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When our leaders speak

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, July 22, 2014    

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WHEN our leaders speak we ought to be able to believe them. Otherwise, the relationship is mostly pointless for leaders and followers alike. The cynicism and bitterness that some Jamaicans have toward politicians reflect what many feel is a pointless relationship. The frustration comes from the feeling of being trapped in it.

To lead means to guide, direct, or exert influence over others toward desired outcomes. The degree of competence that the leader exhibits determines the extent to which leadership is accepted and, to an extent, how much of the desired outcome is accomplished. Leadership, obviously, is multi-dimensional, but it is heavily impacted by three factors of equal importance. The first is the extent to which leaders are invested in a cause, rather than personal gain — money, prestige or the access that high-profile leadership can bring.

Think of iconic leaders like Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. He knew from early the civil rights movement that the cause for which he was fighting represented such a threat to the establishment that it could cost him his life. But such was the plight of these communities in the 1960s, so putrid were the injustices that he could not let go. Through threats, arrests and harassment he kept on, gathering increasingly larger followings. His assassination, rather than kill the movement, catapulted him into martyrdom. A most magnificient monument on America's National Mall honours his sacrifices but, more importantly, America has come a long way toward the more just society he sought.

Like King, Nelson Mandela sacrificed enormously for a cause. He too will forever be named among the greats. This, by no means, should be taken as a comparison, just a localised example of what happens when we perceive people to be leading for a cause. Finance Minister Peter Phillips not only lost twice to current Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller in the leadership race for the presidency of the PNP, which would have meant the prime minister's role once the party was elected to govern. But he is, in many ways, the face of harsh conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on whom Jamaica is dependent for financial stability. While the conditions are distressing, one senses growing support for Phillips' leadership, emerging out of recognition that his actions are not about himself but about retrofitting for better days for everyone. However grudgingly, people are rallying so far.

The second factor then is credibility — the quality of being trusted, believed in. It comes from establishing a track record with people; making promises and keeping them, ensuring that one's words and actions are in tandem, and communicating honestly, respectfully and forthrightly.

Many of our older politicians, and some of our younger ones across the aisle lack credibility. The public can point a finger with a good deal of accuracy at politicians who have been guilty of all kinds of dishonourable conduct. Arguably, some of the most dysfunctional aspects of our culture have their genesis in native politics, where the desire to win elections has been facilitated by gun violence, intimidation, coercion, bribery, clientelism, and other forms of misconduct. Add to this the failure to deliver on promises to improve the quality of life for their followers, even while they have done quite well for themselves and their families in fairly short order.

Younger politicians, apart from being fried in the fat of the elders, also have serious credibility issues. For example, if they are fighting any kind of noble cause, we are unaware of what they are, and they do not have track records of working hard and making a difference in their communities. At the same time, they appear deeply invested in higher office — getting as far as they can, as fast as they can. These tend to come across as arrogant and inauthentic.

This brings me to the third important factor — communication. Mostly, our leaders break every rule in the book, particularly during times of crisis, so much so that I do not think they place any importance on this function at all. It is, though, not merely because there are rules to how we engage, but because communication sets the tone of conduct for leaders and followers alike. It explains processes, reduces anxiety and speculation, and it affects how we are perceived by others at the international levels.

Mike Myatt, in a 2012 Forbes Magazine article stressed that while enunciation, vocabulary, presence, delivery, grammar, and all of those are important, more so are other "subtle elements of communication". Two of these, I believe, are especially relevant to younger politicians who should be leading differently. First, do not speak with a forked tongue. In other words, do not say one thing when you mean something completely different. To do so is duplicitous and dishonest, and it breeds cynicism and distrust.

"When people have a sense a leader is worthy of their trust they will invest time and take risks in ways they never would if their leader had a reputation built upon poor character or lack of integrity. While you can attempt to demand trust, it rarely works. Trust is best created by earning it with right acting, thinking, and decisioning," Myatt said.

Second, replace ego with empathy. "When candour is communicated with empathy and caring, and not the prideful arrogance of an over- inflated ego, good things begin to happen. Empathetic communicators display a level of authenticity and transparency that is not present with those who choose to communicate behind the carefully crafted facade propped up by a very fragile ego," Myatt said.

From yours truly, remember that we are not trying to create a perfect society here; no such thing exists. We are simply trying to dump the heavy baggage that is negatively valued, maximise our positive, and build a better homeland for everyone. For this reason, leaders must take care. If they do, the followers will too.

Grace Virtue, PhD, is a social justice advocate.

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