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Why do leaders cling on to power?

Dec 03, 2017 Leadership, Sunday Nation

Watching Robert Mugabe cling on to power at the ripe old age of 93 was perplexing. He had clearly outstayed his welcome by decades, not years; the army had been forced to move in to prevent him handing over power to his own wife; and hundreds of thousands of his people had poured into the streets of his country to demand that he leaves immediately.

In those circumstances, why on earth would you hang on obstinately and childishly?

It is not as though a terrible fate may await him. The army generals have been painstakingly gentle with the old trouper. Their action has been variously tagged the ‘polite coup’ or the ‘slow-motion’ coup. Most endings of hated tyrants are notably more brutal. But still, the nonagenarian negotiated and haggled and imagined he could still continue as president.

He is not alone. We often observe folks clinging to leadership positions as thorough their lives depend on it, even if they really don’t. It happens to the founders of well-known companies; to chairmen of boards accustomed to calling the shots; to chief executives who imagine that they, and only they, can lead their enterprise; to sportsmen who come out for one final season even when their bodies called time a while back.

To me, this is fundamentally misguided. Our every experience of life tells us that everything has a beginning and an end; that our lives have seasons; that there is a time for everything, but there is not time for everything.

When we imagine that life cannot do without us, we imagine a fallacy. We are all dispensable and disposable. Life, it goes on, whether we are present or not. No matter how accomplished, we are far less important than we think. We have our roles to play, of course; but when time is called and we must step off the stage, we must do so with grace and with alacrity. Otherwise ignominy awaits.

What deters the stubborn? In the case of tyrants, there is the very real danger of humiliation, even execution. That is often a consequence of their own actions when in power, and karmic payback for their own misdeeds. Often, there is the fear of being stripped of all wealth – again, usually a result of the larcenies committed in office.

There is also the problem of too much adoration, real or imagined. When leaders get too used to applause from their followers or employees or shareholders, they start to believe in their own myth. They see themselves sporting a halo, one they imagine bestows unusual judgement or insight on them. This, too, is fallacious: success comes as much from prevailing circumstances, from team effort, even from sheer luck, as it does from the impact of an individual. The best leaders actually know this, and don’t push their luck – or their stay.

Finally, we have the fear of irrelevance. If you have mattered too much, your biggest fear is of not mattering at all. If you have had acolytes flocking around you helping you with everything short of wiping your behind for you, you find it hard to picture a life in which no ones even calls you or asks for your advice.

Those are the psychological fears that keep leaders sticking to their positions like leeches, even when everything suggests their time is up and they should leave to protect their own legacy and dignity. Institutions need to be conscious of these longevity traps, and change the nature of leadership: make it a time-bound position, with an exit time; reduce the ridiculous perks of office that cause so much stickiness; and allow people to leave with honour and appropriate appreciation, rather than reduce departures to dramatic defenestrations.

That way, we may end up normalizing leadership to something appropriate for human beings, rather than the absurd practice of glorifying it in mimicry of divinity.

For individuals in leadership positions, personal wisdom is required on many fronts. An acceptance that our time is limited and that we must make the most of it. A realization that we only succeed by being part of something bigger; we are not the thing itself. And a humble acknowledgment that we matter only to the extent to which we bring uplift to others.

The wise leave before their time is up; before they actually need to; and on their own terms. The unwise, well, they make an unseemly spectacle of themselves and get remembered for the wrong reasons.

(Sunday Nation, 3 December 2017)

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