The Leadership Challenge Essay

The following essay, titled "Just another African country: the challenge of leadership in Zambia and the poverty of ambition", was written by Tutu Fellow Linda Kasonde.  It examines African leadership and more specifically, leadership in Zambia, as the country recently celebrated its 50th independence anniversary.


She looks at issues such as poverty, disease, corruption and other structural challenges and how leaders have often stumbled at the hurdle of unifying leadership, choosing instead partistan, tribal or lesser pathways that have not advanced nations on the continent. She also discusses how women and young leaders are an excluded voice for leadership in the country. She suggests that by looking at Zambia's leadership history, it provides some insight into the challenges facing leadership in the broader African context.

The essay:

Following the November 2014 parliamentary debate over the South African President Jacob Zuma’s infamous overspending on his Nkandla estate clearing President Zuma of any impropriety, a South African friend of mine remarked, “It’s so sad, we’re turning into just another African country”. Putting aside my friend’s disappointment at a loss of perceived superiority, as a Zambian, I started to think about what it meant to be “just another African country”. African countries are often associated with poverty, disease, corruption, nepotism and autocracy. That is the leadership challenge faced by countries on the African continent and Zambia is no exception. Zambia celebrated fifty years of independence last year. As the country celebrated its golden jubilee, Zambians have been reflecting on what they have achieved as a nation and whether or not they are truly independent and, in the words of the national anthem, “proud and free”. The national coat of arms adopted on Independence Day, 24th October 1964, has on it the slogan “One Zambia, One Nation”, a call for the nation to stand united. In the words of a Tanzanian proverb, ‘without a leader ants are confused’. Ultimately, much of the fate of a nation rests in the quality of its leadership and their ability to provide purpose and direction to the citizens of the country. In doing so, Zambian leaders need to act in accordance with the words of President Barack Obama by steering clear of the “poverty of ambition”, “where people want to drive fancy cars and wear nice clothes and live in nice apartments but don’t want to work hard to accomplish these things”.

However, in my opinion, the poverty of ambition in Zambia and in Africa in general goes beyond just selfish ambition. It is the inability to visualise a brighter future for society beyond the present circumstances. It is the inability to see that an individual can lead without being the leader. It is the inability to embrace nationhood over tribal, sectorial or religious affiliation. In short, it is a lack of vision. The history of leadership in Zambia is but a microcosm of the wider African leadership challenge.  I will look at whether the leaders of the nation have given the type of purpose and direction that is required and is it inspiring a new breed of selfless leaders. In doing so I will look at the role past Zambian leaders, women and the young emerging leaders have played and can play in redressing the poverty of ambition and indeed the poverty of leadership in the country.

The Old Guard
Zambia’s first President, Dr. Kenneth David Kaunda had been the leader of the liberation struggle from the British. After Independence his task was to build, and develop a national state. In a speech addressing the issue of African development and foreign aid on 18th March 1966, Dr. Kaunda stated as follows:  “We are pioneers and, in a way we are faced with more problems than a pathfinder who has no beaten track before him. The pathfinder who enters a forest has got to find his own track. This in many ways is easier, because certain things have been done in a certain way by certain people from whom we have taken over and we are trying now to redirect things in our own way… We tread on very tough road for we are not only trying to change the course of history but we are also laying down a foundation…We must think and think and think again about how best we shall serve and not about how important we are as leaders of our people, or how we can safeguard our own positions as leaders”.

Kaunda strove to build a unified the nation from the desperate tribes that comprise Zambia. He was to do this by ensuring that no one tribe was more dominant than the other tribes in government. In addition he implemented development programmes to provide education, health and a better livelihood for Zambians. Zambians for the first time began to see the country as one nation. Most of the foundation of the development that we see today in the country was initiated during Kaunda’s rule. Zambia was a member of the frontline states and in that capacity played a pivotal role in supporting the struggle for independence of many of its neighbours in the Southern African region. As the economy faltered and economic discontent increased, Government repression increased.  The initial multi-party democracy gave way to a legislated single party socialist state; Kaunda’s grip on power tightened and tolerance for dissent lessened. The country’s economic problems worsened in the 1980s and this led to increased agitation for a change in government.  In 1991, after twenty-seven years of what had become autocratic one-party rule, “KK” as he is popularly known, allowed multiparty politics to resume in the country. In the elections that followed Kaunda was defeated in a landslide victory by Frederick Chiluba of the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD). The people of Zambia were tired of economic hardship and the stifling of freedom of expression and freedom of association. After twenty-seven years of rule it appeared that Kaunda had lost sight of the ideal of service over self-preservation.  Zambians decided that they needed a new direction in the form of multi-party democracy.

