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Political leadership ­ Pt I
The management factor

published: Sunday | February 5, 2006

Rex Nettleford, Contributor

In the context of the changes in this new century, political leadership in countries like Jamaica is challenged to find new and appropriate form and purpose for government in the exercise of power, to bring to that exercise the skills of management in ways that can maximise the benefits from the dynamic mobilisation of the creative energies of the human beings on whose loyalty and commitment the generation of the productive resources depend, and to facilitate the shaping of civil society that will experience a quality of life rooted in freedom from hunger, from disease, from ignorance and from fear.

leaders unprepared

The call for democracy is not always matched by the practice of it. It is as if the inheritance of an authoritarian temper coming out of plantation history and colonisation has left an indelible mark. The primacy of political action in serving an oppressed populace that struggled for liberation from an autocratic past has been mistaken to be an eternally exclusive necessity, despite changed circumstances. The replacement of planters and Crown officials by autocratic messianic native political leaders and humourless native bureaucrats, respectively, has not always advanced the decolonisation process with the speed anticipated. So political leaders in many ex-colonial territories have been caught unprepared for the new roles and functions demanded of governments and related agencies, not just in independence but in an independence that must find for itself a discrete form against the background of shifting paradigms and transforming ideologies.

The statism that in practice went with socialist ideology in its different stages of expression has given place since the 1980s to a free enterprise ideology elevating the private sector to much greater eminence in the pursuit of development strategies formerly deemed to be the province largely of governments. Political leadership that fails to heed the pitfalls of swinging indiscriminately with the pendulum from one polarity to the next is not likely to prove effective, however. For as the Report on Government Structure (1992) averred, "The establishment of market economies and the globalisation of production do not imply necessarily less government, but different and better government."


The difference lies in the concept of government as a hub of a network of social/power partners engaged in the process of continuing interaction for the purpose of policy formulation and implementation. Political leadership in office should now be prepared to find common undertaking with all other parties, the business community, trade unions, non-governmental organisations, and other civic bodies on the broad goals of economic and social development, as well as on the policy framework through which rules will be established for the management of the economy and the respective roles of each partner in management delineated. Political leadership in this context means strategic'brokering' in the attempt to reconcile divergent interests among the respective partners and to facilitate the effective discharge of their respective responsibilities.

All of this implies a different style and substance of public management ­ a change from the 'bully-ridding' tactics of the elected-turned-autocratic tin-czars to the coordinative transformational leadership about which so-called progressive managers in the private sector now speak. Here there is no monopolistic claim on the part of political leaders as change agents. Rather there obtains a concept of leadership whereby 'power bases are linked not as counterweights but as mutual support for a common purpose'.

difficult concept

The idea that the community and the private sector are 'power centres' other than the Cabinet and Parliament, may be a difficult concept to handle, but the ability to do just this is a test of political leadership both at this time and in the foreseeable future. Leaders in the private sector themselves have had to grapple with a similar concept in dealing with organised workers at the shopfloor level whether as trade unionists or as members of staff associations. The idea that the enterprise operates on the basis of a set of core values which enjoy the loyalty and commitment of all who work in it while a certain degree of organised chaos is allowed on the periphery, may well be the essence of democracy in praxis, as it is deemed to be of sound business practice in pursuit of bottomline profit.

Political leadership perceived as public management could well borrow from the experience of the private sector now in search of new techniques. The core values that political leadership must delineate are the aims and objectives not only of government but of good governance and social soundness in general. The journey back to first principles is mandatory if the fundamental question of what is needed of

Jamaican society down the 21st century and beyond is to be seriously addressed. Political leaders who are not of a mind to ask such a question, are hardly ready to lead and may well be discouraged from doing so.

Artistic predilections drive me to the analogy of political leadership being like the leadership of an orchestra. The conductor may indeed be an acknowledged and authoritative genius at getting out of the ensemble the right and plausible sounds, tone and timbre but accepts that he/she cannot play all the varied instruments himself/herself. The spectacle of a one-man band besides being clumsy-looking is limited in scope, however clever the electronic and mechanical contraptions devised.

