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Crisis of Institution in Nigeria’s Leadership Equation (I)

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 transformational leader then becomes the priority it places on institutional reform and the building of basic soft infrastructure which s/he will take advantage of to 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 per cent. 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.
–– Dr Olaopa is Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Communication Technology, Abuja.  (

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