When President Chiluba came into power he inherited a broken economy dominated by state enterprises. Chiluba agreed to a World Bank inspired structural adjustment programme. The economy was liberalised and state enterprises privatized. Severe economic hardships and job losses followed. But Zambia turned the corner economically. Private investment began to flow and the economy began to grow.  Following a government policy to sell government houses to citizens, many government employees became homeowners for the first time. Chiluba’s charisma inspired the nation and created hope for many. Chiluba started what has now become a trend of successive governments of prosecuting former heads of state. Kaunda’s citizenship was challenged in court and he was also implicated in the 1997 coup attempt. But ultimately what brought Chiluba down was allegations of corruption and self-enrichment for which he was eventually tried and found wanting in a civil claim brought against him in a London High Court in what is popularly called the “London judgement”. In addition, a bid to amend the Constitution to provide for a third term in office proved hugely unpopular. As one shop assistant reportedly told the BBC, “we don’t hate you Mr. President, but please just do the right thing and leave”.  Amidst protests, Chiluba abandoned his third term bid. In 2001, the country again went to the polls this time to elect a successor to Chiluba whom he himself had handpicked, Mr. Levy Patrick Mwanawasa SC who was also a member of the MMD.

President Mwanawasa was voted in with the lowest percentage of the electorate’s vote in the history of the country. While he was never a hugely popular president he was hailed for being tough on corruption and upholding the rule of law which led to the trial of his predecessor, Frederick Chiluba. Mwanawasa died suddenly on 3rd September 2009 during his second term of office, leaving his Vice-President Rupiah Banda to take over the presidency for the remaining two years of his term.

Mwanawasa left what was termed a “living will” for the people of Zambia in which he stated as follows:  "I believe that national development could only be sustained if good governance, respect for the rule of law and democracy were encouraged and not taken for granted. To spur these virtues, the fight against corruption had to be waged relentlessly without treating anybody as a sacred cow… I was driven purely by a love for my country and the urgent need to transform it from poverty to prosperity. I have always been grieved to see so much poverty, hopelessness and anguish in the faces of our children, the leaders of tomorrow. It has always been my belief that nobody has the right to take away what we should be giving to these children and keep them in their selfish pockets”.

Following Mwanawasa’s demise, Rupiah Banda’s acceded to the presidency. His term was short-lived. In 2011 he was resoundingly beaten at the polls by Michael Sata of the Patriotic Front party, due to widely perceived self-aggrandisement and corruption. Banda’s defeat brought to an end the twenty-year rule of the MMD party in government. At the inauguration of his successor, Michael Sata of the Patriotic Front, Banda conceded that his party had lost touch with ordinary Zambians.

Frederick Chiluba led us to a genuine multi-party state and introduced the private sector to our key industries. Zambia was liberated by an MMD ideal but maybe we became complacent with our ideals. Maybe we did not listen, maybe we did not hear… The Zambia we know today was built by an MMD Government. We know our place in history and we know that we can come back to lead again in the future. A new leadership will be chosen, and that leadership will be from the younger generation.

The Patriot Front Government, under the presidency of Michael Chilufya Sata came into power on a populist platform promising the people of Zambia “more money in your pockets”, jobs and an end to corruption. President Sata pursued pro-poor policies and infrastructure development amidst some concerns that the management of the economy and respect for the rule of law were on the decline. He was in office for three years until his untimely demise on 28th October 2014. President Edgar Chagwa Lungu succeeded President Sata, following a heavily contested presidential by-election that saw him win by the narrowest margin in Zambian electoral history. Whilst the Patriotic Front remains popular, there is some debate on whether their leadership is having a positive impact on the economy, democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law in Zambia.  After having spent ten years in the opposition, questions have been raised about the Patriotic Front’s preparedness, willingness and ability to implement the policies laid out in its party manifesto. Certainly, there are well-meaning Government officials who have the people’s interests at heart.

