Institutional Crisis in the Leadership Debate, By Tunji Olaopa

Anthony ‘Lee’ Iacocca, the American businessman, titled his 2007 bestseller Where Have All the Leaders Gone? In the book, Iacocca was concerned about the role of leadership in the governance equation of any organisation. In his case, he worried about the lack of direction that characterised the political situation of America. The same worry resonates everywhere that governance fails to meet expectations. This anxiety about leadership is not diminished especially when we consider the relationship that ought to be in place between politics and administration that determines the trajectory of good governance especially within a democracy. The significance of Iacocca’s question is essentially the stress it places on the role of leadership in the evolution of institutions and overall institution building. Where this force is absent, such a state is not going anywhere.

Before my argument is subsumed in nuances, let me state it upfront. I subscribe to the perspective that the future of any nation and the rate of its real development are signalled by the kind of institutions it puts in place. A nation is therefore as good as its institutions or what it makes of them. Leadership effectiveness is thus a function of how effectively the institutions carry the weight of governance and service delivery. The first test for a transformative leader then becomes the priority it places on institutional reform and the building of basic soft infrastructure which will deliver, ultimately, the development outcomes that will in turn translate into good live and prosperity for the teeming masses.

Getting back to the basics, leadership is a critical issue that straddles much of the ongoing research in the human sciences, especially political science, sociology, policy development and public administration. Achebe’s The Trouble with Nigeria is a short but decisive articulation of the leadership predicament in Nigeria. We all have something or the other to say about the role of leadership in nation building. Yet, leadership cannot be the omnipotent variable that explains everything; it needs some explaining itself. Within the discourse, the fundamental debate basically surrounds the causal link between leadership and institutions that a leader presides over. Does leadership explains institutions or it is the institutions that influence how a particular leadership behaves?

Both sides of the divide have their unique contention. For the institutionalists, who a leader is, is a function of the kind of institutions that a state has created for itself. Leaders are therefore strengthened or weakened by existing institutions and structure to become or achieve what they are able to. Thus, a Barack Obama has certain sets of legal and constitutional limitations on his powers. And it was Obama himself who once states that Africa needs strong and behaviour-shaping institutions rather than a strong man. On the other hand, those who advocate the significance of leadership over structures argue essentially that it is actually the presence of a strong man that facilitates the creative combination of centripetal forces and cements their operational dynamics. Without such a strong man or leader, structures and rules would not become institutionalised.

Even though I have simplified this discourse on leadership and institutions, its essence is still clear: We must choose between the agency of the strong man and the strong institutions. I think this is a false opposition. Human behaviour is so vast and complex to be reduced to an either/or distinction. On the contrary, complex issues like the administration of the human society cannot usually be resolved through one-sided analysis—one singular cause cannot explain political or administrative behaviour of the Nigerian state. A better explanation is found in how leadership and institutions interact: Nigeria’s administrative development requires a critical interaction between the strong man and the strong institution. In other words, leadership is often tasked with the fundamental task of engineering and strengthening institutional capacities which in turn determine leadership quality. Both become essential leverage for delivering developmental outcomes that transform the lives of the citizens. A structure can only be as good as the vision that guides its functions.

Nowhere is this more urgent than in the collaboration required to propel the political and administrative leadership to a heightened awareness of pushing our institutions beyond the boundaries of low performances and poor outcomes. ‘If there is a spark of genius in the leadership function at all,’ according to Warren Bennis, then ‘it must lie in this transcending ability…to assemble…a clearly articulated vision of the future that is at once simple, easily understood, clearly desirable, and energizing.’ This vision is represented by the entire institutional dynamics that the leadership supervises and motivates. In Nigeria, this translates into the urgent need to create service delivery machinery, represented by the civil service, which serves as the arrowhead for executing the governance strategies of the government. It is in this sense that the civil service, for Schumpeter, becomes a critical complement to democracy.

It therefore stands to reason that the synergy between these two levels of leadership—the political and the administrative—should facilitate the foundation of effective institutions which would, in turn, define the values and behavioural relationship of the leaders themselves. In this way, we can conveniently transcend the false opposition between leadership and institutions in the administrative framework. What seems certain within the Nigerian context is that the leadership problem is aggravated within an institutional anomie where decisions fail to impact the governance process and agenda. The decision making quotient of the leadership often serve as the strategic fulcrum that motivates the evolution of sustainable institutions. Thus, leadership is inextricably tied with the institutions and structures that influence it.

