The importance of transformational leadership in crisis situations

FILE: Late President Levy Patrick Mwanawasa pictured here with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in December 2007 led the charge for opposition to Genetically Modified Food (GMO)
FILE: Late President Levy Patrick Mwanawasa pictured here with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in December 2007 led the charge for opposition to Genetically Modified Food (GMO)

By Sishuwa Sishuwa

In times of crisis, disruptions or significant challenges, transformational leaders holding public office should:

• Demonstrate competence to resolve the challenge at hand in a way that does not worsen the problem. Now, competence involves wisdom in judgement, dignity in action, soundness in decision making, ideally founded on the best knowledge available at the time, and capacity to effectively communicate a vision about how the leader hopes to carry others along in getting past the issue. Let me illustrate this point with an example of how leaders in Zambia and the United Sates have responded to the coronavirus pandemic. Presidents Edgar Lungu and Donald Trump were not averse to holding mass gatherings at a time when their governments were restricting physical meetings and advertising social distancing as an effective response to containing the spread of Covid-19.

The problem here is twofold: first, the leader is not only facilitating the spread of the disease but also sacrificing citizens to their attempts to get elected. Second, the leader is effectively undermining the government’s health guidelines or policies by communicating conflicting messages to the public. This is the highest form of irresponsibility. In case of Zambia, we have also seen how leaders have used Covid-19 as an instrument to deny other people their rights to organise or meet. What is required in moments of crisis is the resolve to provide high-quality leadership, even in instances where you are facing a major health pandemic like now. And a leader can do that through speech, regular updates that communicate hope and resilience, and by demonstrating leadership through action.

• Demonstrate the will to resolve the challenge at hand. I will illustrate this point with the problem of corruption, especially in government. Corruption is insidious and more deadly than Covid-19, but what the disease has done is to show that in the absence of transparent and accountable leadership, corruption can worsen. In Zimbabwe, South Africa and even Zambia, we have read reports of how money and other resources allocated to the fight against Covid-19 have been looted or misused. Here, we see how corruption kills.

But corruption has other consequences. It distorts the private sector, side-lining those who do not support those in power. Such businesspeople are denied access to government tenders or are squeezed by the authorities in ways that undermine efficiency and effective public service. This is because those who secure tenders are not necessarily the best bidders but those connected to power or ruling party functionaries. In this way, corruption makes projects more expensive because those awarded tenders are quite often the wrong people: those with little to no capacity to supply the required goods or to build a quality road.

Corruption also undermines good governance, especially when you have a leader who undermines watchdog institutions or investigative wings of the state like the Anti-Corruption Commission. A leader with the will to fight corruption should grow or strengthen these institutions, not undermine them. There are two ways this can be achieved. One is by developing a much more open and transparent process of appointing the leadership of these institutions. Vetting should be encouraged so that the public can have a direct say in the appointment of, say, judges or commissioners of the ACC. It is not simply about the legal qualifications. It is also about possessing qualities like integrity and moral wealth of character.

How do you have a magistrate accused of corruption presiding over the case of the accuser? Both the magistrate and the head of the judiciary in Zambia somehow do not see this issue as a conflict of interest that undermines judicial integrity. How do you appoint a politician as a central bank governor, a position that requires independent judgement and professional independence? How do you retain in your government a permanent secretary who fabricates their higher educational record by claiming that they have a PhD from Princeton and another one from Oxford even when those universities make it clear that the individual concerned is lying?

It is important to create the necessary rules and safeguards that would let the public have a direct say in scrutinising some of these appointments to public office because several members of the public know the weaknesses of the appointees even before they assume office. The other way of strengthening the fight against corruption is to make the anti-corruption institutions more autonomous and accountable by ensuring that they report to parliament, not the executive, and that their leaders enjoy security of tenure similar to those of judges. How do you have a situation where the Anti-Corruption Commission and the Financial Intelligence Centre report corrupt cases to the executive when the latter is quite often the culprit?

• Unite people, especially in ethnically diverse or fragmented societies. Transformative leaders promote diversity (ethnicity, gender, race, disability, minority rights, etc.) and build social inclusion. In times of serious divisions, be they political or ethnic, effective leaders respond by seeking to build an inclusive society, one where no one feels marginalised or denied any opportunity that ordinarily should be available to them because of their ethnic identity, gender, race, or political choices. There are at least two ways this can be achieved. One is through a change in legislation. Constitutions, in particular, can influence behaviour in multi-ethnic societies. Let me illustrate this point using the example of Kenya.

