with dread that he was becoming tired. Doom hung over him as he pondered why lions like all cats were biologically made to be so especially vulnerable to fatigue.
Prepared to be buried alive, he finally let go of the roof. Nothing happened. His relief at being alive was momentary, as it dawned on him that he had been fooled.”
Rabbit possessed the twisted intelligence of cunning. His word meant nothing.
He was the artful survivor. Lion commanded the intelligence of wisdom, integrity and steadfastness. He was willing to hold up the roof of the cave for others to be safe.
He carried the reputation of his species for bravery on his broad shoulders. Pip’s visceral recoil at injustice and Lion’s integrity of steadfast purpose define the core aspects of what democrats wish to see in South African public life.
To get there takes democratic leadership. What does democratic leadership mean? Arthur Schlesinger in Cycles of American History remarks that there are eight elements to the definition.
First, leadership refers to the capacity to inspire and mobilise masses of people.
“Leadership makes the world go round. Love no doubt smooths the passage; but love is private transaction between consenting adults. Leadership is a public transaction with history.” Mandela made one of the most extraordinary public transactions with history.
Second, we join those who believe that individuals make a difference in history. It was Karl Marx who said individuals do not make history as they please or under circumstances of their choosing, but we reject out of hand the idea that the course of life is predetermined, whether it is by the “the dialectic” or “the logic of capitalism” or the “national democratic revolution”.
Determinism denies us the freedom to act and to take responsibility for what we choose to do.
Third, the purpose of leadership in a democracy “is to find a means of ordered liberty in a world condemned to everlasting change” under circumstances where there is never enough time or space or information to tackle problems with a sense of confidence.
Political leadership requires creativity under pressure. It also depends on a constant search for consent.
Good democratic leadership urges humanity towards individual freedom, social justice and religious and racial tolerance.
Fourth, democratic leadership is the art of persuading citizens (and members of one’s party) to agree to a creatively crafted plan for innovation even when it goes against their vested interests. Change is always threatening to some. We must, however, remember that the real threat to democracy is not radicalism but stagnation, inertia and habit.
Leadership takes vested interests in the current order and lifts it into the future order. This happens best under circumstances of growth and prosperity.
Fifth, democratic change prefers incremental reform rather than revolution.
The key philosopher of the “open society” Karl Popper (who in the light of the closed communist societies of Eastern Europe wrote The Open Society and its Enemies) made the distinction between piecemeal engineering and the total transformation of society according to some ideological master plan.
Popper preferred successful piecemeal engineering applied with justice. Violence is never a sensible way to change society. Reform avoids the arrogance of revolution.
Sixth, democratic leadership is statecraft by reflection and choice.
It requires having a balance, governed by a constitution, between vigorous executive power and democratic freedom (Americans prefer the expression “republican liberty”, which is more analytically accurate in meaning but easily misunderstood here) that insists on accountability and is perpetually fearful of centralisation and autocratic overreach.
Good leaders use their natural talents and virtues in the vocation of public service.
Seventh, democratic leaders must command the linguistic facility to communicate their vision and mission to society, both in substance and in tone.
Leaders must set the example of talking in a language that is precise, lucid and measured and, in tone, harmonious, balanced and elegant. Leaders must never give up on the quest for linguistic precision nor surrender to the decay and semantic chaos that we have today. Eighth, leaders are imperfect. Some leaders have brought great harm to the world. Others have con- ferred great benefit.
But even good democratic leaders must be treated with a reserve of mistrust, for they are not demigods.
No leader is infallible and every one should be reminded of this at regular intervals.
“Unquestioning submission corrupts leaders and demeans followers.
“Hero worship fortunately generates its own antidote, for every hero becomes a bore at some point. Irreverence irritates leaders but is their salvation.”
Dr James is federal chairman of the DA.
DEMOCRACY IN ACTION: Outgoing South African President Nelson Mandela casts his ballot in June, 1999. Mandela’s leadership was an extraordinary public transaction with history, says the writer.