However, certain elements like the former Minister for Southern Province Daniel Munkombwe, an octogenarian, typifies the kind of leadership which leaders should not be aspiring to. He has served in three different governments under three different political parties and is on record as being in favour of the “politics of benefits”. According to Munkombwe – “There is nobody who is not using my philosophy of politics of benefits. There is nobody who goes into Parliament naked; we go into Parliament because of allowances. There is no more patriotism. Patriotism was only there when we were fighting colonialists…I know people will say Munkombwe has gone into government because he wants to eat but who does not want to eat?

If indeed patriotism is dead, that is a sad indictment on the Zambian nation. But what can be done about it?  Is women in leadership part of the answer to the problem?

Women in Leadership

According to one writer  -  “In 2011, only 11.5% of legislative positions were held by women, a decline from its 2006 value of 14.6%. Only 106 of the 709 candidates selected to stand for Parliament in 2011 were women, according to the Electoral Commission of Zambia. Further, the Electoral Commission data for 2011 shows that female representation in local government is also worryingly low at less than 6% while only 19 of Zambia’s 287 traditional leaders are women. This imbalance continues in the civil service where men hold the majority of decision-making decisions”.

So the question is why aren’t there more women leaders? According to Alisha Patel – “Conceptions of gender roles are such that women are faced with structural disadvantages and have less access to formal education and employment opportunities than their male counterparts. For example the female/male income ratio is 0.56, while the tertiary enrolment ratio is 0.46. This lack of financial resources, a prerequisite to politics in a country where election campaigns are increasingly expensive, often serves as an insurmountable barrier to political office”.

Added to that, as the Republican Vice-President’s wife, Dr. Charlotte Scott has stated, “a dangerous and unfortunately growing tendency to introduce hate-speech and viciously anti-women speech into political and civic debate” prevents women for standing for positions of leadership. According to Patel – “The 2011 Gender Sector Analysis noted that women are taught to refrain from voicing opinions and to behave modestly in the presence of men, including their husbands. Furthermore, women who have the relevant qualifications and expertise to apply for political positions are less confident of their ability given the prevailing social attitude, as well as being frequently looked down upon for not meeting the standards of femininity that traditional gender roles require”.

This leads to the small number of female leaders in the country at all levels. Thankfully, there are still women leaders prepared to step into leadership roles. Mrs. Lucy Shirley Changwe, former deputy minister for gender and women in development once said – “There were really two main reasons why I went into politics. The first was that I was struck by the expression “politics is a dirty game”. If it really is, then that is something that has to be addressed, because development will have to come through politics. Secondly I saw that educated, so-called elite people were not getting into politics. But for me, I thought that if I’m going to be educated, I must be able to get into the game and make a difference” .

This comes back to the point about the poverty of ambition; unless women are prepared to “have a dream” and see a future where there is equal opportunity for them in the sphere of leadership beyond the hardships they currently face to be recognised as leaders then we will never see a Zambia where women leaders are revered, uplifted and adequately represented.

Emerging leaders

How can the new generation of emerging male and female leaders stop the rot? Are the young, educated and talented Zambians prepared to stem the tide of the poverty of ambition to provide true self-less leadership to their people? Dora Siliya, a young politician and former minister in the former MMD government, insists that the poverty of leadership starts with the electorate who demand very little accountability from their leaders. According to Siliya, “the leaders are as good as the people they lead”. The lack of interest in governance issues in between elections seems to be the main cause of this problem. She says the people are not interested by leadership agendas of their leaders and would rather look at personalities rather than issues. Siliya says, “Your interest in leadership is directly proportional to the kind of leadership you will get” As Siliya puts it, the young, educated middle-class are not interested in politics because they are comfortable with their economic status. She advocates for increased numbers of educated people in the highest offices of government, as she puts it “Government business is business … good politics leads to good business”. Siliya says politics is about public service and personal and financial sacrifice, “There should be something honourable about public service". She says that if people believe that politics is for “others” the population will be “lead by fools”.

On the issue of women in politics, Silya says that she was liberated by her family who helped her believe that she could be anything she wanted to be. The support of her family has been important to allowing her the freedom to enter politics. “It’s about the ability to have choices” which many women do not have in terms of childbearing, child rearing, marriage and economic freedom and freedom from the fear of being insulted in the public sphere. It is very difficult for young people and women to get into political parties without resources. On encouraging young emerging leaders, she says that it is not about replacing one generation of leadership with another there must be “a conscious movement to creating a pool of leaders so that at any given time we should not fail to identify leadership”. Additionally, if women are to fully participate in politics, economic factors that keep women from fully exercising political participation rights need to be addressed. Women are responsible for most of the caring for children, the disabled and the elderly. The factors impede women’s political participation and keep them from realizing their full citizenship rights. Women also face gender role stereotypes, male resistance to women’s participation, limited resources with which to participate and political structures that impede women’s political activity.

