Nelson Mandela, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Sir Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, Hitler, Stalin, Queen Elizabeth I, Alexander the Great, Plato, Sophocles, Aristotle, Shaka Zulu, Napoleon III, Robert Mugabe, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden; and now Colonel Gaddafi, have all come and gone (not necessarily having left because of death). They have all gained, held on to and lost power or at least popularity along their way. Either because sufficient time has past for their names to have been forgotten by most, or because they were ousted amidst their term or perhaps because time had come for change and they were no longer relevant. In some cases, they hold on to their power, but only few in positions of influence support them. Whatever the reason, the point is, they were all massively influential over the political arena of their domain at the time of their rule; and some more than others, have had influence over the world to a lessor or greater degree. This commentary is not about whether their influence was good or bad, because that is not what I want to talk about in this Blog, but rather I would like to comment on the impact important, influential and long-standing ‘leaders’ have on shaping an era.

Reading some of the news feeds in the aftermath of Gaddafi’s death this week I have been intrigued by the commentaries. Described by Ronald Reagan as ‘the mad dog of the Middle East’, Gaddafi described himself as the ‘King of Kings of Africa’, which I think sums up the majority-held notion that the impression Gaddafi had of himself was very different to the impression most others around the world had of him.And indeed I think the majority of us would agree that the impression of Gaddafi was one that would concur with the negative labels held by others and not the inflated ones he held of himself. Like so many before him, it seems Gaddafi lost sight of how much his people and people around the world disagreed with his methods of rule. Instead of changing his ways, he blamed outwardly:

He placed blame for the uprising on foreign intervention — a United Nations Security Council resolution intended to defend civilians became the contentious basis for NATO airstrikes on his troops.

“I tell the coward crusaders: I live in a place where you can’t get me,” he taunted in one of many defiant speeches after the uprising against his rule started in February. “I live in the hearts of millions.”

Neil MacFarqhar New York Times.

Both in the longevity of his rule and in his style of governance, Gaddafi may have been extreme. But he was not exceptional. The longer they stay in power, the more African presidents seek to personalise power. Their success erodes the institutional basis of the state. The Carribean thinker C L R James once remarked on the contrast between Nyerere and Nkrumah, analysing why the former survived until he resigned but the latter did not: “Dr Julius Nyerere in theory and practice laid the basis of an African state, which Nkrumah failed to do.”

The African strongmen are going the way of Nkrumah, and in extreme cases Gaddafi, not Nyerere. The societies they lead are marked by growing internal divisions. In this, too, they are reminiscent of Libya under Gaddafi more than Egypt under Mubarak or Tunisia under Ben Ali.

Mahmood Mamdani Al Jazeera Online

The lessons leaders at work can learn from Gaddafi:

1) Self-awareness is key to being a good leader. If you have one opinion of yourself which is significantly different to the impression your workforce have of you, you are not going to last long in the New World of Work. Why? Because young people today are informed, expressive and don’t suffer fools gladly.

2) Negative labels given by others usually have stick faster, longer, tighter, making creating a positive image much harder to gain, especially if you have had a negative reputation for a long time.

3) If you are wanting to maintain your position of influence and decision-making for a long time, it is imperative you change with the times; and that starts by looking at yourself and being honest about what YOU have to do differently. It also involves listening to feedback from your workforce and actually implementing some of their suggestions.

4) Rigidity in your attitude towards adaptability, flexibility and a willingness to do things differently will result in you having to become more dictatorial and defensive of your position and ultimately less popular, which is unsustainable and all the power and control in the world won’t guarantee you life-long influence and position in the New World of Work.

5) An inability to self-reflect where it is easier to blame outwardly (and it is) will result in your demise.

6) Particularly in a time where collaboration is key (and works) why should any position of power become personal? This so often happens with rigid leadership that doesn’t change over long periods of time. The personal power struggle of the influencer at the top, then, becomes more important than what is good for the organisation at large. Countries like Zimbabwe who are going through this should be the greatest lesson in how this is not good, useful or helpful long-term.

What is interesting is how much long-term influence leaders (both political and corporate) have on a country or an organisation after they have exited. I suppose the answer lies in

a) the length of their term and

b) the extremity of their personal power

But the question is:  how do you want to be remembered? As somebody who hampered change and lost good talent and productivity because of it; or as somebody who was brave and humble enough to embrace change? The latter is harder in some ways, but so much better long-term.


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