Earlier this year, my homeland Ghana was in the news again, trending on social media for all the wrong reasons. Citizens were tired of apparently failed campaign promises and mounting socioeconomic challenges from illegal mining destroying our ecology to pot holes, no, man holes, in our streets. All of these complaints were bundled together in a #FixTheCountry campaign that made a dent in Twittersphere. Some ill-advised government sympathizers then began a #FixYourself counter-tweet, which only added insult to injury. A much more compassionate and smarter response, which might’ve calmed nerves, would’ve been #LetUsFixItTogether but be that as it may, as a student of leadership let me show you how both sides got it wrong in the first place.
There are officially over 360 definitions of leadership. The simplest yet most profound one that makes the point I seek is this: a leader is a Person who influences People to achieve a shared noble Purpose. Although there are three ‘P’ players in this equation, the tendency for most, and not just Ghanaians, is to focus on the third ‘P’ (Purpose), in this case the country that needs fixing. That makes sense because it is often what pinches and the thing we would’ve been sweet-talked about during the animated political campaigning prior to elections. So the citizenry said #FixThePurpose and what some government functionaries did was to then shift what needed fixing to the second ‘P,’ the people i.e. #FixThePeople.
As I prepared to speak to alumni of the Central Leadership Programme a couple of weeks ago on ‘The Impact a Transformed Leader Can Make‘ it dawned upon me heavily that while both sides of the hashtags might bee sincere, they are both sincerely wrong. The most important ‘P’ that fixes the other two ‘Ps’ is the Person of a leader! We can cry #FixTheCountry all year long and hear a minor counter-chorus of #FixYourself all year round but until the primary hashtag and passionate focus becomes #FixTheLeaders, it’s all a waste of time, energy and a whole lot of other scarce resources!
PRINCIPLES AT WORK
You might not like what I’m saying, or even not believe in it, but the thing with principles is that they are timeless, universal truths that don’t care a hoot what you and I value. As the famous director of the 1956 epic movie The Ten Commandments said, we cannot break commandments, we can only break ourselves against them. Until our leaders are transformed, the people will not be transformed, neither will the situations that need transformation. In other words, until and unless the leaders are fixed, the people will not be fixed and the problems will not be fixed. It doesn’t matter how sincere and passionate we are about the latter two, we would ironically only be breaking ourselves against leadership principles, rather than fixing anything.
In transformational leadership, the following principles hold true:
Principle #1: Transformational Leaders are transformed first, then their community (from family to town/city to district to region to country and continent)
Principle #2: The Person (of a Leader) gets fixed first, then the People, before the Purpose
Principle #3: Only deeply transformed leaders can deeply transform society.
PORTRAITS OF THE POINT
In my talk, I shared examples of the impact transformed leaders have had on society, irrespective of the era, whether 2,000 years ago like Zacchaeus, 200 years ago like William Wilberforce or barely 20 years ago like Nelson Mandela. When Zacchaeus, the short and filthy rich chief tax collector, encountered the rabbi Jesus Christ, he was transformed. That’s what led to his unforced famous declaration: “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
What do you suppose was Zacchaeus’ impact as a transformed tax leader (say, as the head of the Ghana Revenue Authority)? If every African politician since 1957 said and did similarly, not only will we hardly have the poor amongst us, our socioeconomic indicators will drastically improve overnight as Swiss banks and vaults are emptied swiftly! That’s the impact a transformed leader (#FixedLeader) can make in transforming a people and a context. This brings to the freedom two more faith-based transformational principles: #4 No one can truly encounter the transformational Jesus and not be transformed and #5 No one can be truly transformed by the transformational Jesus and not transform society.
These principles are again exhibited in the modern story of William Wilberforce and the contemporary biography of Nelson Mandela. You might want to check out the video of the said talk to appreciate how the transformative societal impact of both, also came from the fountain of their personal transformation as leaders. For Mandela, see the quote below that summarizes well his transformation and transformative leadership:
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki makes the point for me about fixing leaders first to get the product in society we want in this video. He challenges incumbent African presidents as follows: for whatever kind of Africa we want, the question is, “what sort of leadership do you produce to get that kind of result?”
