The locus of our leadership cadre By Ifeanyi Uddin

We are generally agreed, in Nigeria, that the quality (or lack of it) of our leadership is one of the more daunting hurdles we face in the task of moving the economy forward. A cadre for whom “everything is local” is always going to suffer from a severe form of solipsism, against which the benevolence necessary for the design and execution of policies necessary to lift large numbers of our people out of poverty will have scant recourse. Until recently, it was also clear that the “locus” from which our leadership takes its cues is not defective only to the extent that it is ignorant of the issues with which other such leaderships have acquainted themselves, as they broke new grounds. Instead, our leaders have chosen to define their challenges too narrowly.

For a while therefore, the quest for solutions to the national problem has concentrated on refreshing the leadership cadre. In part, this has included a commitment on the part of civil society groups to hold our leaders’ feet closer to the fire. There has also been an element that has sought to grow a new cadre, one with much broader loci. But wouldn’t it be easier were we to broaden the loci against which the current leadership defines itself? It would be a faster approach, if nothing else! So, all things remaining the same, i.e. with “everything remaining local”, once we define the loci as inclusively as possible, then we can (as a people) properly take on board the challenges of development.

There’s one let to this scheme, though. In its design (as with other such pro-people efforts), we often ignore the valence of the support structures underpinning our leaders: the personnel strata immediately beneath the executive branch. It is not enough to agree that a leadership with “local” coordinates will necessarily surround itself with “place men” and “yes men”. There is an additional duty to understand why we appear exceptionally endowed with such men. As part of a small work team, I was recently offered an insight into the possible reasons for the profusion of “yes men” amongst us. An opinionated team lead elicits only one response from her team: “Yes”. In this one instance, the response was agreed amongst team members well before the question was posed. Apparently, according to the team, this kept meetings shorter. Otherwise, you’d come up hard against the lead. And there was a sense that the team member with a need to express her difference was increasingly injurious to group cohesion. Ultimately, despite a strong desire to correct apparent errors at the top of the team, the “cantankerous” member didn’t want to be kicked out of the team (income loss, and all), so over time, she becomes compliant.

I suppose this process has gone through enough iteration in the hallowed spaces of our public service that it has become the “culture”. In the private sector, especially the service industries, the process has a further feature. It sets back-office functions (where all the big cheeses are) against front-desk personnel. Market development and penetration strategies are delineated by the former. The latter acquiesce with a telling nod. Unfortunately, because front-office personnel are more likely to push the customer handle better than the smartest fella ensconced in the head office, the net effect of our preferred leadership model is a failure by private sector firms to meet customers at their point of need. This failure, mirroring as it were, the failure of the civil service to meet voters at their point of need speaks to a much wider problem.

Isn’t all this reflective of a deeper cultural malady? One, which demands biddability to authority and age? One, which, on this basis alone, assures a drop-off in creativity and innovation at the levels where these matter most? I wonder if these questions do not lead to the poser: “Why is it so hard for the private sector to tell that in so far as its economic goal is best served by exceeding customer expectations, the loci for service industries must be as close to the customer as possible?” At least for the private sector success is measured in terms of profitability, and this in turn is a function of how well the customer is served. For the public sector, this thought trajectory falls flat on its face. The question here is how voters may, like customers, hold their service providers to account. Or put differently, “What is the locus of the public service’s power in this country”? In a democracy, this locus is unquestionably “the people”. Alas, we are not yet a democracy!

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