The youth make up the majority of the population and are largely underrepresented in decision-making positions. Elias Chipimo Junior, one of the new emerging young leaders of the country, had this to say on the role the youth can play in shaping the nation’s future - “Given motivation and inspiration to act [the youth] can play a vital role in eliminating poverty, corruption, delinquency and other social vices. We know that the energy, intelligence and resourcefulness [they] possess – if fully and properly utilised – can prosper the country greatly. [They] have the power to change this country to one that moves us towards the politics of issues from the politics of insults; the politics of ideas from the politics of ignorance; the politics of freedom from the politics of fear. [They] have the power to recognise and solve yours and your communities’ problems. [The youth] are indeed the power of the present and the future”.

But in considering the roles senior leaders, women and the youth can play in ensuring good leadership one thing is for certain; it will require a concerted effort of all stakeholders to ensure quality leadership.


In terms of the challenges of leadership in Africa, after fifty years of independence, is Zambia “just another African country”? Africa is a continent made up of fifty-four different countries. In order to be seen as such, each country needs to distinguish itself based on its own heritage and national identity. One thing is clear from the above narration of the history of leadership in Zambia, the nation has experienced peaceful transitions from one leader to the next. It is still “One Zambia, One Nation” - of that Zambians can be proud. However, the question remains, how can Zambians build on that foundation and redress the poverty of ambition and leadership in the country? I believe that the answer lies in cultivating a deep sense of patriotism that was prevalent in the leaders of the struggle for independence, in having a sense of pride in being the creators of their own destiny, and in the belief in a united Zambian nation. The answer for Zambia’s leadership challenges lies in every citizen, young and old, owning the issue of governance in the country at all levels by taking an active interest in governance issues. What is required is increased awareness of the civic duties and civic rights of every citizen in order to truly reap the benefits of good leadership in the country. The answer lies in moving the citizenry from the poverty of ambition towards the belief in the power of ambition in Zambian citizens and their leaders as the implementers of the nation’s vision for the future. In the words of the philosopher Eric Hoffer, “the only way to predict the future is to have the power to shape it”. If only Zambians knew how much power they have.


Being a leader is in itself a challenge. The challenges of leadership are really of three kinds: external, coming from people and situations; internal, stemming from within the leader himself; and those arising from the nature of the leadership role.


It’s almost impossible to imagine a situation where a leader doesn’t have to cope with external challenges. In an organization, such issues as lack of funding and other resources, opposition from forces in the community, and interpersonal problems within the organization often rear their heads. Social, economic, and political forces in the larger world can affect the organization as well. To some extent, the measure of any leader is how well he can deal with the constant succession of crises and minor annoyances that threaten the mission of his group. If he is able to solve problems, take advantage of opportunities, and resolve conflict with an air of calm and a minimum of fuss, most of the external issues are hardly noticeable to anyone else. If the leader doesn’t handle external challenges well, the organization probably won’t, either. We’ve all seen examples of this, in organizations where everyone, from the director to the custodian, has a constantly worried look, and news is passed in whispers. When people feel that leaders are stressed or unsure, they themselves become stressed or unsure as well, and the emphasis of the group moves from its mission to the current worrisome situation. The work of the group suffers.


While leadership presents to each of us the opportunity to demonstrate the best of what we are, it also exposes our limitations. In many cases, good leaders have to overcome those limitations in order to transmit and follow their vision. Fear, lack of confidence, insecurity, impatience, intolerance (all can act as barriers to leadership. At the same time, acknowledging and overcoming them can turn a mediocre leader into a great one. It’s often very difficult for people, especially those who see themselves as leaders, to admit that they might have personality traits or personal characteristics that interfere with their ability to reach their goals. Part of good leadership is learning to accept the reality of those traits, and working to change them so they don’t get in the way.