At one time, Kenya felt that it had a particular problem of ethnicity, where one or two ethnic groups were overly represented in certain public service jobs while others were excluded or only had tokenist representation. To ensure diversity, the Kenyans enacted a constitution that recognises, respects and promotes ethnic inclusiveness, and which allows citizens to challenge the government or private sector if they note that a department or unit is not ethnically representative. What we see here is ethnic inclusivity in the public and private sectors as a deliberate constitutional value.

Just as we reflect gender diversity in our statutes, we should do the same for ethnic inclusiveness. There is a bit of this value in Zambia’s constitution, but it is couched in very broad terms, making it difficult to enforce especially in the absence of a progressive judiciary. Of course, someone might say, ‘but the president has the discretion to appoint’. That is true, but the freedom to appoint does not mean only appointing friends or members of one’s ethnic-language group or those who come from the regions that support the president’s party. It is easy to see the absence of a woman from a workspace, but much more difficult to regard the absence of a member of another ethnic group from a board or department as a problem. No one is born into any position in government. They are recruited, but if the recruiters are not constrained by institutional rules and are people who are committed to ethnic particularism, they can easily fill an entire government department with members of only one or two ethnic groups or people who hail from only two regions in a country that has many ethnic groups and regions.

The other way of achieving inclusiveness rests on individual agency and awareness. A leader who seeks inclusiveness has to pay deliberate attention to the ethnic composition and diversity of their appointments to public office even in the absence of any law that requires them to do so. In Zambia today, it is impossible to look at appointments to public service without being struck by the calamity of the appointing authority’s loyalty to particular ethnic groups and his distaste for others. How does one explain the fact that nearly all Cabinet ministers, permanent secretaries and members of parastatal boards in Zambia today are from two ethnic language groups in a Republic that prides itself as a multi-ethnic nation? This is scandalous and reflects a lack of commitment to building inclusivity.

This kind of leadership stokes ethnic divisions. It fragments societies even more. President Levy Mwanawasa was once accused of persecuting Bemba speakers because those who were facing corruption charges largely came from two provinces. Yet the problem was created for him by his predecessor who appointed more people from those two provinces to public positions. Their numerical superiority in certain government posts meant that they were largely the ones who had opportunities to steal and they consequently faced prosecution for suspected corruption. Here, we see how ethnic divisions created by one leader today may adversely affect the next leader in ways that were neither imagined nor intended.

• Promote meritocracy and recruit the most talented individuals to help resolve the challenge at hand. This may be in relation to how to reduce poverty, tackle inequality or build a strong civil service. An incompetent civil service, for instance, harms development; an effective one facilitates it. But it is impossible to achieve the latter if leaders ignore merit and do not seek the best brains in the country to help them navigate a major challenge or build a better society.

In times when incompetence is rife and economies are registering negative growth rates, effective leaders should search for the most skilled, sober and talented citizens, persuade them to join the public service and help them achieve their visions. This is how President Mwanawasa identified skilled professionals like N’gandu Magande, Caleb Fundanga, Mumba Malila and Martin Kalungu-Banda and convinced them to join his team. He implanted meritocracy, especially in relation to filling up those public positions that are so crucial to the effective functioning of government and service delivery.

This commitment to talent identification and meritocracy was also there under founding President, Kenneth Kaunda. He had great respect for educated people. It is a leadership attribute that also explains how the Kenyan economy has risen to become the strongest in East Africa today. There is no shortcut to merit because those appointed on merit deliver. Kenya pays for its recurrent expenditure, including salaries for health workers and teachers, without support from donors. So, in times of disruption, the leader has to realise the value of merit and this is where the process of appointment that I talked about earlier comes in. It is critical.

• Seek out to build consensus in times of divisions. This may be in relation to how best to enact a broadly acceptable constitution. A constitution is not a partisan document. Neither is it a tool for the powerful, professionals, elites, or urbanites. It is a set of guiding rules that must protect and empower everyone and by which everyone should be held to account. It is therefore important to build consensus with all the citizens when making a national constitution if the ultimate product is to be embraced by most and to be durable. President Mwanawasa recognised the importance of building consensus especially on national subjects that should be above partisan interest such as constitutional making process. He brought together diverse voices from civil society, students, the political opposition, and traditional leaders to bridge the divide between these interest groups. Transformational leaders understand the importance of expanding the space for democratic dialogue, strengthening institutions of governance, free media, the rule of law, procedural justice, respect for everyone’s rights, and non-institutional politics.

