Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Leadership Question

Couple of nights ago, a group of thirty or so folks gathered in a meeting room at a hotel in Dar es Salaam, convened by YES Tanzania*. The organization had put together a discussion involving four panelists: three parliamentarians from three different political parties, and one free-range blogger/columnist who doesn't quite know how she ended up there. The discussion topics: Leadership, Energy (electricity, really), Constitution and Loliondo. Oh, and Chatham Rules applied which basically means that I can tell you what went down but I can't tell you who said what. Sorry.

As these things go, it was an intensely informative experience and I am still digesting. But I'll give you at least one impression per issue discussed:

1. Loliondo: I am so glad we talked about it. Everyone wanted to talk about it. We'd either been there, or knew someone who had been there, or were skeptics about the whole thing. What was really interesting about that topic was the fact that we were all more keen to share thoughts and experiences than to condemn each others' competing views. I think that maybe we needed the catharsis of free and open dialogue. Democracy in action: not contention, not consensus, but freedom of speech, in search of understanding.

2. Energy: uh, guys. This thing is one complicated ball of knotty problems that leads straight into the heart of our obsession with corruption, lack of accountability, reformist agendas in the current government and the ins and outs of professional politics. Not only did we meander back in history to 1992 when the first power shortage crisis hit the country, we got a glimpse into how things really get done in this country just by listening to one industrialist, one banker and three politicians recount the events of the past nearly twenty years while give some personal commentary. In a nutshell, don't get too excited about this problem being solved overnight. It's going to require some serious muscle.

3. The Constitution: Constitutional law is not for the faint-hearted. This topic was fielded by one particular politician who rapid-fired in Kiswahili over a broad range of issues about the Articles of Union, the Union itself, the legal soundness of our Constitution and a host of other things that I am not sure I can even begin to explain here. It's complicated? Doesn't even begin to cover the nuances of the multilayered cake that is our legal foundation. Wow.

4. The leadership question: well, this was my area of "expertise" actually. As the only civilian on the panel I was duty-bound to push the question of what leadership actually means for people in the public life. And what that, in turn, means for the people whom they have sworn to serve. What I hoped to convey in the discussion was that leaders need to be exceptional. They need to inspire us and make us confident of their principles and character. They need to rise above the demands of populism, of pettiness, of selfish desire in order to reach for the ultimate goal- real public service, and a legacy worth the sacrifices. I sort-of managed that (because public speaking is one of my seven circles of hell) but I didn't have to worry- between the moderators and the professional politicians things got taken care of.

I despair, sometimes, as maybe you do. It can be hard to believe that any of the political craziness is going to result in anything good. I mentioned that the other panelists were from three different political parties. Well, I wish you could have been there to see what collaboration looks like when politicians show that Tanzania matters more to them than differences in ideology. Socialist, conservative or liberal- in the end they all turned out to be Republicans. I found that reassuring, even if I am not naive enough to think that these magical moments of conviviality can be allowed to see the light of day in our current political environment.

Let me conclude with this sentiment: leadership isn't a superpower. Some people have it more than others, which is good because someone has to do the dirty work of governing. Awed as I might have been by the strong Alpha/Beta Male waves of political accomplishment in which I was smothered, I did get to glimpse one thing: they're just people. Unexpectedly sweet**, and subject to all the same vagaries of life that you are. If they can do it- heck, if I can dare to join them in a debate- then you can damn well believe that you can too.

Well, you can try anyways :)

*YES Tanzania is a registered non partisan and non profit organization that intends to bring together, network and provide positive - constructive platform for Tanzania young senior executives from public, private and civil society to discuss, connect, celebrate and showcasing their achievements on various leadership based issues for better Tanzania.

YES's Philosophy is "To enable young executives to stay connected and to become better leaders, as well as to promote thought leadership and constructive engagement”

** Yes, I am aware that I shouldn't get too fond of politicians. But I was literally in the middle of three vortexes of intense Tanzanian Charm Offensive of the political Super variety. I didn't stand a chance.

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