Prime ministers and executive presidents would do well to appreciate this in coordinating in an organic way their management teams and they in turn collectively to do likewise in 'leading' the citizenry. Of course, there must be room for fully developed technical skills in the mastery of the craft underpinning the art of performance. But there must also be much imagination, creativity and the kind of flexibility that can accommodate within the overall performance dissonance, variation, improvisation and seeming offbeat indulgence by rebel instrumentalists.

good managers

Political leaders, in and out of office, should as good managers be able to identify and hold on to the distinctive edge of government vis-à-vis all the other players in the game. The jargon of the day is filled with such phrases as 'market-driven', 'free enterprise' and 'laissez-faire'. But these are nothing more than scaffoldings to facilitate access to the edifice of sound governance. 'Management' has been added to the equation of political leadership in Jamaica since 1980 when an entire election was fought on a choice between 'mismanagement' and 'better management'. And, indeed, one set of political leaders headed by Edward Seaga, who would regard himself as primarily a manager-politician, did gain formal power on the promise of better management of the economy. Financial wizardry, planning and budgeting prowess, as well as marketing expertise have been invoked as essentials of effective public management by political leaders. It is not enough, goes the argument, for political leadership to be charismatic and inspirational: It needs to be pragmatically effective and action-oriented. Policy options, priorities, investment choices and planning must be managed.

The management component of political leadership indeed stuck throughout the '80s and was to demonstrate managerial prowess without an appreciation of the contextual realities of the corporate culture. The contextual realities turned inter alia on the political culture of a marginalised mass driven by ambitions of good education, upward social mobility, material betterment, individual dignity and racial respect.

aftermath of slavery

In the '80s the Jamaican political leadership in power had well-intentioned designs to march the country into an era of high technology through computer-based scientific management of public affairs. Could these efforts have been misguided in the attempt to 'make pioneers of the future out of human beings who had not recovered from the memories of ruined past', as has been said of survivors of Auschwitz called upon to build a glorious future? Enforced labour in chattel slavery and its aftermath of continuing disabilities despite clear signs of some progress, constitute for the vast majority of Jamaicans a 'ruined past' keenly intuited as part of a cultural memory.

From the days of self-government advocacy right into Independence, too few leaders have shown sufficient regard for the deep social forces affecting the lives of those who constitute the majority of the electorate and who carry with them a psychic inheritance not only of material dispossession but also of social and cultural marginalisation. This has in turn triggered 'acts' of assertion of 'self' in many forms as in the unprecedented and spontaneous outburst of widespread enthusiasm extended by the mass of population to such state visitors as Haile Selassie in 1996 and Nelson Mandela in 1991.

Leaders like Alexander Bustamante and Michael Manley were in their own time able to bring politics and political followers to levels of emotional intensity which was the envy of rivals. Vere Bird of Antigua and Eric Gairy of Grenada did likewise in their territories as did 'Odo' Forbes Burnham of Guyana and Lynden Pindling of the Bahamas.

However distasteful such 'populism' may be to political leaders of lesser messianic mein, it has done the major Caribbean leader little good when he fails to connect on an emotional level with the mass of the population whose need for such visceral contact with their leaders is an important variable in the equation of the relationship between leader and led. Caribbean leaders who have failed to sustain such populist connections have done so at their peril.

Charismatic leaders should not, however, yield to the temptation of writing off the popular mass as manipulable dependents. Governments have been rejected at the ballot box despite the alleged handouts of largesse by ruling parties to electorates. Voters are known to accept the leaders' money at campaign time and still vote against them.

Closer reading of the deep social forces operative in Caribbean society is yet another challenge for political leaders in shaping public policy and designing sound public management structures and style(s) towards a tolerable future.

In any case, as private sector management has found, managers are often seen to do the right thing while leaders do things right. One can supposedly be a manager without being a 'leader', while leadership, it is felt, entails good management.

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