By Cornelius Ndubuisi
Truth be told, there are many shades of leaders in circulation, with the majority of their number coming from the quarters of those who merely occupy positions of authority and those who accidentally happen to wield enormous influence. But there is a small category of leaders who are characteristically game-changers; they are markedly different – and few. They orchestrate change. They question convention. They are capacity and consensus builders. They expand the boundaries of human possibilities. They command fanatical followership. In one word, they exercise effective leadership. Names like American Abraham Lincoln, English Winston Churchill, French Napoleon Bonaparte, Macedonian Alexander the Great, South African Nelson Mandela, and Tanzanian Julius Nyerere belong here. These names, to say the least, have become synonymous with game-changing leadership, quintessence and paragons of it per se.
For Aristotle, characteristic excellence is what makes a thing what it is. And so, distilled from the lives of those game-changing leaders, the virtues that add up to game-changing leadership include: vision, knowledge, courage, integrity, and communication. There surely is more to game-changing leadership than these, but these five qualities are non-negotiable.
Scriptures say it best, “Where there is no vision the people perish” (cf. Prov. 29:18). It can never be overemphasized that vision is critical to the leadership enterprise; the leader not only has to necessarily see tomorrow, but also see what tomorrow will bring to the table. Importantly, it has to be substantially clear to the leader where the ‘leader-ship’ is headed. Of course, no one expects them to be Merlin, no one expects them to pierce through the heavens to go read the palms of God, but everyone expects them to, at least, be in the know of the next few courses of action, and to be able to bet on the expected outcomes. The game-changing leader must be a wizard of some sort.
Lincoln’s example fits in here. Lincoln kept at the American Civil War and didn’t give up at any one point because the outcome was very clear to him; the American Union was so clear to him that the heads of more than 600,000 that rolled from both sides of the divide (Union and Confederate) were ‘worth’ it. And, in recognition of this quintessential visionary, the American people vote Lincoln the all-time best American citizen and leader.
Hosea 4:6 always comes in handy in every discourse on knowledge, “My people perish for lack of knowledge.” The place of knowledge on the scheme of things is central for two reasons: humans are born with no knowledge of the world, and humans cannot function without knowledge of the world. Moreover, the demand of knowledge on the leader is enormous. The leader, though not all-knowing, must know enough. They must be generally knowledgeable, as to know something about everything; they must be especially knowledgeable, so as to know everything about leadership. To know enough in order to beat the demand of knowledge on leadership, the leader must both be well and widely read. The leader must always be in the robe of learning and ensure that no experience (theirs or others’) that holds a relevant lesson is allowed to breeze by. Game-changing leaders must be humble enough to learn from their followers and ‘inferiors.’
An ad rem example for the place of knowledge on the scheme of leadership things is erstwhile British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. In the heat of World War II, and devastated by the untold terror Hitler was already unleashing on London; Churchill knew that only knowledge could come to his rescue; Hitler had already beaten him to toughness. What he did will shock you: he went all out to pull down Enigma, Hitler’s ‘all-mighty’ crypto coder. And how he did it is genius: he assembled a team of brilliant Britons to crack the code. The team came up with Ultra, one that made history of Enigma and WWII. With Ultra, Churchill knew every Hitler’s move ahead of time–and foiled them.
As a word, courage is only the containment of fear and never the absence of it. To be frank, fearlessness is an impossible height to attain; we all fear one thing or the other, at least once upon a time. Come to think of it, why would God request that we fear not as many as 360 times in the Bible if not that he knows of what we’re made; he remembers that we’re all fears. But the truth remains that fear gets in the way of great accomplishments. It particularly stifles creativity. Importantly, we owe our pathological resistance to change to the fear-factor; fear fastens us to our comfort zone and furnishes us with a thousand and one reasons not to set out on any improbable journey. One can already see that game-changing leaders can’t afford to have fear dominate them, since it promises to sink their ‘leader-ship.’ Else, how will they make change happen, how will they blaze new trails, how will they create things, how will they have their people do great work? How? Courage becomes the only option available to the leader. Courage comes in handy to swallow fear, to move one to ‘act’ in spite of fear. Truth be told, without courage there is no true leadership, as the cowardly leadership is nothing but yet another follower of fear.
French Napoleon Bonaparte and Grecian Alexander the Great stand out as ridiculously courageous leaders. Napoleon used courage to birth a new French republic after the revolution, and Alexander used it to conquer the known world of his time.
At every point, there are two types of leaders: those merely being followed and those worth following. Mind you, every ‘followership’ is a choice. Yes, every follower gets to make the choice of being led. And this choice can be informed by convenience or duty; by convenience when ‘just following’ isn’t that bad, and by duty when one just can’t resist the attraction towards an exceptional leader. To hit the nail on the head, integrity is the singular factor that makes for exceptional leadership, the type wielded by game-changers. Integrity demands that leaders walk their talk, that they lead by example, that they themselves be committed to the common course by folding their sleeves and joining to soil their hands with the ‘dirty job.’ Leaders who say what they mean and mean what they say, and go on to keep their word are those worth following. Also integral to integrity is toeing the path of right, especially when it is the hardest thing to do. The leader who’s got character is worth following every other time.
Tanzanian Julius Nyerere stands out here. His exemplary leadership was legendary, so much that, being Catholic, a cause for his canonization is on. Indeed, he walked every bit of his talk.
Idle talk is cheap. Anyone can afford to say anything and walk away with it. Freedom of speech we call it. Not so for the leader. The leader must be master-communicator. Game-changing leaders harness the power of words and the magic of well-crafted expressions to ‘stir men’s blood.’ Somehow, the great speeches we celebrate have come down to use from the game-changing leaders we know. Think of the Gettysburg Address, in which the legendary definition of democracy was rendered, we recall the great Abraham Lincoln. Think of We Shall Fight on Beaches, a speech that reshaped World War II for the English people, we remember Winston Churchill. Think of the Infamy Speech, a seven-minute-long speech that moved the US Congress to declare full scale war on the Empire of Japan within an hour, we call to mind Franklin Roosevelt. How did Adolf Hitler push the Germans to declare war on the whole world? He simply spoke. How did Nelson Mandela contain the Apartheid situation after his release from prison? He simply spoke. To wrap it all up, game-changing leaders get tons done by speaking, speaking simply but uncommonly.