It’s easy to be impressed by Wilberforce’s purpose, which he influenced thousands to share in: ““God almighty has set before me two great objects: the abolition of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” But what you might not know is that his wasn’t always a noble story. Although young and gifted, his biographer Eric Metaxas wondered, “But to what would he rise? For beyond making it to Parliament and succeeding there …he had no dreams. He was ambitious and he was talented, but he was also directionless.” Years later Wilberforce himself remarked, “The first years I was in Parliament I did nothing—nothing to any purpose. My own distinction was my darling object.” What changed everything and began a life-long pursuit of the abolition of the slave trade and emancipation was how all that pre-occupation with himself, his status and ‘success’ began to change in 1784 (at 25) when he started to explore the religious faith of his youth. Again, the transformed Person he became, influenced a People to transform, and together they transformed and reformed the world!
Citizens are powerful. “Power to the people,” was the mantra in the revolutionary days of the 1980s in Ghana. I was a only a lad but I still remember. And it is true. But leadership is incredibly important, as everything rises and falls on it. True, citizens (People) can use their thumbs to vote leaders (Persons) in and out of office and press their demands on them. True, citizens can campaign ad nauseam about the plights and dreams (Purpose) that matter. All I’m asking is that if principles are true and cannot be broken, then our strongest and loudest campaign should be #FixTheLeaders. If we do, the people will be fixed (#FixYourself) and so will the country (#FixTheCountry). There’s no other way around this. If we do not go this route, come 100 years from now, those two #FixTheCountry and #FixYourself hashtags will still be trending. We would only have have successfully recycled unfixed leaders of fixed colours every four years while the country itself remains unfixed. Leaders must fix themselves first, then serve and influence the people to be fixed and together, fix the country.
As someone with an advanced degree in leadership and being a leadership practitioner across various industries and on every continent, I do reckon that this issue is nuanced. It takes an entire ‘leadership ecosystem’ and multi-dimensional, multi-directional processes. Yes, I agree there has to be 360 degree leadership. We can play around with all the possible permutations there are but we fool ourselves without this primary transformed/transformational leader —> transforming people —> transformed society piece. It is akin to what will be referred to in Chemistry as ‘the rate determining step.’ If that (#FixTheLeaders) doesn’t happen and in ample time and measure, we will still be arguing about #FixTheCountry and #FixYourself 100 years hence. We’re in a fix (pun intended).
Here is the entire preface to the 2020 version of YouthPower! in Soweto for your enjoyment and edification. This book was first written 15 years ago upon a life-transforming visit to South Africa in 2005. The anti-racial protests in 2020 were like a 1976 déjà vu and inspired me to get this re-release going for today’s generation to remember and soldier on.
“It is better to die for an idea that will live,
than to live for an idea that will die.”
The Definition of Black Consciousness, I Write What I Like, 1978
It is 2020. The pandemic year. The epochal events of this year, on both sides of the Atlantic, have had such significant parallels with the youth uprisings and protests in apartheid South Africa in 1976 that after procrastinating the republishing of this book for years I finally got the umph to do it.
“Police brutality.” “Systematic racism.” “Peaceful protests turned violent.” “We are dealing here not with a spontaneous outburst but with a deliberate attempt to bring about polarisation between whites and blacks.” “This government will not be intimidated and instructions have been given to maintain law and order at all costs.” Do any of these phrases and sentences sound familiar? Yet these are not from 2020; these are all 1976 words and phrases!
With the world slowed down, even locked down, we all had the time and bandwidth to take in the slow slaughter of an American young man, George Floyd, by those paid “to serve and protect” him. The aftermath of #BlackLivesMatter protests in the United States and around the world seemed like a coordinated tsunami. Perhaps no other year has there been more concerted protests against police brutality, systematic racism and no-nonsense towards anything or anyone glorifying an apartheid, segregationist, slavery or colonial past.
At a point, the confluence of 400th year anniversary of the first slave setting foot in America, a plague (COVID-19) and protests by the oppressed made me wonder if this was not a modern replay of the biblical Exodus, the liberation of Israel from Egypt.
Then just when things seemed to be settling down, #endSARS happened. Nigerian youth wouldn’t take the brutalization of their kith and kin anymore either. The well-organized air war (via social media) and on-the-ground protests did result in the dissolution of the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) that had been unleashing untold mayhem on the Nigerian people, especially youth, for years. Some paid the ultimate price for daring to express their Youth Power! May they rest in peace. May their death bring life.
In all the standing up to, shouting out and marching against, the core demographic has of course been Young People. Youth Power! at work again; just as in 1976. In fact, my favourite picture of the 2020 protests in the U.S. so strongly correlates with a scene from 1976 although both events are seas and decades apart. On the streets of America in 2020 the youth held placards that read, “We are not our ancestors. We will fuck you up.” In Soweto, 44 years earlier, the youth had asserted similarly, “Our parents are prepared to suffer under the white man’s rule. They have been living for years under these laws and they have become immune to them. But we strongly refuse to swallow an education that is designed to make us slaves in the country of our birth.”
