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.

David Guttenfelder/AP Photo
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,

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.

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.”

History can seem so random if it relies only on the sudden appearance of a great leader. Ideas, however, are always readily available – and accessible to anyone, whether they are technical, cultural, spiritual, or economic. They provide a vision for an entire society, not the sole visionary.

America’s Founders knew that the people might see them as great and not recognize the great ideas they put forth for a new nation. By 1808, when Americans began a near worship of the late George Washington, Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote to John Adams about how the Founding Fathers had become unassailable heroes – and the danger in such thinking:

“There is very little difference in that superstition which leads us to believe in what the world calls ‘great men’ and in that which leads us to believe in witches and conjurors.”

Today, the United States has seen the rise of two movements, the tea party and the “Occupy” movement, that purposely try to avoid focusing on one leader. This “history from below” model may now be popular because of a fall of public confidence in many leaders, both private and public.

The 2010 National Leadership Index found 38 percent of Americans agree or strongly agree that “our country’s leaders are effective and do a good job.” Only four sectors inspire higher-than-average confidence: military, medical, Supreme Court, and nonprofit and charity sectors. The survey also found that the greatest negative feeling Americans have about their leaders is not anger or fear. It is disappointment.

Disappointment usually arises from misplaced hopes. To prevent that, the best leaders are ones who realize that there is too much to know for any one person to know it all. That requires humility, which is usually not found in leaders who exude pride, grandeur, infallibility, and, eventually, entitlement.

America’s political system is set up to ensure that the people are in charge, mainly through frequent elections. As Tocqueville wrote of the Americans: “They do not recognize any signs of incontestable greatness or superiority in any of their fellows, are continually brought back to their own judgment as the most apparent and accessible source of truth.”

That bit of wisdom comes in handy every election season, just as a guilty verdict of a former warlord helps Africans look to their own truths for leadership.

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