As an ardent student of history, the subject of leadership has fascinated me for years. In particular, I look for insights into what makes great leaders so great - Mandela, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr. to name but a few.

For me, more than anything the pattern that emerges amongst all exceptional leaders is the ability to have the courage of their convictions.

Going to Harvard had been a dream of mine for some time. One bored Sunday, I googled their Executive programmes and came across one at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government that really sparked my interest: Leadership in the 21st Century: “Chaos, Courage and Conflict. More than anything the idea of leading with courage resonated with me. I applied for the course at Harvard and much to my delight I was accepted onto the programme.  

On our first day one of our facilitators, Professor Marty Linsky, asked us to suspend our own belief systems and accept the “truth” that there was a difference between acting within your scope of authority, which everyone is expected to do, and taking leadership which requires going beyond the expected to achieve a defined purpose. We were asked to bear in mind that there are no “leaders” and that anyone can exercise leadership, even those without authority.
Many of the people in the class, particularly civil servants, struggled with this new concept of “leadership” which many considered as merely the ability to “steer the ship” well. On the first night of the course Marty Linsky abdicated his role as the authority figure by maintaining silence and refusing to lead the discussion. The result was confusion; why wasn’t he speaking and what could the group do to break the silence? After several minutes, the silence was broken as it became apparent that what we were expected to do was take leadership as opposed to defer to the figure in authority. Taking leadership in that situation came with casualties. The first person who tried the exercise leadership was ignored before other more successful attempts were made. In the group dynamic, no one wanted to risk speaking out because they were unsure how they would be received.  Rather than fight the concept I worked with the idea that taking leadership necessarily meant rocking the boat to achieve a higher purpose. The real question for me was at what risk should one exercise leadership and is the potential cost worth it?

According to Charles Darwin the ability to survive is not dependent on skill or intelligence but the ability to adapt.  I have come across a book called ‘The Musakanya Papers’. The book is a compilation of notes by the late Mr. Valentine Musakanya on his experiences before and after his political career was cut short following his incarceration after being implicated in the 1980 coup attempt against the authoritarian rule of former Republican President Kenneth Kaunda. Mr. Musakanya has been described as a man of great intelligence and ability. It is a great shame when someone with that level of potential is marginalised at the altar of power. No one wants to be that guy.  So, what do you do if you want to step into that leadership gap and survive? Darwin says adapt. One good example of adaptation is former President Dr. Kenneth Kaunda’s recovery following a spectacular fall from grace following his resounding defeat in the 1991 elections that re-introduced multi-party democracy in Zambia. Dr. Kaunda has successfully managed to reinvent himself as the father of the nation.

What are the tools for exercising leadership successfully? Back to Marty Linsky’s definition of leadership, successful leadership means managing the discomfort created by doing the unexpected in order to effect change – “checking the temperature” to see that it is safe to proceed. That essentially means getting people to agree with your new idea and to subsequently follow you. It may be a painful process for your followers who may have to let go of long held beliefs and make sacrifices. To keep them following you, you have got to harness the ability to make people see the Promised Land and believe that they will get there even in the face of adversity. That takes courage.  However, as a leader in my own right I meditate on the words of Martin Luther King Jnr:

“Cowardice asks: ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks: ‘Is it strategically advantageous?’ Vanity asks: ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience asks: ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor strategically advantageous, nor popular – but one must take a position because it’s right”.

And when you take that decision that is neither safe nor strategically advantageous nor popular you must be prepared for resistance from naysayers and often people whom I call “enemies of progress”. As a woman, this might mean public and often very personal attacks against you. This means that you will have to develop a thick skin and manage the negativity through taking into account all view points and embracing rather than ignoring your detractors. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote a book called ‘Well-behaved women seldom make history’. By that she meant that history favours women who defy societal norms in order to effect positive change like the Suffragettes who stood up for the right to universal suffrage or Rosa Parks sitting in a seat reserved for white people in segregated 1950’s America. Here in Zambia Mama Chikamoneka and other women went bare-breasted in protest of colonial rule and Lucy Sichone conducted a one-woman demonstration against the corruption in the post-Kaunda era. 

So, what do you do if you want to be a leader? Take courage. Taking leadership requires us to be “Giant Killers” and, in the words of the Zambian singer Pompi, sometimes we have to “pick a battle so large that the world will see that the hand of God was evident”.

The author is 2014 Tutu Fellow Linda Kasonde and the President of the Law Association of Zambia. The views expressed in the essay are her own.

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The African Leadership Institute (AFLI) focuses on building the capacity and capability of visionary and strategic leadership across the continent. Developing exceptional leaders representing all spheres of society, the Institute’s flagship programme is the prestigious Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellowship. Offering a multifaceted learning experience and run in partnership with Oxford University, it is awarded annually to 20-25 carefully chosen candidates, nominated from across Africa. Alumni of the African Leadership Institute form a dynamic network of Fellows passionately committed to the continent’s transformation, bridging the divide between nations and ensuring that Africa is set centre-stage in global affairs.