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A lesson on leadership from Africa

The guilty verdict against Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, is more than a victory for justice. It is a lesson for Africans and other about no holding up 'great leaders' as saviors. Great ideas are better than great people.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / April 27, 2012

Charles Taylor sits on a throne during a ceremony in the Liberian capital Monrovia in this undated picture where Ghanian immigrants crowned him Chief Okatakyie,

David Guttenfelder/AP Photo

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Africa can rejoice. An international court has found Charles Taylor, a former president of Liberia, guilty of aiding and abetting atrocities. This is the first time since the Nuremberg trials that a current or former head of state has been convicted of such crimes.

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But there’s more than a lesson about justice in this verdict.

Africans, as in many parts of the world, are still learning not to put too much faith in “great men” to save them or change their world. Mr. Taylor was once a charismatic leader whose many followers worshipped the power he seemed to convey.

And Africa, unfortunately, has had its unfair share of “great leaders” who were once hailed as saviors but ended up leading their countries astray, often in a cult of personality. The most famous are Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Mubuto of Congo, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, and Muammar Qaddafi of Libya.

The world has steadily changed since 19th-century philosopher Thomas Carlyle famously stated that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” (And women, as he might have added today.)

It is more obvious now that great ideas influence the course of events more than great leaders, especially when they are spread with the speed of a YouTube video or Twitter message. The Arab Spring in Egypt showed the power of social media to advance the idea that every person deserves liberty and dignity. With that realization by the masses, Hosni Mubarak fell quickly.

“Leaders are increasingly vulnerable to forces beyond their control,” writes Harvard University scholar Barbara Kellerman, author of a new book, “The End of Leadership.”

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