The failure to propel these institutions to greater performances results, according to Jared Diamond, from four levels of administrative failures that explain why we allow our institutions to deteriorate to a point of incapacity before we recognise the need to reform them. One, the administrators failed to anticipate a problem before it surfaced; two, failure to see the problem for what it is when it surfaced; three, ignoring the problem even when properly perceived; and finally, failure of attempts to resolve the problem. In other words, the leadership factor in institutional renewal fails to utilise the problem-solving capacity of these institutions for development purposes. It is the task of the leadership to bridge the institutional gap that links decision to social policy and implementation in governance. The first incontrovertible step in this direction is the urgent need to capacitate the institutional matrix to do the right thing and to do things right. Capacitance, to use an electrical term, requires the ability to generate enough electrical charge within the civil service institution that will jolt it into development-readiness.

The work of development has been laid out for the civil service to do. And here, the truth is that development outcome is dependent on execution relative to national visioning and strategy by a ratio of 85/15 percent. The bigger task, however, is how to execute in an efficient and effective manner that will translate development policies into development outcomes. For Jeffrey Pfeiffer, ‘A company’s…ability to generate those exceptional returns in a knowledge-based economy is dependent, in large measure, upon its ability to attract, retain, and develop the right work force—and whether it succeeds in unleashing their mental capabilities.’ If we are looking for the right leadership direction, this is the path to look at—the path of administrative capacitance. This is where to locate the leaders Iacocca was looking for.

           Part 2

Our concern in this essay is to outline the institutional requirement that would enable us locate leaders who can activate a good governance trajectory necessary for the development project in Nigeria. In response to Lee Iacocca’s question about the absence of good leaders who are able to turn visions to reality, we argue that, within the Nigerian post-independence context, leaders can be forged within the demands for institutional strengthening. This refers to the process of injecting competences and direction into the Nigerian civil service in a manner that jumpstarts developmental policy management. This answer enables us to reject the false opposition in the human sciences which contrasts leadership to institutions in the understanding of social behaviour and policy direction. In summary, our submission is that the leadership factor is required to do two critical things: first, build and strengthen institutions that will conversely affect leadership values and processes; and second, leveraging these institutional capacities to deliver development outcomes. So, we need leaders and institutions! But how would they emerge?

This contribution addresses the institutional requirements of a capable state which will eventually give birth to acute development awareness in the Nigerian civil service. I want to deploy Professor Yehezkel Dror’s concept of reformcraft as the framework that would help us achieve the administrative capacitance we need to create institutions and leaders. Reformcraft begins with the critical assumption that there is a critical element of leadership required to move any reform forward in any administrative situation. It is this leadership element that stands in the breach between the success and failure of governance calculations. However, for this element to stimulate the evolution of developmental institutions that would achieve development purposes there is the need for a simultaneous deconstructive and reconstructive process. This is especially imperative within our postcolonial context where institutions were foisted without corresponding values.

On the one hand, deconstruction is needed to renegotiate the values and fundamental procedures that ought to drive the operational functioning of the Nigerian civil service. Deconstruction essentially requires undermining Nigeria’s cultural fixation on the British Whitehall tradition of public administration and its ‘fortress mentality’ that turns an otherwise functional administrative Rolls Royce into one without a good engine and a direction. What we now see as a lumbering bureaucracy requires a rejigging that would imbue it with local realities, values and aspirations for progress. Even in the West, the same deconstructive energy is demanding a shift in focus. What is today called the neo-Weberian administrative system is one such attempt to deconstruct underlying values that motivate the governance of a state. This need is more acute in Africa. One serious advantage of a deconstruction of Nigeria’s administrative logic is that it enables us to reflect on and review past reform efforts from the perspective of our historical circumstances and dynamics that can help reformers rethink the trajectory of reforms and make their execution more effective.

One of the central essences of the Udoji Commission of 1974 is the valiant attempt it made to jumpstart the rejuvenation of the civil service system through a paradigm shift to the managerial revolution in administration. The Commission’s substantive recommendations were however abandoned in favour of the trivial dimensions. And the Nigerian civil service missed its most critical deconstructive moment. Managerialism, within an evolving new public service, demands that the existing Weberian framework be reconfigured to accommodate the need for democratic service delivery. Within the civil service system in Nigeria, such a reconfiguration requires tampering with the hierarchies of administrative elites in a manner that brings professionalism and competence to the fore of administrative responsibility. This is the reconstructive imperative for the Nigerian civil service. For T. J. Rodgers, as far as the civil service system in Nigeria is concerned, ‘There are no safe harbors—the only safe harbor is competency.’ Managerialism therefore implicitly envisages, as a core of reformcraft, the creation of a core of new professionals who will represent new dynamics of values, competences and ethics necessary to put in place a performance management matrix needed to transform the institution.

