An inconvenient truth about leadership: loneliness

By Dr. Gwamaka Kifukwe

Blog Today
Image: Kashak/

While filming an episode of UONGOZI Institute’s flagship TV show (Meet the Leader), an interesting epiphany occurred. The interview turned from reflecting the guest’s understanding and experience of leadership, to learning about the guest as a person. A simple, yet direct question was asked – “We have heard about you, as the leader and President. Tell me about you as a father, and husband, and a friend?”

The guest paused for a few moments. Their face changed, shoulders slumped, they leaned forward and their hands came together as they took on an almost prayer-like pose. After a few seconds, a heavy sigh escaped the guest’s now frowning lips and a melancholy voice replied, “I could do better”. He proceeded to reflect on missed memories and the great extent he was reliant on his wife (of over thirty years) for a number of issues that “she didn’t sign up for”.

Up until that point, this guest had been buoyant, charming, witty and very sharp in their critique of leadership, drawing upon years of experience and hinting at a wide breadth of reading. This answer was different. The guest went on to recall how being in leadership had come at a huge personal sacrifice; the inability to be a ‘normal’ father and husband. He went on to explain how he missed several (if not all) “firsts” and that upon reflection, he had taken his family for granted and missed being able to switch off and just be himself from time to time.

Leadership is undoubtedly a privilege and a huge responsibility. As people aspire to be leaders, we often think of the glamourous public appearances, the power, and the prestige. Less is thought of basic issues that confront us all as human beings. Being parents, for example. Going on dates, going to watch the latest movie, attending a concert, or just heading out to dance the night away. All of these avenues are closed to people we increasingly de-humanise as they approach the ‘top of the ladder’ and make our leaders more symbol than person.

Leadership is an incredibly lonely experience. In doing back-ground research ahead of interviews and speaking to people close to the distinguished guests of the programme, a few stories seem to repeat themselves. One typical story is how senior officials and individuals have been called, late into the night, to the Executive. Usually this is to their official residence, sometimes to the Office itself. Upon arrival, the anxious (and tired) official is invited to sit, and watch a local football match, or documentary, as the Executive shares their thoughts. There is no agenda. There are no minutes. Often, there aren’t even any assistants present either – from time to time, it seems, the person escapes the symbol only to find that it has no-where to turn to.

Leadership is a great sacrifice. We are social creatures by nature and by habit. As people emerge as leaders, we increasingly deny them the opportunity to ‘be human’ and to take up a ‘greater calling’. This comes at the price of the things we take for granted as part of a ‘normal’ life. How then, can we expect our leaders to be able to relate to and understand the highs and lows of our life. They become increasingly dependent on others for information and insight. This is the classic tension between the leader and their lieutenants: The leader is reliant on the lieutenants to execute their directives and to provide feedback; the lieutenants in turn are reliant on the leader to be appointed into positions of authority in order to exercise power. In such a scenario, it is easy to see how paranoia and sycophancy embed themselves.

In preparing for leadership, we must equip aspirants with the ability to understand, accept, and deal with these so-called ‘soft’ issues. Dealing with celebrity and fame has been a challenge for many without the proper guidance and preparation for the pressures that this entails. This even more acute when your every movement and decision can literally change people’s lives and impact their long-term prosperity.

Perhaps these structures are already in place in some arenas of leadership, and we in the general public are not privy them. However, it is clear from having carried out a number of interviews that if they exist, they have been an afterthought. Moreover, the inclusion of these more personal challenges, leadership training programmes for young and emerging leaders have increasingly incorporated reflection, emotional and psychological training and support, as well as coaching into their programmes. In addition, acknowledging potential sacrifices and settling these in our personal relations and marriages ahead of time is also encouraged so that at the end of the day, there is some kind of ‘normal’ to return to when the mantle of leadership is passed on.

Coming back to the leader in question. After a few minutes of very candid reflection and catharsis, his earlier posture, and his jovial self-returned back to the fore. The symbol once-again replaced the person. The show went on.

This part of the interview was never aired.



