As the world marked the Global Day of Influence on 22 November, 2023, focusing on global peace, a discourse on leadership is crucial. From peace and security to trade, entertainment, culture, and more, leadership is the defining line for positive impact or decline.
Right from the pre-classical period when the international system teetered on the brink, threatened by two major wars – the Dutch War and the 30-Year War, humanity has been in dire need of leadership. Positive peace has remained elusive as contests over values pit nations against nations, resulting in people being killed with wanton disregard and the wealth of nations destroyed amid abject humanitarian needs. This grim reality raises questions about the role of leadership as the missing variable that can bridge the gaps responsible for the constant flares.
At the core of all crises in history are individuals who mismanaged the privilege of leadership. King Philip’s lack of awareness caused the Dutch War, Napoleon Bonaparte’s expansionist ambitions contributed significantly to a series of conflicts known as the Napoleonic Wars, and Adolf Hitler’s uncontrollable rage and the quest for global dominance caused the Second World War, resulting in the deaths of over 60 million people. Leadership failures have continued to fuel the Israel-Palestine conflict since the turn of the 20th century.
If leaders consistently heeded Mahatma Gandhi’s famous quote, “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall,” they would act differently.
Leaders have an enormous influence on behaviours, whether it be positive or negative, as they determine values, culture, tolerance and motivation. Whether in politics, business or social life, the fundamentals of impactful leadership are the same; self-awareness, communication, influence and learning agility.
According to Thunderbird School of Global Management, global leaders are next-generation leaders who expertly navigate the international landscape, create cross-culture connections, foster growth for communities and engender peace around the world. The difference with conventional leaders is in the scope of influence.
The Role of Globalisation and Digitization
Leadership, much like the inner workings of a computer, is a complex set of relationships, systems, and processes that few fully master. With the emergence of globalisation and digitization, the process of attaining global leadership has evolved tremendously. Private individuals can now influence events beyond their immediate location and wield as much power as political leaders.
The world is now so interconnected that events in one part can be observed and influenced by people in other parts. When the genocide in Rwanda occurred against the Tutsis, it resulted in overwhelming casualties before ordinary people worldwide began discussing it. Although genocides still occur globally, none has reached the scale of Rwanda in the contemporary era of social media. When Muammar Gaddafi of Libya advanced on Benghazi, referring to the people as ‘cockroaches’ and vowing to eliminate them, the outcry on social media provided a justification for NATO’s swift intervention, even if entangled with the strategic interests of the West.
The expressions on social media continually fuel the ongoing support for Ukraine in its efforts to withstand Russia’s destructive pursuits. Without the negative publicity it faces on social media from individuals in distant lands, Israel might have been more reckless in its bombardment of Gaza.
The world is now such that the actions of individuals in one place can lead to violence or peace in another. From simple locations, ordinary individuals can initiate conversations that have the power to influence actions and activities in diverse locations across the world. For example, Greta Thunberg, a Swedish environmental activist, has led conversations about climate change, inspiring youth-led movements such as ‘Fridays for Future’.
Embracing Our Collective Leadership Role
Unlike the previous century, the world now has people called ‘Influencers’ with tens, thousands and millions of followers from across the world. Anyone with some following on social media is a leader in his or her right and has the power to influence. Influencers inevitably carry the burden of having a leadership role whether that is wished for or not due to the audiences’ goodwill and belief in the statements they make on their platforms. This position is supported by Verna (2021) from the Metropolia University of Applied Sciences who says, “Social media influencers have created a unique position where their followers regard them as trusted and important sources of information.”
With the current proliferation of leaders, one would expect the world to be in a much better position in critical aspects; peace, corporate culture, politics and even social values. Sadly, it continues to degenerate. Now, humanity faces the threat of the apocalypse of nuclear weapons, degrading value systems, drug abuse, terrorism, environmental degradation, cybersecurity threats and a host of others.
In the previous century, there was a media gateway comprising television, radio, and print platforms that regulated voices and only accorded privilege to a select few individuals, largely political figures and conventional celebrities, to exercise influence over the majority. The case is different today, as there is a myriad of avenues for private citizens, even without special achievements, to have a larger reach than conventional leaders.
With a combined following of over 1.6 billion on Instagram alone, one is poised to wonder how much progress the world could achieve if Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, LeBron James, Selena Gomez, and Kim Kardashian were to take their social responsibility to positively influence their followers seriously.
It is important to note that even a person with 20 followers has the opportunity to positively influence 20 people, an opportunity that was absent in the previous world order.
Suffice it to say that influence is now easy to attain. The difficult part is the responsible use of it. Perhaps, Winston Churchill had this thought in mind when he said, “The price of greatness is responsibility.”
Indeed, while there are quite a number of responsible private individuals who apply their leadership privileges for the public good, there appear to be a lot more people who mismanage the opportunity. The conflict between monetisation and public impact is a factor in many cases. So the question to ask is whether the desire to monetise influence should be an obstacle to public impact. Thomas Jefferson proffers this answer; “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”
If the plethora of leaders (micro/macro, online/offline) make it a point of duty to speak each time there is injustice somewhere in the world, evildoers will reconsider their ways. With the current number of 4.89 billion social media users, the majority of people are open to being positively influenced. So imagine that all levels of influencers (leaders) take seriously their responsibility to influence positively. There will be a quantum leap in positive progression for humanity.
It is important for the world to take the advantage of globalisation seriously. People should become increasingly interested in the happenings in other climes. Just as Nigerians pay attention to the Premier League in England and get attached to clubs and players there, Americans enjoy Afrobeats and love Wizkid, Davido and Burna Boy, the British love Indian Cuisine and Bollywood movies, people should also pay attention to the negative happenings in other climes and add their voices for change. Indeed, consistent attacks can suppress evil.
While alive, it is important to realise that our time is short and that longevity after death is only guaranteed by impact. William Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.”
Using Influence for Change
In the spirit of the above, some individuals have made phenomenal marks on the world. Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan, an education activist, champions girls’ education and equality with her influence. Marcus Rashford, an English footballer, undertook a campaign during the Covid19 pandemic to raise awareness and funds for families who were ‘existing on a knife’s edge’ and struggling to feed their children. Many more individuals are making great strides to change the world.
Taking a structural look at leadership, aside from individuals, different states have led the world before. China, France, Spain, and Britain have influenced behaviours through their belief systems, just as America holds unipolar power over the world (at least in the area of ideology). Theocracy, libertarianism, communism, and even democracy might seem insufficient to create the needed change for human society. Perhaps it is time for Africa to give the world the gift of Ubuntu, basing leadership on the role of the individual in relation to other individuals.
Ubuntu is an African Bantu philosophy that simply means ‘humanity’ and adopts the maxim ‘I am because we are.’ The philosophy advocates the common bond that all humans share and calls for goodwill among one another. Leaders across the world need to follow in the footsteps of Julius Nyerere, the first President of Tanzania, in adopting this progressive philosophy.
Finally, it is important to restate that the world is in critical need of leaders who understand the impact of their words and actions and take seriously their responsibility knowing that they can change the world for good or for bad. Also, there is a need for conscientisation, as many people are unaware that people look up to them and that they have the power to change the worldview of their followers. It is worthy of note to state that the world may not change in large leaps but by individual conversion, hence the role of everyone as leaders in their right is critical. As Desmond Tutu phrased it, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”