However, the new public service that must evolve in Nigeria requires leaders rather than mere managers or generalist administrators. The 1946 Harragin reform introduced a cadre system which made an enduring distinction between the generalist and the professional. Often generalist-administrators in staff positions know little concerning, say, technical operations. Indeed there is no overriding incentive for staff officers to become too proficient in a given area of specialisation. Yet, within a global administrative framework dedicated to good governance, effective service delivery, knowledge, competencies and innovative administrative technologies, it becomes imperative that the civil servant as administrator/manager be prepared for a deeper level of management that engages, deconstructs and design systems that inject new learning and best practices into a complex administrative framework.

Thus, the professional, ethical and democratic values which constrain the functioning of the civil servants are meant to make leaders of administrators and managers in the new public service. In other words, while administrators remain mere advisers who execute policies and managers are concerned with managing the system efficiently and ensuring that things are done in the right way, the civil servant as a leader is charged with the task of doing the right things. Leaders handle reformcraft and administrative capacitance. They spend much of their time trying to clarify vision, purpose and direction. They confront the complexity of civil service reform with creative flexibility. The leadership of the new public service brings to the exigencies of reformcraft a ‘shared transformative capacity’ that harness the different advantages brought by stakeholders into the governance network made up of governmental and non-governmental organisations all united in the task of facilitating democratic service delivery trajectory.

In the final analysis, capacitating the new public service institution through the reconstructive reform of its leadership element achieves two purposes: (a) it restores the professional status of a civil servant as a person dedicated to the task of implementing policies that are in the public interest with all the arsenal of skills and competences s/he is capable of; and (b) it brings such a civil servant in line with the global outcry for a highly motivated and excellent public servant who can drive the engine of a proactive, citizen-oriented and performance-based civil service institutions urgently required in Nigeria to lead the global good governance practice. It is this leadership talent, the new professionals, which would instigate capacitance—the electric charge the civil service system in Nigeria urgently seeks to transform it into a world class institution that delivers governance and development outcomes.

And the first place to begin redeeming the civil service is first, according to Max de Press, to define its current reality. This reality is essentially that the gap between administrative capacitance and civil service productivity is still a very wide one. Productivity does not come automatically with capacitance; it must be harnessed and achieved through hard work that task the administrative leadership. Capacity without productivity rooted in a functional performance management dynamics is just a means of playing conceptual games with the problems of the civil service. Confronting the reality of reform failures and non-execution will enable the political and administrative leadership to come to term with the barriers and hindrances that will eventually prevent the clarity of vision and limitations on execution. Reformcraft therefore serves as the facilitating framework around which leadership and institutional dynamics interact for the sake of productivity. If reform must achieve the goal of administrative capacitance—the urgent need to electrify the civil service system in Nigeria for its governance and developmental tasks—then we cannot afford to differentiate leadership from the institutional environment which it must influence and within which it must also operate.

Part 3

In previous contributions, we examined how administrative reformcraft can enable the welding of leadership to the establishment of viable and effective institutions. But administrative capacitation cannot be the ultimate destination of reformcraft. In other words, capacitating the civil service system in Nigeria constitutes only the necessary condition for making it a world class institution. The necessary condition is just the first leg of an organisational journey towards distinction. The second leg of that journey—the sufficient condition—that brings the institution of the civil service into global reckoning is its ability to transform its capacities into a burst of sustainable productivity. When leadership and institutions are strategically connected, what ought to result is a deep productivity framework that will change the face of service delivery for the state.

The leadership of the civil service is identified by the level of its organisational intelligence. This is the reason why serious emphasis, in the administrative literature, has been placed on the Senior Executive Service (SES) of the civil service system. It is the higher civil service that serves as the repository of the administrative wisdom deployed towards the productive operation of the civil service institutions. The strategic policy and problem-solving acumen of the SES, moderated by serious attitudinal reorientation about the culture of service, constitutes the forerunner to the possibility of institutional productivity. This implies that the new generation of public managers can only lead the new public service if they readily see themselves as ‘public servants.’ For Albert Schweitzer, ‘The purpose of human life is to serve and to show compassion and the will to help others.’ The public/civil service constitutes one manifestation of such purpose of human life. Thus if, according to Prof Bob Garratt, a fish gets rotten right from its head, the Nigerian civil service must apply reformcraft right to correct that rottenness. It is when the SES is reformed that it can apply electrical capacitance to the entire institutional body.

