Leadership and Sacrifice

Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. (Luke 17:33)

“Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.” These were the words of Nelson Mandela, a man whose personal sacrifice has since defined true leadership.  Mandela’s words assume even greater importance in a tumultuous world in desperate need of real leadership.  According to leadership expert Dave Anderson, the reward for leadership is the opportunity to make more sacrifices. And one sure sacrifice a leader can make, in this regard, is sacrificing personal ambitions for the greater good; the readiness to build, strengthen and elevate institutions above personalities.

The truth is, the average human being has a propensity for selfishness, exaggerating our own importance and building empires where everything revolves around us. Contrariwise is to start defining leadership. True leaders build systems and institutions that allow for processes, establish continuity, and develop a structure that remains bigger than themselves. For such leaders, their leadership is defined by one word – sacrifice. Their goal is to build and sustain something that will benefit the people for generations and they would give up anything to achieve this. But the amazing thing is that they gain it all at the end and live in perpetual honour. No wonder Jesus said, “whoever seeks his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” If you think Jesus is too high for you to identify with, then what of Gandhi who said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Self-aggrandizing and autocratic leaders, on the contrary, parade pseudo unearned successes which are usually not sustainable, and history always remembers such leaders as a byword. I am reminded of the exploits of Gorbachev, the Soviet leader that facilitated the transition of the Union in the late 1980s.

The Russians had fought a bloody battle during the Second World War and sacrificed more than any other nation to bring that war to an end. The man at the heart of this was Joseph Stalin. Emerging from that war as a hero, Stalin proceeded to build a Soviet empire along with the Kremlin with him at the centre of it. Leader after leader of the Soviet Union, from Khrushchev to Brezhnev, followed after Stalin’s leadership style. The result was wars and threats of wars across the globe. But one leader arose who understood the imperative of subjecting personal ambition to the greater good, of building institutions and systems as against personalities. That leader was Mikhail Gorbachev.

Gorbachev instituted the famed policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). He whittled down the ambitions of the Soviet Union, inadvertently breaking it down, and removed the constitutional role of the Communist Party in the governing of the state. Gorbachev put an end to the Cold War and global anxiety. Do you know that the system Gorbachev built left no room for him? But he built it anyway and left the world a better place. He sacrificed building a personal empire for building systems and institutions, and reaped immortality, earning himself a Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 and an enviable place in history.

On the other hand, we have leaders like Robert Mugabe, who contrary to Gorbachev, has built a personal empire to the detriment of building institutions for his country that will last generations. This is the bane of most African countries, where elections and governance are largely about personalities seeking to gain power at all cost.

Or what do you say to the fact since the announcement of the results of the 2011 Nigerian Presidential elections, the bombings began and have continued unabated till date? The recent bombing at Nyanya and the kidnapping of over 200 teenage girls by members of the Boko Haram sect have held the nation in shock and dismay for the past few weeks. The sentiment of the average Nigerian, having witnessed politicians trade blames, is that certain political leaders are responsible for the current crisis. Perhaps this sentiment is better conveyed by Prof. Wole Soyinka who said “Those who unleashed Boko Haram on the nation are politicians. These are the ones behind Boko Haram…”

Everyday Nigerians seem to have found themselves caught in the middle of a deadly game of greed and naked ambition, sprinkled with a handsome dose of religious fanaticism. I believe it is time for us to have a rethink on our leadership definition. Of what use is burning down an entire nation? Is it so we can rule over its ashes?

Compare the Nigerian scenario to the 2000 American elections which were contentious due to what many saw to be electoral flaws. But Al Gore understood the importance of preserving an established system and willingly subjected his own personal ambitions to control. We can find wisdom in the words of John Kerry who said, “The American spirit wears no political label. In service to others and yes, in sacrifice for our country, there are no Republicans; there are no Democrats; there are only Americans.”

This is a direct challenge to leaders and aspiring leaders: do you want to be remembered as the sacrificial leader who built systems and institutions that bettered the lot of generations? Or do you want to be remembered as the leader who brought everything down because you could not have your way? The depth of every leader’s legacy will be defined by the extent of his or her personal sacrifices to improve the lot of the people. Nigerians deserve such sacrificial leaders; leaders who live by a moral code higher than the lure of office.  And they will get it.

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