Sometimes, what seems to be an advantage may present a challenge as well. A leader who’s extremely decisive may alienate followers by never consulting them, or by consistently ignoring their advice. A leader who’s terrific at developing relationships with others in the organization may be unable to tell someone when she’s not doing her job. Some characteristics can be double-edged swords, positive in some circumstances and negative in others. The real challenge is in knowing the difference, and adapting your behavior accordingly.


Real leadership makes great demands on people. As a leader, you are responsible for your group’s vision and mission, for upholding a standard, often for being the group’s representative to the rest of the world and its protector as well. These responsibilities might be shared, but in most organizations, one person takes the largest part of the burden. In addition to its responsibilities, leadership brings such challenges as motivating people – often without seeming to do so – and keeping them from stagnating when they’re doing well. Leaders also have to motivate themselves, and not just to seem, but actually to be, enthusiastic about what they’re doing. They have to be aware of serving their group and its members and all that that entails. In other words, they have to be leaders all the time.


One obvious – and correct – answer to this question is “all the time,” but in fact some times are more likely than others. Leadership is usually the most difficult when the situation is changing or unstable. When a grass roots group is doing well – gathering allies, getting its message across, attracting funding – no one much notices what the director does; but when something unexpected happens, she’s expected to take care of it, often in a very public way. Some particular times when challenges may arise:

* When something new is about to start. When you’re beginning a new intervention, trying something different in a program that’s been running for a while, stepping up to another stage in your initiative, or hiring a new leader, no one is quite sure what’s going to happen. Systems and relationships can break down, and it’s often a matter of leadership as to whether the new situation is successful or not. * When something is about to end. Often at the end of a school year, a particular project or initiative, a training period – anytime when something is coming to an end and things are, by definition, about to change – times get difficult. That may be because of a big push to get finished, or because it’s tough to tell what’s coming next, or because a close-knit group is splitting up. Whatever the reason, it often takes leadership skills to make sure that the project ends successfully, and everyone moves on to the next phase, whatever that is.

* When times are tough. If there’s not enough funding, or an organization or group is being publicly criticized, for instance, its leader usually has to try to solve the problem in some way: find money, reduce expenses, defuse the attacks. Leaders are tested when times are difficult. * During transitions. There are many ways in which a group can be in transition. It may go – because of a grant or because of other circumstances – from a loosely organized, grass roots collective to a much more formally structured organization. It might grow quickly…even too quickly. It might be losing some key people, or changing leaders. One of the most difficult tasks a leader faces is trying to keep a group stable through a period of change.



The world surprises us at every turn, throwing up barriers where the way seems clear, and revealing broad highways where there seemed to be only brick walls. Both kinds of surprises – sometimes the positive more than the negative – present opportunities for exercising leadership, with all the challenges they entail. Some common situations that call for leaders to use their resources include: * Public criticism, especially uninformed criticism, of your group or mission. * Flare-ups of others’ interpersonal issues, either within the group or outside it. * Crises, which could be tied to finances, program, politics, public relations (scandals), legal concerns (lawsuits), even spiritual issues (loss of enthusiasm, low morale).

* Disasters. These are different from crises, in that, in a crisis, something important (usually negative, but not always) seems to be happening, and you’re trying to control the situation. In a disaster, the worst has already happened, and you’re trying to deal with that in some way. * Opposition and/or hostility from powerful forces (business groups, local government, an influential organization, etc.) * A financial or political windfall. Sometimes an unexpected benefit can be harder to handle than a calamity. * Collaboration with another group or organization may call upon a leader to define clearly the boundaries within which he can operate, and to balance the needs of his own group with those of the collaborative initiative as a whole.


Be proactive.
Regardless of the situation, it’s important for leaders to do something. Waiting is occasionally the right strategy, but even when it is, it makes a group nervous to see its leader apparently not exercising some control. Be creative.

Try to think “outside the box,” i.e. in unexpected but effective ways. If disaster has struck (you’ve just lost a major source of funding, perhaps ), how can you turn what looks like the end of the world into a new beginning? Can you change the way the organization operates to deal with the loss? Can you use the fact that you’re about to lose services to gain community and political support? Is this an opportunity to diversify your funding? Can you expand your horizons and your reach through collaboration? Don’t just look at the obvious, but consider a situation from all perspectives, and search for unusual ways to make things work. An important piece of information, one that’s often quoted in community work, but which can’t be overstated: the Chinese character for “crisis” combines the characters for “danger” and “opportunity.” Face conflict squarely.