Attitudinal and professional reorientation for the SES implies turning its attention to the current non-productive profile of the Nigerian civil service, and the urgent need to fast-track its redemption. This is because it is the strategic intelligence of the SES that supervises the productivity paradigm of the civil service. When the civil service functions, it functions for a purpose—increasing the outputs of the civil service relative to its inputs. From the perspective of the citizens, productivity concerns what value they receive from public services in return for the government’s utilisation of public funds. This way of understanding productivity taps into three reasons why public service productivity is very critical in a nation’s socioeconomic matrix: First, the public service is a major employer. Second, the public service is a major provider of services in the economy, particularly business and social services. Third, the public sector is a consumer of tax resources. The overall implication is that a major productivity change in the productivity of the public service is tantamount to a major development impact on the nation’s economy.

‘The only irreplaceable capital an organization possesses,’ Andrew Carnegie insists, ‘is the knowledge and ability of its people. The productivity of that capital depends on how effectively people share their competence with those who can use it.’ For the SES to adequately supervise the productivity paradigm through administrative capacitation requires an intelligent management of the calculus of administrative competitiveness. Put in other words, it requires that the senior public managers creatively combine several factors that go into facilitating the improvement of the civil service performance output. Some of these critical variables include the pay incentive, a competency-based HR function, and a functional performance management system. These variables lie at the heart of the prospect of a world class public service institution capable of stimulating a developmental state in Nigeria.

The civil service is made up of people. Yes. But then, it is not just people that make a system function efficiently and effectively. Rather, what is needed is a critical mass of professionals who have the capacity not only to reduce redundancy but, more importantly, to facilitate sustainable productivity. This is where SES confronts a strong human resource function in the civil service as a critical solution point for fast-tracking change and efficiency. This is a very tough point because the founding of the Nigerian civil service, motivated by the Nigerianisation Policy, was premised on unbridled institutional expansion that has somehow compromised quality for number. The performance gap created has led to a situation where too many people do too little, too few people do too much, and too many do nothing. Standardising HR function demands a strategic framework that integrates critical elements of innovation, best practices, new technologies and a new business model that satisfies the ever-increasing demands of an articulate citizenry.

The next obvious factor in productivity is a competitive pay incentive that enhances performance. Pay and compensation are critical in the productivity framework essentially because they serve to restore trust in the capacity of the government’s ability to meet the demand of a performing workforce. This pay framework essential serves as a capacitating dynamics for ensuring professionals deliver on their professionalism. While we recognise that pay does not always facilitate increase performance, but without it, the performance trajectory does not take off at all. James Goldsmith has counselled that ‘If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys’; and monkeys can play mischiefs with organisational objectives and goals. A viable wage structure therefore becomes a critical component of the administrative intelligence geared to capacitance. Its focus will be to match pay with the professional investment in human resource management that transforms the performance dynamics of the Nigerian civil service. And such wage structure would have to pay attention to skill differentials and performance dynamics. Two professionals occupying different performance scales cannot hope to earn the same salaries.

Both pay structure and the human resource dynamics are founded on a robust performance management system that adequately and creatively harness skills, technologies, ideas and paradigms towards the goal of productivity. Edwards Deming contends that ‘The aim of leadership should be to improve the performance of man and machine, to improve quality, to increase output, and simultaneously to bring pride of workmanship to people.’ The performance management framework involves putting mechanisms in place to steer governance towards the delivery of social services and goods. It entails linking the goals of the public service/national development plans to individual target-setting, appraisal and development. The context for such a system will be the MDAs which serve as the basic unit for carrying out government business in the civil service. The performance management system within the MDAs will achieve three crucial purposes: (a) identify competency gaps and training needs of departments and individual staff required to meet current and future responsibilities; (b) generate a plan of action to achieve desired business objectives and individual competency development; and (c) involve staff and other stakeholders and promote good communication amongst them.

With Lee Iacocca’s question that laments the absence of leaders in focus, we have been able to outline, within the context of the Nigerian civil service, how such leaders can be realised and what the leadership can do to deserve the honorific tag. The honour of leadership is achieved, again in Iacocca’s words, when the new professionals are determined to leave a legacy that they made the civil service system better than they met it. The voice of Chief Jerome Udoji still pierces the predicament of the Nigerian civil service: This is the season of performance management; it is time to be productive!

Dr. Olaopa is Permanent Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Communication Technology in Abuja. Please give him a feedback via email at:  tolaopa2003@gmail.com


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