We need to radically rethink who leads development and what they do

The Guardian

April 2, 2013

Opinion: Matt Andrews, Associate Professor of Public Policy

Development requires change. Change is difficult; most observers believe it demands some degree of leadership. But what does this mean: who leads development? What do they do that is so special?

Answers to these questions usually focus on high profile individuals we view as heroes. Lee Kuan Yew is seen as the leader of Singapore's growth miracle, for instance; Nelson Mandela is credited as the leader of South Africa's peace process; and Paul Kagame is considered the leader of Rwanda's recent progress. We view similar individuals as 'champions' that make projects work or foster reform success, arguing that these people drive development through their influence and power. This implies that development requires waiting for such people, identifying them, and letting them lead. But what evidence do we have that these people actually lead development?

My research suggests that the evidence is slim, and leadership is not just about heroes. It appears to me that any time you see some real change and development it is the product of leadership by many people and organisations working together; not any one hero or champion. I call this multi-agent leadership, and believe it is the kind of leadership needed in development.

I first saw evidence of multi-agent leadership when examining cases of successful reform in some of the toughest places on earth — like Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Rwanda. I assumed that leadership had been central to these stories and expected to find a small number of heroes responsible (like president Kagame in Rwanda), who would be seen as the leader because of the position they held. I also expected that the people identified as leaders would be men.

My biases were based on arguments about the kind of leadership one expects in male dominated, bureaucratic, developing countries; where we think the world is top-down and dominated by powerful men in high-level positions. But I was surprised.

Interviewees identified over ten 'leaders' per case, and only a minority identified the high-level heroes as leaders. Most named people and organisations that none of the researchers thought would be considered leaders. Some of these 'leaders' were administrative assistants, others were low-level bureaucrats or technical experts working in the non-profit sector. The interviewees did not reference positions when explaining why these people were considered leaders. Instead, they gave specific and substantive reasons why they identified each person. Examples include, "he provided money", "she ensured people met regularly", and "he had the ideas."

I came out of this study thinking that leadership involved in creative interaction of multiple agents, all playing important and different functional roles. The most important roles seemed to be those of 'convener' and 'connector' — the ones who mobilised others to participate in the leadership solution. These roles were played by agents no one would call the 'champion' or 'hero' in any case; they did not stand out in the limelight and were not the ones I expected to be called 'leader', and were often women or outsiders.

In the chance that this research was a fluke, I recently started looking at a number of successful reforms identified by Princeton University's Innovations for Successful States programme. I had students scrutinise 30 cases of innovative reform in developing countries and asked if there was evidence that different agents had played different functional leadership roles. This proved to be true in all cases, where multi-agent leadership seemed vital, whether the context was results management in Rwanda or public financial management reform in Indonesia or service delivery improvements or anti-corruption reform in Mongolia or Bihar, India.

This is not to say that there was not a 'hero' in each of the cases, however. Like movies, most case studies have a central character and these were no different. The 'heroes' were seen to play specific roles in each case, however, mostly providing authority to others and motivating those engaged in the change process. This is the role of the 'hero': to stand at the front, give others cover and inspiration, and create space for the multi-agent leadership solution to emerge. This is an important role but it is unlikely to matter if other 'leaders' are not around to identify problems, provide ideas for solutions, mobilise resources, and actually organise the real work of change. (The 'heroes' did not play these roles in any of the cases we were looking at).

Finally, I have been looking at some of the hero stories we constantly identify when thinking about who leads and why: like Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew. In this and other cases I find that the heroes were only part of the leadership story, and there are many other individuals involved in making development happen. Lee played a crucial role inspiring teams and authorising them to do great things. But other individuals had to exercise leadership and come up with the ideas to transform Singapore. And yet others had to stick their necks out and fund these ideas. And yet others put their careers and families on the line to lead the implementation and adaptation of these ideas.

In conclusion, even when one expects that the context demands that leadership in development will be about heroic men sitting atop responsive hierarchies, I would argue that there is more to the story. There is more in terms of the complexity of the task of leadership, and more in terms of the number of agents involved in providing the leadership. There will always be those who stand out, and maybe we need to call them heroes or champions. But they are just part of the group of agents who really lead development, playing different roles from different positions inside and outside social and government hierarchies.

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