This doesn’t mean come out fighting, but rather identify and acknowledge the conflict, and work to resolve it. This is true both for conflict within your group, and conflict between the group and others outside it. Far too many people, leaders included, act as if conflict doesn’t exist, because they find it difficult or frightening to deal with. As a result, it only grows worse, and by the time it erupts, it may be nearly impossible to resolve. If it’s faced early, nearly any conflict can be resolved in a way that is beneficial for everyone involved. It’s a function of leadership to have the courage to name the conflict and work on it. Always look for common ground.

If there’s opposition to what you’re doing, it may only be to one specific part of it, or may be based on misunderstanding. There are few groups or individuals who don’t have some common interests. If you can find those, you may have a basis for solving problems and making it possible for people to work together. Retain your objectivity.

If you’re mediating a conflict within the organization, don’t take sides, even if you think you know one side is right. That will come out if you mediate objectively and well.If you’re faced with detractors or opposition, don’t automatically assume they’re villains. What are their concerns, and why do they disagree with what you’re doing? Don’t get sucked into a fight unless there’s really no alternative. Even rabid opposition can often be overcome through a combination of respect, political pressure, and creative problem solving.

When you do feel you have to fight, pick your battles carefully. Make sure you have the resources – money, political and other allies, volunteer help, whatever you need – to sustain conflict. Battles can advance your cause, or they can kill your initiative once and for all. Don’t get into a fight you have no chance to win. Look for opportunities to collaborate.

This is important both within and outside your group or organization. Within the group, involve as many people as possible in decisions, and make sure they have control over what they do. The more they own their jobs and the organization, the more enthusiastic they’ll be, the more effective the organization will be, and the more effective you’ll be as a leader. Outside the organization, try to forge ties with other organizations and groups. Let them know what you’re doing, get and give support, and work with them to the extent you can. Make common cause with other groups that have similar interests. In numbers, there is strength, and you’ll be stronger as an alliance of groups than any one of you could be individually.


Leaders are human. That’s hardly news, but it means that they come with all the same problems and failings as everyone else. One of the greatest challenges of leadership is facing your own personal issues, and making sure they don’t prevent you from exercising leadership. Acknowledging the attitudes and tendencies that get in your way, and working to overcome them, is absolutely necessary if you’re to become an effective leader. Among the most common personal traits that good leaders have to overcome or keep in check are: * Insecurity. Many people feel, at least some of the time, that they’re not up to the tasks they face. They may even believe that they’re fooling people with their air of competence, when they know they’re really not very capable at all. Insecurity of that sort keeps them from being proactive, from following their vision, from feeling like leaders. It can be crippling to both a leader and her group or organization.

* Defensiveness. Also born of insecurity, defensiveness shows up most often as an inability to take criticism (other people might catch on to the fact that you’re as incompetent as you know you are), and continuing hostility to anyone, even an ally, who voices it. Defensiveness often also includes a stubborn resistance to change ideas, plans, or assumptions, even if they’ve been shown to be ineffective. * Lack of decisiveness. Sometimes it’s hard to make a decision. You never know till later – and sometimes not even then – whether you made the right decision. Maybe if you had a few more facts… The reality is that leaders are called on to make decisions all the time, often with very little time to consider them. It is important to have as much information as possible, but at some point, you just have to make the decision and live with it. Some decisions are reversible, and some are not, but in either case, it’s important to learn to make a decision when necessary and understand that living with the consequences is part of being a leader

* Inability to be direct when there’s a problem. Many people want so badly to be liked, or are so afraid of hurting others, that they find it difficult to say anything negative. They may be reluctant to tell someone he’s not doing his job adequately, for instance, or to address an interpersonal problem. Unfortunately, by letting these things go, they only make them worse, which makes them still harder to address. It’s essential to learn when firmness is necessary, and to learn how to exercise it.

* Inability to be objective. Neither looking at situations through rose-colored glasses nor being always on the edge of hysteria is conducive to effective leadership. Just as objectivity is important in dealing with external issues, it’s important to monitor your own objectivity in general. There’s a difference between being an optimistic individual and being unable to see disaster looming because it’s too painful to contemplate. By the same token, seeing the possible negatives in an apparently positive situation is not the same as being paralyzed by the assumption that calamity lurks around every corner. The inability to accurately identify the positive and negative in any situation and react appropriately can create serious problems.

