Leadership in Developing Countries

Leadership in Developing Countries

“True leaders don’t create more followers; they create more leaders”- Tom Peters

Since the beginning of time, the definition of leadership has been heavily computed by personal orientation. While some have seen it as unequivocal access to ultimate power, others have seen it as an opportunity to serve the society in all humility. Whichever way, leadership remains a crucial element in framing a society; and when in the wrong hands, the consequences are catastrophic for many generations after. To put it formally, the Business Dictionary describes leadership thus: leadership involves establishing a clear vision, sharing that vision with others so that they will follow willingly, providing the information, knowledge and methods to realise that vision, and coordinating and balancing the conflicting interests of all members and stakeholders.

Furthermore, precedence dictates that practicing the right leadership style in any given situation will produce excellent results and provide lasting empowerment. In this article, we, therefore, examine major leadership styles, and consider their impact in developing countries.

In an article by Zeynep Aycan published in 2002, there are two major orientation leadership styles prevalent in developing countries: relationship orientation and power orientation.

Relationship Orientation in Leadership

Per research carried out by Aycan, one of the most striking characteristics of leaders in developing countries is that they place great importance in establishing close interpersonal relationships with subordinates as well as people in higher authority. Subordinates expect personalised relationships, protection, close guidance and supervision. Here,  leaders assume responsibility for the followers and in return, they seek loyalty. In other words, in developing countries, the interaction between leaders and followers closely resembles a parent-child relationship, typifying what is commonly called ‘paternalistic leadership’.

Paternalistic leadership is a managerial approach that involves a dominant authority figure who acts as a patriarch or matriarch and treats employees and partners as though they are members of a large, extended family. In exchange, the leader expects loyalty and trust from employees, as well as obedience. (TechTarget Network). The leader is assumed to be ‘more knowledgeable’ for the subordinates. As such, he guides the subordinate in every aspect of his/her life. The paternalistic leader gives advice – often times unsolicited – and guides employees in personal, professional – e.g., embark on career planning on their behalf; and family-related matters – e.g., marriage counselling, domestic dispute resolution; shows concern for the well-being of the subordinate as well as his/her family; attends congratulatory and condolence ceremonies of employees as well as their immediate family members; when in need, provides financial assistance to employees in form of donations or sometimes as loan to cover housing, healthcare, and educational expenses of their children; allows them to attend personal or family-related problems by letting them leave early or take a day off; acts as a mediator in interpersonal conflicts among employees, and even talks to the disputed party on behalf of the other without his knowledge or consent to resolve the conflict.

It is this paternalistic style of leadership that exists in corporate Nigeria, especially in small-scale organisations. Because of the nature of the leader, employee loyalty and deference is reciprocated in various forms such as engaging in extra-role behaviour or working overtime unpaid upon the request of the supervisor; not quitting the job even when one receives a much better job offer out of loyalty; following the paternalistic superior to another organisation if s/he quits the company; not questioning nor disagreeing with the superior in decisions regarding the company or the employee – e.g., performance evaluations, career-planning, etc.; doing personal favours for the superior when needed – e.g., helping him during the construction of his/her house; putting extra effort in the job and working hard so as not to lose face to the superior.

A major strength of this type of leadership is its recognition of  the importance of relations beyond organisational boundaries. Leaders are expected to establish good interpersonal relations with not only subordinates, but people in higher authority in government, supporting institutions, and negotiation parties. In order to protect the institution and draw political, technical and financial support, leaders must invest just as much work as in the followers in building strong networks.  As such, networking and diplomacy are among the common characteristics of effective leaders in developing countries. (Zeynep Aycan, 2012)

Power Orientation in Leadership

This leadership style is one we are all too familiar with here in Nigeria: the leader’s desire to exercise power. The duality that is often difficult to comprehend – and thus successfully achieve – is that leaders wish to maintain good interpersonal relations with subordinates on the one hand, and act in an authoritative way on the other. In the context of ‘benevolent paternalism’, the power is exercised for the benefit of the employee, just like in the family where the father is authoritarian and enforces discipline for the benefit of his children. However, it is also very common that leaders use their status and power for personal benefits which describes the power orientation, or what is called exploitative paternalism. For instance, high level managers clearly favour their in-group members in personnel decisions such as staffing.

These leaders are highly status conscious. They often resist change to ensure they do not lose power or relinquish authority. They want to remain in power to maintain their  status in society in addition to a personal sense of accomplishment. Despite close and good interpersonal relationships with workers, they demand formality and respect. More so, workers are strongly discouraged to bypass authority when dealing with such leaders. It is often the case that decision-making reflects the power inequality because the process is centralised, and the decisions are made unilaterally. This is partly because the leaders do not want to relinquish power by being participative. Subordinates also expect the leader to be decisive, not only because they trust his wisdom, knowledge and competencies, but also that they are afraid of taking the risk and responsibility by getting involved in the decision-making process. In this sort of leadership, the image of a strong leader is someone who knows it all, and who is a hero and a saviour.

So which of these is best? According to Hartog, D. N., House, R. J., Hanges, P. J., et al. (1999), the ideal leader profile in developing countries should be: empowering: able to make people feel that they are powerful; participative, but also decisive; trustworthy: knowledgeable, skilful and administratively competent; paternalistic and also performance-oriented; fair and just, especially in interpersonal relationships; diplomatic; conscious of status differences, but at the same time modest and humble; and a team integrator. Do any names come to mind?

It is clear that Nigeria needs a new crop of leaders in both public and private sector that are able to embody strong leadership traits that can take us further. Without this, we will continue to run a system that is subject to the whims and caprices of selfish individuals, leaving barely any hope for current generations, let alone future ones. The onus, therefore, lies with each of us to consider our space critically and determine how we can groom ourselves and those in our wake to be true leaders, so that when the time is right, we can step into the scene and bring about the transformation that is desperately needed. So before we cry out for change and point the finger, let us ask ourselves: what kind of leader am I? Given power, what would I do differently?


Reference: Zeynep Aycan (2002) Leadership and Teamwork in Developing Countries: Challenges and Opportunities


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