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Leadership in Jamaica's future

FRANKLIN W KNIGHT

Wednesday, January 18, 2012    

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THIS year comprises a milestone of sorts in Jamaican history. The island celebrates 50 years of nominal political independence from Great Britain. Any anniversary offers a good opportunity for balanced reflection, and a 50th anniversary could not be more opportune. There will be, as there should be, an endless array of discussions about accomplishments of the past 50 years and countless suggestions for the next 50. Hopefully, some of the reflection will examine the urgent need for and the high value of leadership in the successful construction of the future of the state.

Leadership has been an indispensable ingredient in the political, military and economic success of every state. This has been true throughout history. And there is a large controversial literature, mainly produced by historians, sociologists and political scientists trying to determine what traits constitute prerequisites for leadership. After all, leaders are not uniformly alike. The lack of consensus reflects the variable nature of leadership and the exceptional circumstances that elevate any individual from the commonplace to the supreme.

Studies of leadership are not new. The desirable qualities of leadership were major considerations in Plato's much-admired philosophical exercise, The Republic, written four centuries before Christ. Similarly, between the first and second centuries of the Christian era they formed a major theme in Plutarch's Moral Writings. Machiavelli too paid great attention to leadership in his remarkable instructional manual for monarchs, The Prince, written about 1513.

Both in theory and in practice, leaders attained their position by demonstrating an exceptional ability to persuade others to perform cooperatively to achieve a commonly desired goal. Leadership may appear situational or opportunistic, depending on the situation and how any individual deals with it. Without the opportunity to demonstrate talent, leadership often remains undiscovered. Without the challenging moment, a man or woman remains undistinguished.

Nevertheless, part of the squishiness in determining eminent leadership lies in the nature of the position. Leaders can be active or they can be passive even in times of war. The essentially military leaders like Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Toussaint Louverture, or Simón Bolívar achieved their prominence because they led their soldiers to victory regardless of the circumstances until their luck ran out or they confronted a superior leader. Passive leaders like Benito Juarez of Mexico or Abraham Lincoln of the United States astutely delegated the execution of their decisions to carefully selected trustworthy subordinates.

Winston Churchill was a great wartime leader but lacked the vision and required empathy to oversee the reconstruction of Great Britain after 1945. He understood neither the new social forces nor the necessary economic measures that were required to restore state and economy to a sound footing. Besides, his patronising views on empire were totally unacceptable to colonials who did not share his restricted views of the world.

War, however, is not the only or even the best opportunity to bring out excellent leadership qualities. The formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine was successively queen of France and then of England between 1137 and her death in 1204. Her fame derived less from her separate positions as queen than from her extraordinary and innovative administrations in her two French duchies. At court she was an exceptionally astute politician, much like her distant successor Catherine de Medici in 16th century France.

In the period of the Great Depression President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the United States established himself as an extraordinary leader. Realising that the unprecedented situation required novel measures, he established an outstanding team of officials who boldly created new structures of government that sometimes challenged the 18th century ideas of the Founding Fathers. Many of the newly created institutions of the 1930s such as federal guarantees of individual bank deposits, social security for poor and retired workers, regulation of financial systems through the Securities and Exchange Commission, and public support for housing and farming enabled the United States to become a wealthy and powerful country. Those public measures did not make the United States a paradise, but they enabled the federal government to assume the power and responsibility that advanced civil and human rights in later years.

Many Jamaicans still readily accept the anachronistic designation of the neighbouring Latin American states as a variegated collection of banana republics, despite the fact that few of them rely on bananas as their principal export. Latin American states are hardly ever seen as exemplary political models. This is a great pity. Many large as well as small Latin American states recently experienced the devastating economic reality that now confronts the new Jamaican government and have survived quite well. In almost every case, as the ex-Chilean diplomat and scholar, Jorge Heine, noted for Brazil, in the Toronto Globe last December 27, success derived from astute presidential leadership.

Having three outstanding presidents in a row - two from the same party - allowed Brazil to transform itself dramatically in just two decades. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the president between 1994 and 2002, served with me on the US Social Science Research Council in the 1970s. Then he was an accomplished sociologist who had been exiled earlier by the military government. Before he assumed the presidency, Cardoso, a founding member of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), served successively as minister of foreign relations and minister of finance. Cardoso stabilised the Brazilian economy and reconciled the antagonistic centrifugal forces of federal and state governments.

His successors Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a trade union leader, and Dilma Rousseff, an economist from the Worker's Party (PT), built on the foundations established by Cardoso. Lula oversaw a dramatic national economic expansion that rescued more than 30 million Brazilians from poverty. Rousseff promised to continue the programmes of social justice as well as eliminate political corruption, firing seven government ministers in her first year.

To succeed, Jamaica needs to produce a succession of good leaders and long-term plans that advance the national interest irrespective of party. Above all, the country needs to distinguish between the head of a political party and a national leader.

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