* Impatience – with others and with situations. It may seem, given the importance of decisiveness and firmness, that patience is not a virtue a leader needs. In fact, it is perhaps the most important trait to develop. Situations do not resolve themselves instantly, and anyone who’s ever been involved in an organization knows that Rule #1 is that everything takes longer than you think it will. People in unfamiliar situations need a while to orient themselves. Leaders who are impatient may make rash decisions, may alienate staff members or volunteers or allies, and can often make situations worse rather than better. It’s hard to be patient, but it’s worth the effort. In addition to character traits that can get in a leader’s way, there are the effects of health and personal crises.



Listen to people’s responses to your ideas, plans, and opinions. Listen more than you talk. Listen to a broad range of people, not just to those who agree with you. Probe to find out why they think or feel the way they do. Assume that everyone has something important to say. If you hear the same things from a number of different and diverse sources, you should at least consider the possibility that they’re accurate. If they’re about things you do that you can change, you might give it a try. Ask for 360-degree feedback…and use it.

This is feedback (people’s views of you) from everyone around you – staff, volunteers, Board, participants, people from other organizations or groups yours works with – anyone you work with in any way. As with listening, if you hear the same thing from a lot of different sources, it’s probably true. Act on it. All the feedback in the world won’t do you any good unless you do something with it. Look at what’s going on around you.

Are you the center of controversy and chaos? Or do calm and good feeling seem to reside wherever you do? The chances are that the answer lies somewhere in between these extremes, but it probably should be closer to the calm and good feeling side. Even if you’re involved in a battle with the forces of evil, you can foster calm in yourself and those you work with. At the same time, your group could be on top of the world, and you and your colleagues could still be climbing the walls if that’s the kind of atmosphere you create. Reach out for help in facing internal challenges.

Most of us find it difficult to change entirely on our own. A psychotherapist, a good friend, a perceptive colleague, or a trusted clergyman might be able to help you gain perspective on issues that you find hard to face. Many people find meditation or some form of self-discovery helpful in understanding themselves and in getting through change. Don’t feel you have to do it all on your own.


A leadership position brings with it unique demands. Leaders can be looked on as authority figures, as saviors, as fixers of things that are broken, as spiritual guides, as mentors, as models, as inspirers, as teachers…in short, they may be seen however others choose to see them. This in itself carries a set of challenges, in addition to those posed by what all leaders indeed have to do in order to keep things going. Some of the issues that leaders have to cope with specifically because they’re leaders are: * Keeping an eye on, and communicating, the vision. As the guardian of a group’s vision, it’s up to the leader to remind everyone of what that vision is, to keep it in mind in everything the group or organization does, to protect it from funders or others who would try to change it…and to make sure It does change, if necessary, with changes in circumstances, the needs of the target population, or the available information. That means not being distracted from the bigger picture by day-to-day issues (even as those issues are addressed and resolved).

It also means not substituting another, lesser goal (getting enough funding to start a specific program, for instance) that may be contrary to the true vision of the organization. * Keeping the everyday under control while you continue to pursue the vision. You can’t maintain the vision without making sure that there’s paper in the printer, that you understand the legal implications of an action you plan to take, that people know what they’re supposed to be doing on a given day, that there’s enough cash in the bank to meet payroll, and that there’s someone there to answer the phone, to pay the bills, and to look for funding. These aren’t necessarily all things a leader has to do herself (although there are certainly organizations where that’s what happens), but she’s responsible for making sure they get done, and that things run smoothly. No matter how transformative she is, no leader can accomplish much if the infrastructure doesn’t work.

* Setting an example. If you want others in the group to show mutual respect, to work hard, to embrace the vision and mission of the organization, to include everyone in their thinking and decisions, you have to start by doing those things yourself, and behaving in the ways you want others to behave. A leader who yells at people, consults no one, and assumes his word is law will intentionally or unintentionally train everyone else in the group to be the same way. A leader who acts collaboratively and inclusively will create an organization that functions similarly. * Maintaining effectiveness over time. One of the hardest lessons of leadership is that you’re never done. No matter how well things go, no matter how successful your group or organization or initiative is – unless it’s aimed at accomplishing a very specific, time-limited goal – you have to keep at it forever.

