By Dominic Atika
Now, leadership is as complicated a concept as love. What exactly makes a great leader? What doesn’t constitute leadership? And how much of an influence is education on the very idea of leadership?
In the quest to address the question of leadership, a great many theories have been advanced over time. The Great Man Theory, the Trait Theory, Behavioral Theories, Contingency Leadership Theories, Transactional Theories and Transformational Theories of Leadership are all examples of such schools of thought.
The Great Man Theory assumes the traits of leadership are intrinsic – that great leaders are born. Hardly music to anyone’s ears. Behavioral Leadership Theories, on the other hand, seek to affirm leaders are made, not born.
The Trait Theory of Leadership analyzes mental, physical and social characteristics, and asserts that certain qualities such as intelligence, a sense of responsibility and creativity all come together to constitute the core of good leadership; while the Contingency Leadership Theory argues there is no single way of leading, and that every leadership style should be based on certain situations.
Transactional Theories, also known as Exchange Theories of Leadership, are characterized by the fundamental existence of a transaction made between a leader and their followers. In fact, the theory values the significance of a positive and mutually beneficial relationship.
What it Is
I believe leadership is an amalgam of most of the aforementioned postulates – that there are indeed bare minimums for leadership, that leadership styles are often situational and contextual, and that there has to exist some form of give-and-take between a leader and their followers.
History has taught us that leadership isn’t always about navigating uncharted waters. It can sometimes be as banal as simply doing the right thing – as vapid as doing ordinary things, except in extraordinary ways. One thing is clear, though: Exceptional leaders are often those individuals that muster the audacity to inspire not just themselves, but everyone else to hitch their wagons to something larger than themselves. For them to do so, I believe there are a number of factors that play into their success.
It’s the ability to look ahead and into the future, the sometimes aberrant capacity to forge a caricature of what things can and possibly ought to look like that has, throughout history, defined great leaders. Exceptional leaders are defined by their sense of vision – their ability to anticipate important issues and proactively devise strategies to meet them. Napoleon Bonaparte, Sir Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela are all known for their incredible sense of vision.
I like to think that if leadership were to be an atom, then responsibility would be its ‘nucleus’. If and when you become a leader, you automatically assume the risk of blame. No buts about that. Everything’s got a price, and responsibility is leadership’s. There ought to be some form of exchange between a leader and their followers, and the one thing that begins to cover it is when a leader undertakes to own up full responsibility for their own, as well as for others’ (provided they belong in their territory) actions, in exchange for the privilege to lead.
Altruism. It’s what inspired Nelson Mandela to give up his own freedom for the freedom of others, or Abraham Lincoln to champion the abolition of slavery, or Mother Teresa to dedicate her life to serving humanity, or Mahatma Gandhi to make the sacrifices he made for civil rights and freedom.
Integrity is all about honesty and fidelity, be it to a cause, a goal, or an effort. And because leadership is always a function of purpose, it’s only requisite that a leader breathes integrity. There really can’t be leadership without integrity – it is the glue that holds all the other facets of leadership in place.
Sedulous. Careful. It’s how we all would want to describe our leaders. Anything short of that and everything gets topsy-turvy. Leadership is about offering a sense of direction. Naturally, without caution and thoughtfulness, this becomes almost impossible. It’s the reason all leaders have an obligation to measure their every word and act, especially because they understand that these certainly have implications on other people’s lives.
What it’s Not
We all agree leadership isn’t a number of things. What we don’t agree on, however, is what those things are. Everything, it seems, is up for debate here. I wish to express my convictions regarding one highly controversial yet pertinent dimension: Education.
Is Education a Prerequisite for Leadership?
Now this is what anyone would ordinarily call a really good question. Before I embark on trying to answer it, perhaps a definition of education and a determination of its relation to knowledge would be a good place to start.
In its most basic sense, education is understood to be a process of teaching, training and learning, especially in a formal setting. It’s important to note the word especially, because it underlies, albeit in a mild sense, the argument that education need not be formal in nature.
Knowledge is basically defined as the information, understanding and skills gained through education or experience, or both. The keyword here is or, implying the possible existence of a mutually exclusive relationship between the two concepts.
I believe knowledge is to man what water is to fish. Without knowledge, people are bound to perish, sooner or later. So for leadership, knowledge is a bare minimum; education isn’t, at least not in its trite definition. It is the absolute momentousness of knowledge, not the import of education that pushed Abraham Lincoln to self-educate. After all, knowledge is the very essence of education.
The Bottom Line
If it ever comes down to making a choice between knowledge and education, wisdom dictates we choose knowledge. Like I always say: By all means get an education, but even more importantly, acquire knowledge. It truly is power.
The writer is an Associate Partner at Savic Consultants and a Programme Officer at the Centre for Enterprise Development & Innovation in Nairobi.