By Dr. Gwamaka Kifukwe

Regional Intergration

With a visit to the East African Community (EAC) headquarters or browsing of their materials you will quickly encounter the EAC’s ambitious slogan; ‘One People, One Destiny’. The motto encapsulates the essence of integration – the increased interlinking and interdependence of economies, communities, and (most importantly of all) people. Since its re-establishment in 1999, the community has moved quickly to expand from its original three member-states, to its current six member-states – Burundi (2007), Kenya (1999), Rwanda (2007), South Sudan (2016), Tanzania (1999), and Uganda (1999).  In more technical terms, the EAC has already achieved the East African Customs Union, the establishment of the Common Market (2010) and the implementation of the East African Monetary Union Protocol. In the academic literature, these are seen as stepping stones on the way to full political federation – which remains a way off yet.

However, integration must be more than linking people abstractly and intellectually, it must be based on linking people. Personal relations can have a long-lasting effect on integration as mutual understanding grows from personal exchange. It is only by mingling with our neighbours that we learn about them, learn about their circumstances and environment, learn to trust them, and eventually learn to love them. As borders have opened up, however, initiatives to encourage personal connections have not been at the fore as the ‘One People, One Destiny’ mantra might at first suggest. The EAC (and the member states) must do more to encourage interaction and exchange among people, not just in economic, intellectual, and political areas.

One way of doing this is to encourage and enable young East Africans to travel across the region for free, or at nominal cost. The benefits of travel to an individual are too many to name, and each individual experiences travel differently. However, expanding horizons, giving people an opportunity to gain perspective, and to meet new friends, colleagues, and partners. Not to mention, giving our young people exposure to the great African spaces where the wildlife and natural wonders of the continent rule would foster a greater awareness of how precious our resource wealth is.

A good example of this is seen in the ‘Interrail’ initiative in Europe. Interrail was established in 1972 as a scheme to tempt young people to explore Europe and interact with each other. In other words, to give young Europeans the chance to raise their European awareness. Initially twenty-one countries took part in the scheme (which has expanded to thirty), which allowed youth aged 21 and below to travel freely across the participating states with the purchase of a 27 GBP pass. The scheme and pass have evolved, but remain in place today with the same purpose of enabling Europeans to explore their shared space, and develop a sense of ‘one people, one destiny’.

As we progress towards political federation and become ‘one people’, a similar scheme could have huge positive impacts on fostering understanding and trust, the foundations for peaceful co-existence. In addition, with the world’s economic structures shifting towards ‘shared’ and ‘knowledge’ economies, the networks and perspectives will empower young people to look beyond difference as a challenge, and treat it as an asset. Many people – young people in particular – are already linking through social media and other virtual/online ways. This too is positive, but there is simply no substitute for person to person sharing to truly encourage deeper appreciation and understanding of each other. When our people are able to work together and appreciate our diversity, this will unleash the creativity and innovation the region, and indeed the African continent more generally, need to in order to provide African solutions to African problems.

The expanding infrastructure that the member-states and the EAC Secretariat are undertaking and committed to are very welcome. Indeed, they are pre-requisites for industrialisation and structural transformation. However, the social dimension of integration must also be harnessed if the region is to truly flourish – and active and progressive initiatives such as the Interrail in Europe, would go a long way to complement the efforts being carried out by our leaders.

In order for this to work, travel must be affordable and the restrictions minimised for young people to be able to take advantage of this. This opportunity should be open to all citizens of the EAC member-states regardless of income, otherwise it will be limited to the privileged few who can already afford to travel. And while our rail networks may not yet be up to the task, we can consider an intra-regional coach or bus pass, or special fares on flights for young people signed up to such a scheme. States could provide subsidies for a number of passes per member state, per year channelled through the EAC Secretariat or responsible ministries of member states, or through Ministries responsible for culture or youth.

The barriers to travel, are also barriers to us becoming one people, and therefore sharing one destiny. As hundreds of thousands of Europeans have had the privilege and opportunity to experience in Europe, we should enable and encourage hundreds of thousands of East Africans to do the same in East Africa. In this way, we can truly appreciate the vast opportunities that the opening of borders presents to us as individuals and as societies on the path towards greater regional integration.