Nafeer: Leadership Demystified

“Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.”
Frantz Fanon (1961, The Wretched of the Earth)

“Any individual or group that would aspire to lead society must be ready to pay the costs of leadership: to accept the responsibility, to suffer calumny, to surrender security, to risk both reputation and fortune. If this price, or some important part of it, is not being paid, then the chances are that the claim to leadership is fraudulent. Society is never redeemed without effort, struggle, and sacrifice.”
– George S. Counts

“The education process is going on. Every day people are getting educated into the situation by the dynamics of the situation itself.”
John Garang deMabior

For quite some time, I did not say anything specific about the Nafeer initiative, in my circles of opinion-sharing (which include personal and public associations as well as the cyberspace media). I did not do more than sharing some of their updates and a bit of promoting their assistance from outside of the country (by the Sudanese Diaspora, not the Qatar government). The reason for my relative silence was not quite clear or refined. Perhaps that is the reason itself – I did not have a clear reason, or a clear opinion, to share about Nafeer. I do not think that I do now, but I have become increasingly interested, in the past few days of Nafeer’s prolific activities, in the example of ‘spontaneous leadership’ that the young women and men of Nafeer personified recently.

Let me be clear: I do not intend to write a praise of Nafeer here, nor do I intend to criticize it as an initiative. I do not think it is time for any of that (but I surely do support the principle of their operation—i.e. helping those affected by the recent floods with the civil society means available). I intend to write about leadership, with Nafeer as a ‘case study’. Also, I do not intend to hold Nafeer accountable for more than it can, or claims itself, to bear. I understand it as an initiative that emerged to respond to a certain recent crisis of ‘humanitarian’ nature; nothing more nothing less. It would not do Nafeer justice by taking it out of context. Glorification, just as devaluation, is not good for the cause.

What is Leadership?
The literal (English) definition of the word does not say much: “the action of leading a group of people or an organization, or the ability to do this” (Oxford Dictionary). Wikipedia promotes a more conceptual definition: “[Leadership is] a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.”*. Also “[the ability of] organizing a group of people to achieve a common goal”. Most important to note here is that leadership does not have to be ‘formal’ or ‘official’ leadership. Surely, not the kind of leadership I am talking about here (if anything, Nafeer’s leadership has emerged because the so-called ‘official’ authority/leadership failed to step-up to the challenge). Anyway, no need to dwell much on definitions and alternative definitions. For the purpose of this small article, Let us just notice that leadership is comprised of social influence, on the one hand, and ‘initiative’ on the other hand. By initiative I mean the ability, and courage, to take different routes from the commonly expected, promote new patterns, and/or innovate new solutions.

It is then quite safe to say that leadership is a social catalyst of renewal, whenever needed, in society. It is a catalyst for change. However, social change has many forms and measures, and so does leadership. There is small-scale leadership, large-scale leadership, and a number of levels in between. There are also leaderships of different kinds: artistic, economic, scientific, professional, and, of course, cultural and moral leaderships, and others. Wherever you can identify some social change taking place, you can probably identify some type/level of leadership in the midst.

The Depository of Leadership in Society: Difficult but not Difficult
Leaders do not exist in a vacuum of context. There are no ‘default leaders’ that can be put in any place or time and they will still be leaders. Furthermore, leadership itself has no meaning outside the affair where it is operational.

In Nafeer’s case, the young women and men of the same generation that the Sudanese society in general did not give any good attention, emerged as leaders when a certain type of disaster happened. Therefore the depository of leadership(s) in society seems quite often to need crises before that depository supplies. The price society pays in order for leaders to emerge is immense, and therefore it is fair that society expects those leaders to be worth the price paid. In return, what leaders usually get is a level of social significance above the average. By social significance I do not mean ‘fame’, wealth or ‘power’ (while these three may sometimes accompany some types of leaderships). By social significance I mean the chance to leave a deeper footprint in the terrains of society—a ‘whiff’ of immortality not offered equally to all members of society. It is a symbolic reward more than anything else, and it is not always guaranteed of course. This is not to say that leaders are typically motivated, particularly, by this reward of social significance. Indeed many genuine leaders are motivated mostly by more noble and ‘selfless’ pursuits, and many incur much risk and suffering in their paths, but society is not indifferent to their contributions as individuals (even when it sometimes feels like it is).

The most important point is this: leaders always exist; in every society, every generation, and every walk of life. They emerge by the dynamics of social conditions. They are capable of appearing from the least expected places, and in the most hopeless situations. Their innovative energies are stimulated by crises more than anything else, whether these crises are primarily socially-, or personally-defined.

The second most important point is this: Do not mystify leadership. Do not assume leaders come from the sky in dramatic ceremonies. Leaders who are not born out of the same conditions they seek to rectify are usually not genuine leaders (and false leaders are many, to be sure). While it is true that there are usually exceptions to social rules, these exceptions cannot serve as guidelines for expectations, let alone for action. And while it is true, to a certain degree, that leaders shape situations, it is equally true that situations shape their leaders. Therefore it is a waste of time to await saviors (in the passive meaning of ‘waiting’), and more productive to stimulate action and dynamics that will eventually call upon the leaders to step up, and they cannot but answer the call. What this essentially means is that the leaders are you, her, him, us – as sentimental, over-commercialized and ‘cheesy’ as this may sound – because the leaders are not going to emerge from out of this circle.

A Message of Hope?
Indeed it is; although I will not support the dramatic ‘glorification’ of any infant initiative before giving it enough time to prove durability, resilience and consistency. (After all, we shall also not forget to be self-critical, and ask ourselves the difficult questions, such as: why haven’t the more dire conditions in the margins of Sudan, where people are being dehumanized and slaughtered by the numbers, received similar, if not more, attention?). It is also a message of ‘no excuse’ to all of us who await change from ‘without’, and not from ‘within’ (the same self and same society). After all, the tides of history provide special accommodation to no one, and the ‘floods’ of change are too visible to pretend not to see. I cannot help but quote one of Bob Dylan’s famous songs here:

Come gather ‘round people, wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time for you is worth saving,Then you’d better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changing
The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fading
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changing

* Chemers M. (1997) An integrative theory of leadership. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

(published in the Citizen Newspaper, Sudan, August 19, 2013)

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