Sunday, January 2, 2011

Leaders Behind Bars - Can they be effective?

Can you be an effective leader from behind bars?  And when do non-violent methods and persistence turn from naive strategy to brilliant tactics?  A quick look at two famous leaders brings us closer to an answer.

When you ask for an example of a leader, several names always come up.  One of them is Nelson Mandela.  His accomplishments in South Africa are significant and long-lasting.  Convicted in 1964 of trying to overthrow the government, he spent 18 years in prison.  While in prison he stood firm to his beliefs and endured his conditions, earning him the attention and respect of millions.  After his release, he continued with his anti-apartheid mission, using his reputation as a tool to ultimately effect the social change he had dreamed of.  But what if he had never been released from prison?  Would we still consider him an effective leader?  Or would we call him naive for sticking to his principles and therefore staying in jail?  After all, how much good can you do from behind bars?

Aung San Suu Kyi
These questions came up not too long ago in a discussion.  At the time Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically-elected leader of Burma and champion of civil liberties for all Burmese, was still in jail. 

She was released by her captors, the military junta who control the country, in November after spending 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest. 

We were discussing whether Suu Kyi (at that time still under house arrest), was a role model for leadership. It came up that she and Mandela have much in common:  both were wrongly imprisoned for their beliefs, both stuck to those beliefs at great personal cost, and both used their time behind bars to increase their reputation across the globe, and bring attention to their mission.

Are Good Intentions Enough?
Mandela, who had been released decades earlier, had achieved many of his goals.  No one disputed that he was effective, and a role model for effective leadership.  But Suu Kyi?  She was still under house arrest, her people were still suffering, and the junta was still in power.  What good had all her sacrifices come to?  Not much, it looked like.  It could be argued that she was naive in her tactics, and that despite all her good intentions nothing good came of it.  Some in the discussion were arguing that she was not a role model for leadership, because she was so far ineffective (despite taking the same steps as Mandela).  The group was split- did a leader need to achieve goals to be considered a role model for effective leadership?  Half said yes and half said no.

Then Suu Kyi got released from house arrest on November 13th.
The night she was released she told her supporters "We have so much to do"

Since then, she has continued with her mission full-force.  But as Time's recent article on her notes, unlike Mandela, who was released when South Africa's apartheid government was weak and dying, the military junta in Burma is stronger than ever.  She has so far not achieved any of her stated goals.  So my question is: Is she an effective leader?  Who gets to decide?  Does she need to achieve her goal of civil liberties for all Burmese people to be successful?  Or is she already successful, merely by turning herself into a role model and a symbol of strength for the Burmese to believe in? 
Everyday Leaders
This lesson applies not just to heads of state, but to all of us.  Is the parent who tells his child to turn the other cheek to a bully at school effective if the child keeps on getting beaten up?  When is this strategy poor and when is it good?  If the child eventually stops getting picked on, does this justify the strategy the whole time?

How about the small business owner who preemptively fires 10 employees in an economic downturn to save 40 other jobs.  Is he a good manager?  If the business eventually fails anyhow, does that change our opinion on what the manager did?  What if firing the 10 people saved the business?

Are we leaders if we can't rally others behind us?  Probably not, as a leader needs followers or at least subordinates to be considered a leader (try being a leader of one). 
if no one's following, you're not leading
What if we rally others behind us but never achieve what we set out to achieve?  Although ultimately this is a question that we each have to answer for ourselves, in my opinion we can still be a leader without having yet effected change, or achieved our goals.  This is because when we inspire others to follow us, when we create meaning and motivate others in a certain direction towards a certain goal, we have created a momentum towards achieving our goals.  This momentum has value in itself. 

If Suu Kyi was suddenly unable to continue her mission, and another, inspired by her, picked up the cause of non-violent tactics towards Burmese Civil Liberties and was eventually successful, then Suu Kyi could be considered effective, right?  What if that second person did not achieve the goal, but inspired others, then was Suu Kyi still effective?  Yes.

Because of this "ripple effect", our actions and intentions as leaders, whether they have immediate positive results or not, make us effective.  How we motivate others to follow us, and what message we are sending to those who do, are more determinants of effective leadership than whether the exact goals we set out to achieve are accomplished.

Bobby Kennedy
Last night my wife and I finally got around to seeing the movie "Bobby" about the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.  In the final scenes, as the chaos unfolds around the shooting in the Ambassador Hotel, we hear a voiceover of Bobby making one of his most moving speeches.  Listen to the following speech and tell me if Bobby, shot down before he was able to fully lead and accomplish his goals for the American people, could ever be considered ineffective just because he was unable to accomplish his goals:

The ripples from our actions and intentions as leaders continue past us, and our work toward a goal can be as effective as achieving the goal itself.

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