The world today is troubled with a lot of problems related to leadership. Nations and individuals seem to be more egocentric in their policies. It is no exaggeration that our contemporary society might have a hard time identifying exemplary leadership models to emulate. But the good news about humanity is that no matter how tough the morass in which we find ourselves, there is always an array of solutions.
Kant, in accordance with the German word “moral” that is used to translate the English word “morality”, regards morality as prohibiting harming oneself as well as prohibiting harming others. Some scholars further explain that the only time harming oneself is justifiable is when it is done for the good of others. Moral also refers to principles of right and wrong behaviour. It goes beyond the secular or religious perception of what moral is. It is not necessarily a written decree or law, it is conscientious in nature and guided by moral reasoning. Lawrence Kohlberg, a Harvard Psychologist, defines moral reasoning as “the ability to analyze right and wrong in terms of abstract principles that reflect concerns of society as a whole into a focus on maintaining one’s self respect.” Inasmuch as a leader must be sure of his ability to lead before assuming the role of a leader, the common good of his followers should be his primary interest. It is not an exaggeration to say that morality is a critical factor in leadership. For philosophers such as Kurt Baier, Geoffrey Warnock et al, morality prohibits actions such as killing, inflicting pain, deceiving, and breaking promises. A leader must not impose his personal beliefs on his followers or coerce them through chicanery or manipulation just to justify his actions. His worldview should be in tandem with the real moral values of the society.
Moral leadership is an altruistic way of leadership that places a lot of premium on the common good of the people and with the principles of morality as the benchmark in the execution of leadership duties without fear of confronting friends or foes if the need arises. It is to be imbibed as a way of life and not just displayed when it is convenient for the person. It carries with it the ability to do what is best for people even when the action may give them short term pain, but long term gain. Leadership cuts across every facet of the society, from homes, communities, schools, organizations, etc.
In my third year in high school, I had a Science teacher that was my favourite teacher at school. Her name was Ms Cecelia Medupin; she would sometimes teach for half an hour, and then randomly pick a student to complete the lecture. I was picked a couple of times and my performance endeared me to the teacher. Sometime later, she caught me cheating in a test and she embarrassed me in class. I failed the test and subsequently failed the examination at the end of the term. After that experience I never cheated again. We became much closer after the incident and after high school we kept exchanging mails. She could have treated me with a kid’s glove or perhaps turned a blind eye, but she made me see that cheating was wrong and came with consequences. It was painful and humiliating for me, yet it had an enormous positive effect that I still appreciate everyday.
It is not enough to notice the needs of a people; altruism in leadership requires a deep compassion and participation in the alleviation of the plight of the vulnerable people in our society. Mother Teresa was a perfect example through her Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India. She was from a rich family, but after she fled her country, Albania, she made India her adopted country. She sacrificed a comfortable life for a more tasking one. She was once assaulted for accepting money from rich donors (in order to help the poor) and for making the poverty of Calcutta internationally infamous. At her death, the Missionaries of Charity had over four thousand sisters and a hundred thousand lay volunteers working in 123 countries. She was dubbed a “moral celebrity” and was beatified in 2003 as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. Agi Bojaxhiu (her niece) said this about her, “One lasting impression is that, in spite of her tiny stature, she had an enormous presence.”
In 1961, an article in Britain’s Observer entitled The Forgotten Prisoners called for a world wide amnesty for political prisoners or at least give them a fair trial. It was written by Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International (1941). He realized how awaken his social conscience was while at school, where he raised funds to bring German Jews to Britain in the wake of World War II. He coined the term “prisoner of conscience”. Through his organization, he has intervened in issues pertaining prisoners of conscience, the death penalty, extra judicial executions, social rights and so on. In 1977, Amnesty International was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Even after his death in 2005, the organization is still a strong advocate of human rights.
A leader that is altruistic never gets confused about doing the right thing no matter whose ox is gored. This includes placing the welfare and health of the people above profiteering or consumerism. In Nigeria, Dr. Dora Nkem Akunyili was the scourge of producers, marketers and administrators of fake and adulterated foods/drugs. During her stint as the Director General of National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) from 2001-2008, she exposed the massive corruption in the sector. Prior to her appointment, there was a wide circulation of adulterated, fake and substandard food and drugs in Nigeria. She embarked on a nationwide war against those behind it, she fearlessly clamped down on them never minding that most of them were her tribesmen. Her policies led to an attempt on her life in Anambra State, on 26th December, 2003. Fortunately, she survived, but what was more appalling was that the assassins were her tribesmen and the attack was carried out in her state. That same year, she received the Integrity Award from Transparency International (South Korea). She is one of the few public servants that have left office without any scandal, a laudable achievement especially in a country where the moral landscape is in tatters. Dr. Akunyili put her life in the line for a cause she strongly believed to be right. She didn’t mind sacrificing her life for millions of innocent Nigerians who were not in any way related to her.
The Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka once said, “The man dies in him who keeps silent in the face of tyranny and oppression”. Those who exhibit moral leadership include those who fight to expunge all forms of social injustice, socio-economic problems and political corruption. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of National League for Democracy in Myanmar stands out. She is seen as the symbol of heroic and peaceful resistance in the face of oppression. After her return to Burma in 1988, she openly criticized the Burmese dictator U NeWin. Popularly called “Burma’s Gandhi”, she spent years of house arrest before gaining freedom in 2010. She refused the offer to leave the country, insisting that her struggle would continue until the junta released the country to civilian and democratic government. Her struggle paid off after her victory at the parliamentary elections in 2012, although she’s still fighting for an amendment of the dubiously written constitution. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela are famous for their agitation against racial segregation. Dr. King‘s “I have a Dream” speech became a prophetic message that gained more prominence after the election of Barack Obama as the first Black president of the United States. Nelson Mandela was known for his anti-Apartheid campaigns, his incarceration in Robben Island and his election as the first Black South African president. He was awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize and surprised the world when he voluntarily relinquished power after his first tenure as president. Mandela could have continued as president and perhaps become a sole monarch like Mugabe, but he knew better than that. While Dr. King did not live to witness the fulfillment of his prophecy, it was his that sacrifice made it possible.
However strenuous it may seem to explicate what moral leadership entails in our world today, the lives and achievements of some leaders offer the perfect explanation. It should also be taken into cognizance that moral leadership is not designated for a specific group of people in an official leadership position. You demonstrate moral leadership whenever you step up to do what is right and beneficial for the larger society.
Ebuka Francis Okoli
University of Jos, Nigeria
Department of English & Literary Studies
Undergraduate (Third year).