It seems to me that like the Boomer generation of 1976, the Millennial, Gen Y and Gen Z generations alive and kicking in 2020 have also taken seriously their mandate to leave the world better than they found it. “You see things; and you say “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say “Why not?”” [said a certain wise man]. I believe that was the Youth Power! mindset in 1976, replayed in 2020. Here’s to celebrating Youth Power! from Soweto to Minneapolis to Lagos to the ends of the earth.
I am humbled by my very rich family history of Black story-telling. My grandfather, J.H. Kwabena Nketia, was an emeritus professor of ethnomusicology whose lifework was dedicated to documenting the songs and drum language of African peoples while my mother, Akosua Adoma Perbi, is a professor of history with a specialization in the slave trade, indigenous and trans-Atlantic. It seems my turn has come to continue a family tradition.
I can understand those in my generation who feel Black people are too yesterday-focused and are pushing for this month to be Black Future Month instead of Black History Month. A word of caution though: we must know our history well–although not dwell in the past–if we are to be and do today what will make our tomorrow better than yesterday. As a wise man once said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” 2020 has proven that history tends to repeat itself.
Sixteen years ago I subtitled my ‘Youth Power!’ book, “unleashing the potential of the most powerful people on earth.” This pandemic year is giving us ample proof.
The recent George Floyd protests in the United States of America and around the world and current #EndSARS campaign in Nigeria against notorious police brutality have reignited my convictions about Youth Power!, well-documented in a 2004 book by that title. “This [#EndSARS] protest has been largely driven by young people,” I just heard from a CNN report.
YouthPower! is a revolutionary paradigm which seeks to start a fire in Young People for them to get their act together and do something significant with their lives…Now! For the last 16 years I have “been preoccupied with looking for evidence of Youth Power! all over the world and in all spheres of human endeavour since introducing that paradigm-shifting concept” in the mid 2,000s. Some other books that I have written to document such stories have included 15 Inspiring Young People and 15 Successful Global Businesses Young People Built, from Amazon to Time magazine.
Young people have a lot going for them; youth have a lot of power! First, the numbers–there are more young people on earth than ever before in the history of the world! And that is power. But wait, there’s more. Young people have influence, the ability to control people and situations–even holding governments to ransom. That is power. Young people have incredible talents and special abilities which peak at this time of their lives. We have seen how they have utilized their tech savviness and power of mobilization to literally get the government of Nigeria to dissolve the said Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) they’re protesting against on 11th October 2020. Shall we talk about the sheer passion, strength and energy of youth? Throughout the history of the world, young people have touched, shaped and shaken the world in politics, academics, business, sports, arts/entertainment etc.
More often than not, though, all this power is stored in the form of potential. The rest of the book Youth Power! is full of keys to unlocking all this power in terms of principles, the proto principle, purpose, planning, preparation, people, places, practices, pruning puny behaviours and ultimately how all of this results in pay.
YOUTH POWER! IN AFRICA
In 2005, the year after Youth Power! was published and widely distributed in Ghana, I was on a break in South Africa, after failing my final year medical school exams in Surgery. A pilgrimage to Soweto inspired me to write “a historical and tourist account of how Youth Power! that broke the back of apartheid in South Africa.” That sequel is entitled “Youth Power! in Soweto.” For the whole year I served as a doctor-captain with the United Nations Operations in Cote d’Ivoire, it was my joy and pleasure to walk scores of Ivorian Young People at the Université de Bouaké through the paradigm and practice of Youth Power! They even run a contest, translating the book into French.
Today’s protests remind me of the eternal words of one of the young student protestors back in apartheid South Africa in the late 1970s. You can see those words becoming flesh in today’s young protestors also, from Washington to Lagos:
“Our parents are prepared to suffer under the white man’s rule [or any form of injustice and brutality for that matter]. They have been living for years under here laws and they have become immune to them. But we strongly refuse to swallow an education [or whatever] that is designed to make us slaves in the country of our birth.”
As I participate in hash tagging, donating and encouraging the strong network of The HuD Group (publishers of the original Youth Power!) in Nigeria and around the continent of Africa to keep pressing for positive change, I look forward to adding to the thick annals of Youth Power!, yet another sequel: the contemporary history of Youth Power! in Nigeria.