Even if you get a bill passed or manage to get money for your cause included in the state budget, you have to work to maintain your gains. If you’re running a community intervention, you have to recruit participants, refine your methods, do community outreach, raise funds…indefinitely. Maintaining effectiveness is a matter both of monitoring what you do and working to improve it, and of keeping up enthusiasm for the work within the group. It’s part of the leader’s role to maintain his own enthusiasm and drive, and to communicate and transfer them to others.

* Avoiding burnout. This is a challenge not only for leaders, because a burned out leader can affect the workings of a whole organization. Leader burnout is a product of being overwhelmed by the workload, the frustrations, the stress, and the time demands of the position, multiplied by the number of years spent in it. It can reach a point where the leader no longer cares about the vision, the work of the group, or anything but when he can go home. By that point, the rest of the group is likely to be struggling, feeling rudderless and uncertain. It’s crucial that leaders learn to recognize the signs of burnout and – depending on where they are in their lives and a number of other factors – either find ways to renew their commitment or leave. Perhaps even more threatening than burnout is “burn-down” – the loss of passion and intensity that can come with familiarity and long service. You may still care about what you’re doing, but the enthusiasm just isn’t there anymore.

In many ways, this condition may be even harder to deal with than burnout. At least if you’re burned out, it’s obvious: if you’re burned down, especially if it’s happened over a long period, neither you nor others may have realized it. * Finding support. Cliches often become cliches because they’re true. It is lonely at the top, largely because a good leader tries to make things go smoothly enough that others aren’t aware of the amount of work she’s doing. The leader may have no one to share her concerns with, and may have to find her own satisfaction, because others don’t recognize the amount and nature of her contribution.

The buck may stop with her, but where then does she unburden herself? As mentioned earlier, leaders are human. They need support and comfort as much as anyone else, and it’s important that they find it. COPING WITH CHALLENGES STEMMING FROM THE NATURE OF THE LEADERSHIP ROLE So how can you continue to be a leader and also continue to be a functioning human being? There are things you can do to retain both your sanity and your competency. Create mechanisms to revisit your vision.

Hold occasional meetings and at-least-yearly retreats to discuss vision and renew commitment. These will serve both to review the vision to see if it still resonates (and to rework it if necessary), and to renew your and others’ purpose and pursuit of it. They’ll help to remind you of why you’re doing this in the first place, give you an opportunity to work on group solidarity, and – ideally – leave you feeling refreshed and ready to carry on. Share the burden.

Surround yourself with good people who share your vision. If you can find others who are competent and committed to whom you can delegate some of the tasks of leadership, it will both remove pressure from you, and make your group stronger. One of the greatest mistakes a leader can make is to be threatened by others’ abilities. In fact, sharing responsibility with capable people makes all of you more effective, and strengthens your leadership. Having competent people to depend on also means that you can develop systems and know they’ll work. Organizational maintenance becomes much easier, and you have more time to devote to the actual pursuit of your vision.

Find an individual or group with whom you can discuss the realities of leadership. In many communities, some heads of organizations meet on a regular basis to talk about the difficulties and rewards of their situations with others who truly understand. Some such arrangement can be a valuable hedge against burnout, and can also help you gain insight into how you function as a leader. It can introduce you to alternative ways of doing things, as well as giving you a chance to vent, and to realize you’re not alone. Make sure you have personal time.

The founder and director of a prominent think tank once went seven years without a day off – including Sundays. That’s 2,557 straight days of work. (That includes two leap year days, for those of you doing the math.) Even if that doesn’t cause burnout, it’s not good for your creativity or your understanding of the world. Everything becomes work or related to work: the world holds no other reality, and leadership becomes all you do. In order to maintain perspective and to keep yourself fresh, you need to take time away from being a leader, and away from your organization or initiative. It’s important to have an activity that gets you away from your daily concerns, and to take days off from time to time. Some people meditate every day, others play music regularly, others participate in sports or fitness activities.

Your getaway doesn’t have to be an everyday thing, but it should be something you love and look forward to, and it should be frequent and regular. It may be as simple as taking a walk with your kids for an hour every evening – whatever it is that relaxes your mind and feeds your soul. Rather than detracting from your effectiveness, your time off will increase it. Depending upon how you approach it, leadership can be a hard and lonely road, or an exciting and collaborative trip to a new place. The more, and more useful, strategies you can find to cope with its challenges, the better leader you’ll be.

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