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Bringing out the best in people: The core of leadership


Taiwo Odukoya

Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing – 1 Thessalonians 5:11.

One of the greatest survival stories in human history occurred in December 1914. Ernest Shackleton, a British explorer, had led 28 men on an expedition toward Antarctica in the South Pole. Somewhere in the course of their journey, the frozen sea trapped and crushed their ship, leaving the men stranded in freezing temperature and darkness for two years, without food or water in sight. They trudged through miles and miles of deep snow, dragging their 30-foot lifeboat with them. Drinking water was hard to find, because every liquid they found froze quickly. And when they ran out of food, they were forced to shoot and eat the sled dogs they loved so much. But the men survived, 28 of them. A miracle they attributed to the leadership of Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton, they reported, remained optimistic, cheerful, consistent and caring all through the ordeal. “I knew how important it was to keep the men cheerful,” he said. But what was really noteworthy, was that the men, in spite of the seemingly hopeless situation they were faced with, became the best cooks, hunters, navigators, meteorologist, oarsmen and friends they had ever been. Shackleton, it was said, brought out the best in his men in the worst conditions. And this is one of the most precious characteristics of quality leadership – bringing out the best in the people. “As a leader your number one priority is to bring out the best in others,” says Richard S. Wellins, co-author of the bestselling book Your First Leadership Job.

Bringing out the best in others is a deliberate art. It requires a clear understanding of the people and their situations, inspiring hope and provoking a collective drive for solutions. The leadership of the late Thomas Sankara was a shining example of this. Sankara believed the people of Burkina Faso had what it took to solve their own problems, and that with hard work and collective social mobilisation they could produce enough food to feed themselves and locally made goods to stave off import reliance. He inspired the best in his people and a sense of patriotism previously unknown to them. They built numerous schools, health centres, water reservoirs, and nearly 100km of rail within his short tenure, with little or no foreign assistance. Under Sankara’s leadership, production of locally made cereal grew by 75% between 1983 and 1986. “I think the most important thing is to bring the people to a point, where they have self-confidence, and understand that they can, at last be the authors of their own wellbeing,” he said.

Leaders, no matter how gifted, cannot singlehandedly solve the people’s problems. What they can do is empower the people by creating an enabling environment for them to be the best they can be, with incentives, rewards and recognition, for achieving results. As someone said, “A leader’s role is to raise people’s expectations for what they can become and to release their energies so they will try to get there.”

The truth is that there will always be challenges. And this is what leaders are made for. As we continue, therefore, to engage with issues on how to move Nigeria forward, it is important to remind ourselves that the potential of Nigeria and of Nigerians has never been in doubt. Everything we need to fix what is broken in our society is within us and within our reach. We have to trust ourselves. We have to look across from one another, leadership and led, across ethnic and religious divides, and see brothers and sisters, invested in the same dream of a better and just society, knowing that we possess the range of skill we need to lift us up from where we are. We have to look at what unites us rather than what divides us. Let the leadership make this commitment. Let the people make this commitment: That whatever we have to do, wherever we are, we will do all we can to inspire the next person to see the best in themselves, to give the best of themselves, and to be an example of that great Nigerian we know they have the potential to be.

Nigeria Has A Great Future!

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