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Values not just wealth build happy nations

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This column has addressed issues of leadership both theoretically by analysing its basic principles and practically through critiquing current leadership styles and practices; yet criticism not for criticism’s sake but to point out issues and advance alternative leadership styles.

Recent movements now point to investing in the development of a national character principally through entrenchment of values of hard work, patriotism and integrity. This is a fundamental policy pronouncement and to those of us who have relentlessly driven the uMunthu values agenda it is sweet déjà vu.

Comfortingly we have seen steady gravitation from the vanity of legacy leadership to progressive transformational leadership. With the recent pronouncements about uMunthu and the accompanying stress on values, we are now shifting paradigm towards ethical leadership.

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This is a perfect status quo. Ethical and transformational leadership has been a desperate dream for all who care about this county. Moving forward it is the right time to start exploring and interrogating the key concept of ‘national character’, examine how it can be developed and what role leadership should play.

To make a beginning let us view ‘national character’ as a socio-psychological concept, for some a form of cultural re-engineering. Let us also recognise that it is a complex and at least to ultra-liberals quite contentious phenomenon.

Yet in times such as these characterised by extreme social strife, steep moral degeneration and economic challenges, values-informed character for both individuals and nations has become increasingly important. In order to sustain a sense of nation, protect civilizations and facilitate development ‘character has become a central pillar in national reform processes.

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National character is a set of personality characteristics; a lifestyle peculiar to populations of a particular nation. It is those personality elements which members of a state hold in common and sets them apart with a unique national identify.

Different experts lay emphasis on difference aspects. However, they are agreed that national character comprises “habits and attitudes; desires and inclinations; views and opinions; motives and standards; beliefs and ideas; and hopes and aspirations of an individual, which he shares with other members of a nation”.

National character is that identifiable enduring mentality of a whole nation built over time and emerging from commonalities in values, beliefs and practices under a broadly similar historical and cultural experience. It includes knowledge of customs, traditions, national symbols and emblems, major historical events and figures that have shaped the history of the nation.

The core of a national character is the aggregate values that members live by which together constitute ‘the soul of the nation’ Values define what is considered important in one’s life and help for example in deciding what is right or wrong, what is good or bad, what is fair or unfair as well as how the individual behaves and makes decisions.

As Malawi transforms into a values-led society guided by uMunthu political leaders — who have been the ultimate problem — will play vital roles as exemplars. Put differently leaders’ character must reflect the behaviours that leaders expect of the people. Backsliding and contradictions will fatally break the process.

Critically, leaders must reflect four core values of honesty which is about openness and dependability; integrity which entails keeping one’s word, accountability and moral judgement; concern for others which entails love, compassion and empathy; and fairness which includes justice and impartiality.

In our unique case, I would add that leaders should show respect for all people, exemplified in seeking and listening to public opinion, in trusting in the fair and objective advice of citizens at all levels and in keeping pledges and promises.

I advise that government should not underestimate the impacts of leaders’ disrespectful disposition towards citizens. It can be most belittling. Over the years ‘executive arrogance and disrespect’ for people’s worth have generated fierce but bottled frustrations and whether the present leadership will indeed be different remains a cause for widespread anxiety.

Meanwhile, Harry Kraemer — a leadership scholar — identifies another four of what he calls principles of leadership, namely self-direction; balance in the analysis of issues and resolutions; self-confidence and humility.

Regarding humility as a critical leadership value, Kraemer advises leaders, “do not forget who you are and where you came from”. Kraemer, like most of us who have tried to communicate concerns and offer guidance is keenly aware of the degenerative metamorphosis that takes place in people entering politics and the wide gulf that emerges in their relationships with citizens.

In order to facilitate the uMunthu agenda what Malawi need is ethical leadership. Indeed leadership scholars are agreed that any type of leadership must be based on some ethical foundations, requiring leaders to work by clear ethical standards.

Ethical leadership means remaining aware of one’s values, adhering to moral principles in action and in decision. It is about acting out what the leader believes and consciously promoting certain types of conduct among all leaders directly as well as through deliberate modelling.

The ethical leader should have the moral courage to act on values in spite of risk of unpopularity. They have to be consistent in the decisions they make in all situations without fear or favour. In addition, ethical leaders must be original for we know better today that the best leadership is not emulating role models or historical figures, but rather rooting oneself in who one is and what matters most – being values-led in leading others!

The leadership and citizenry want change and change requires hard, honest work. Yes, terrible things have happened some like Cashgate in the proportion of Armageddon, but these experiences should help move the nation forward and not get stuck in the mud of historical failure.

As we close leaders must recognise that change comes with increased empowerment and liberation of the people. If leadership truly empowers people, not limited to the exercise of universal franchise, then anything is possible.

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