What every effective leader knows

(That many of our leaders don’t seem to)

And history is not what we think it is.

While thinking out my second point in my post on what history really is—that it’s not merely what happened, but what’s recorded and (especially) transmitted—it occurred to me Nigeria suffers a failure on just that point. I explore that here.

I’ve argued before that every great leader [1] was a master communicator. Every one was effective at getting through to their target group with the message of where they were going and what those people should do. [2]

But thinking about history brought something else to light [3], which was that this communication must necessarily include communication of a history. Or, of what I’ll call a “shared narrative.”

Which brings me to what a narrative is.

The difference between a set of facts and a narrative

If, as I argue, history is not just the past but the record of the past, at least three questions arise, none of them easy to answer.

  • What are the facts of the record?
  • Do the people whose record it is know and accept these facts?
  • What do the facts mean to them?

The last question is the most pertinent to this article. The meaning we attach to any set of facts forms our narrative around those facts. To paraphrase E. M. Forster, while the facts may be that the king died and then the queen died, to say, “The king died, and then the queen died of grief,” is to construct a narrative.

“Nigeria is the product of an amalgamation that happened in 1914.”

That’s a fact.

“Nigeria is therefore an artificial construct that really should be dispensed with.”

That’s a narrative.

But the thing about narratives is, they’re debatable. (Well, facts seem to be too, these days, but let’s not go there just now.) A narrative is an interpretation, a form of meaning. And that interpretation or meaning is typically not inevitable.

Which then raises an even more important question: Whose job is to shape the narrative? Whether by spreading it so it can be shared — or create it if a good one doesn’t exist yet? Who gets to be responsible for that?

My answer to that?

Shaping narratives is the job of leaders.

Leaders are—sorry, should be—storytellers

Effective leaders know they are custodians of the shared narrative of the people they lead. They don’t see it as incidental to their “real job” of “leading,” they see it as the job itself and own it. They take responsibility for helping to construct an empowering narrative where one doesn’t exist, and where it does, to ensure its spread and acceptance.

And effective leaders do this because they understand perfectly how essential a narrative is motivate people. They understand that, important as is a narrative of the future (what we ordinarily call a “vision”), the right narrative of the past can make that future truly compelling.

It’s arguable that a major problem for Nigeria is this lack of a shared history, of a narrative that brings us together. At the ethnic level we have shared narratives (even if increasingly fading), but at the national level, hardly so. Fragments, yes, but not anything coherent and comprehensive, and definitely not anything the majority seem to agree on.

(This, by the way, was the basic idea of the long-mooted, and perennially deferred, sovereign national conference.)

Consider America, in comparison. If there’s one thing America got from the founding fathers, it’s a history, a shared narrative. And for a country whose start was arguably as artificial as Nigeria’s (if not more so), you have to marvel at the deliberateness it must have required to create the shared narrative that has come to be known as American history. It was not — and has never been — perfect, but the point is, they had one. And it didn’t just appear, it was constructed.

And you have to worry, too, about how that narrative is slowly coming apart. [4]

In Nigeria, on the other hand (and this perhaps applies to other African countries), we barely have a national history we agree on.

And that is the more tragic when you consider our traditional recognition of the power of story to guide a people.

We were the original storytellers. What happened to us?
The problem however, is that human beings don’t live in a narrative vacuum.

If there’s no compelling narrative, expect people to take whichever alternative most persuasively presents itself, whether that is a rallying cry to make their country great again, or a call to secede as an ethnic group from the rest of the nation.

And when that happens, mere facts will not do. Because unlike facts, which are merely intellectual, a narrative engages a person at their core.

And an effective leader knows that.


[1] By great leader I don’t even mean ethically as in good or bad leaders (which is debatable); I mean practically, as in, they got people to follow.

[2] As we have seen again and again from American politics, this effectiveness at communication includes mastery of whatever is the medium du jour, from Reagan with radio to Trump on Twitter. (The idea being mastery of not just just any medium, but of the one people actively engage on.)

[3] This is what happens every time I write by the way — resisting the temptation to bloat has become familiar. Even this post was threatening to spiral out into a ton of themes. To be honest, I chose to use these footnotes as a way to pay homage to the potential tangents. Anyway, I felt the point was important enough to have its own post.

[4] Worry, not because what is coming apart was formerly perfect, but because it does not seem that a better replacement is at hand. In fact, it can be argued that the threat America faces today is at least partly rooted in a majority who did consider the old narrative perfect and so resist its potential reshaping (for those who found it grossly flawed), in favour of forcing a return to their version of the old narrative.

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