• Recognise the importance of planning and implementation. A country should have development plans, but it is also important to implement them. Planning determines the allocation of resources because there are always competing interests. Of course, this requires thinking, monitoring and evaluation to take stock or provide feedback on what is being done. One has to have a clear understanding that a road is important here, not there, because it will generate returns or more money. A leadership that is not competent cannot plan, however. It does not devote any serious thinking towards even empowerment plans. Before dishing out money to interest groups such as youths and artists, a leadership that hardly plans does not ask the question: what are we trying to achieve here? It simply gives out the money on a patronage basis and much of it is never repaid. When the money finishes, the no-plan leadership runs to China and Western countries and institutions to secure more debt, bankrupt future generations, and perpetuate the three sins of poverty, inequality and dependence.

It is therefore important that in times of challenges such as debt, leaders should promote accountability and transparency and implement carefully crafted plans that seek to reduce waste in public expenditure. This also requires tolerance for opposing views and active listening. Does it make sense, for instance, for the leaders in government to procure 42 fire trucks at a cost of $1 million each at a time when public sector employees have gone several months without pay, when public universities are no longer the sites of research and making critical knowledge about the country’s fate because of chronically poor funding, and when thousands of citizens are dying from hunger, the poor state of public roads and the lack of basic medicines in public hospitals?

Does it make sense to procure a presidential plane costing millions of dollars at a time when a country is almost drowning in debt? Or to invest in expensive crowd control equipment when the citizens taking to the streets are simply yearning for the fulfilment of basic aspirations – a job, a roof over their head, food, and respect for their civil liberties including the right to assemble, associate with anyone and express themselves freely? Leaders must exercise prudence, selflessness and ultimately act in the best interest of the public.

This is part of the remarks made by Sishuwa Sishuwa on the occasion of the Levy Mwanawasa Public Lecture on “Leadership Challenges in Times of Disruptions” on 4 September 2020.


  1. Lungu is the worst president Zambia could , will ever have.

    We have not seen the levels of tribalisim as we see today…..

  2. But why don’t you advise hh and upnd to change the “only a tonga can lead upnd” narrative first before you point at PF??? Tribalism is real in Zambia but it won’t stop by simply pointing at Edgar Lungu or PF, it won’t stop if PF left office today because upnd would intensify it. Remember the shadow boards upnd created after the 2016 elections that had 95% tonga names??? Your article shows how intelligent you are, Sishupu but lacks all the wisdom and neutrality. It is an article from a true upnd cadre…

  3. Zambian citizen that is a good question. You are keeping these upnd tribal faggots in check. The problem in upnd is deeply entrenched in them. It is called tribalism and arrogance . It is a very difficult disease to treat because an arrogant man only sees things his way. The fact that they continue to field a tried and tested failure as presidential candidate over 5 times is clear evidence of this disease. We see the disease in their diasporan based supporters who even pledge to only return if their hh wins. Funny when they are no longer zambian in first place.

    Now I wait for my clone below to comment. I know it is ka tarino. Hahaha

  4. Corruption can be eradicated. To do so, destroy causes of corruption. One of the major causes of corruption is not moral bankruptcy but lack of incentive to do the right thing. There is need for recognition of hard work by citizens. When integrity is frowned upon by citizens, then the ACC can not be expected to perform miracles. Whistle blowers are scarce. Corruption is an option for blocked talent. Wide spread corruption is a citizen problem. You get your share of corruption and you keep quiet. Each regional group controls one sector. So, who is the loser? If the country is corrupt, then everyone is corrupt. There is need to dig out the root of the problem. Reward talent by yourself. Reward hard work by yourself. Crooks can not fight corruption. Crooks are the perpetrators of corruption…

  5. I do not agree with praises showered on Mwanawasa….. It is him who finally agreed to sale our Mines for a song.
    He appointed his incomptent relatives at Zamtel and messed up that enterprise.
    He appointed his incompetent lambas at Ministry of Energy …..
    It was during his time that “kuibonesha” by the lambas started.

  6. Wide spread corruption is a citizen problem. You get your share of corruption and you keep quiet. Each regional group controls one sector. So, who is the loser? If the country is corrupt, then everyone is corrupt. There is need to dig out the root of the problem. Reward talent by yourself. Reward hard work by yourself. Crooks can not fight corruption. Crooks are the perpetrators of corruption. Talking about corruption is as good as rumor mongering. If you are against corruption, then lead by example. Just keep quiet. Take time to fight corruption. Take time to fight impunity. Take time to follow the leaders.

  7. @Dr. Makasa: Just to add on what you’ve said, also lack of opportunity for Zambians and Africans as a whole causes corruption. What causes this lack of opportunity?? I blame it squarely on the current global financial, social and economic set up that sees Zambia/Africa export all its wealth, its alienation from its history, its adopted cutural/social economic/educational set up.


Comments are closed.