Global Development Institute Blog

Kelechi Ekuma, Lecturer in Management, Governance and Development, Global Development Institute

Researchers from the University of Manchester and the University of Melbourne recently meet at the Global Development Institute (GDI), University of Manchester to brainstorm and share ideas on the changing nature and contexts of leadership for development (L4D), with a view of better understanding the influence of ‘development leaders’ in promoting or retarding development initiatives.

Leadership is a complex concept, and this complexity is difficult to capture in a simple definition. Yet, the idea remains strategically significant for the effective functioning of organisations and institutions in all contexts. The complexity of leadership is further enhanced by the fact that leading in all settings inevitably involves dealing with multiple actors and their competing interests (DLP, 2018). These multiple actors are organisational and societal stakeholders, who articulate and project their interests by influencing how decisions are made, who makes the decisions, and the basis upon which decisions are taken. What this means is that the need for effective leadership exists anytime a group of people come together to accomplish an end, and involves the processing of guiding, structuring and facilitating activities and relationships in a group or organisation.

This understanding highlights the centrality of effective leadership in delivering positive development outcomes, especially considering that ‘good’ leadership ultimately serves to advance organisational and societal goals. Indeed, there is a consensus among those involved in development work that leadership matters and this position has been emphasised in several declarations from international conferences and multilateral and bilateral donors. The whole idea of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) rests on effective leadership, especially in developing countries where serious concerns remain about the capacity of the state and its intuitions to implement policies effectively. Thus, the idea of leadership and its development cannot be overlooked in contemporary development debates.

This much was acknowledged in our deliberations and one important consensus among participants is that development leaders have significant influence in delivering successful development outcomes, as they provide the agency required for improving organisational and state capacities, and also play essential roles in helping develop endogenous institutions that promote inclusive growth and reduction of inequalities (Leftwich & De Ver, 2018). Despite this recognition, two crucial questions emerged from our discussions that we are all struggling with and which arguably demand further scrutiny: what is precisely unique about L4D that distinguishes it from other kinds of leadership? How do we develop leadership capacity to help tackle the unique set of wicked development challenges confronting societies, especially in developing countries?

Mainstream conceptualisations of leadership often assume that leaders at the top of organisations have a vital role in interpreting uncertainty and providing vision and clarity for others to follow. While this might be true to some extent, our discussions suggest that there is a need for more collaboration in leadership and the redistribution of authority through greater interpersonal exchanges. There is much contemporary argument and evidence which support this view, and it is now increasingly acknowledged by development experts that leadership is a relational process, because individuals – even top leaders, cannot address many critical and complex development issues confronting societies. Leadership is, therefore, important throughout an organisation and not just in roles labelled ‘leader’.

From these insights and from our discussions, it appears that a defining feature of L4D and development leaders, irrespective of the nature of their work, job title or areas of operation, is the crucial need to understand and cope with contexts that are becoming increasingly complex, fraught with tensions and potential contractions from competing interests of different stakeholder groups. L4D is, therefore, about balancing these contradictions and navigating the politics of interests that have become synonymous with the development process, while at the same time delivering value to society. It is the delicateness and immense difficulty associated with accomplishing this objective which distinguishes ‘L4D’ from other forms of leadership.

Some of the most significant distinguishing characteristics of L4D that came up during our discussions are highlighted below:

  • L4D and development leaders deal with wicked problems that are messy and situated in context. Tackling complex and wicked problems such as inequalities and poverty, for example, do not have precise or predictable outcomes, as doing one thing does not merely lead to another. Yet, we often expect an ideal ‘leader’ to provide a clear vision for the future?
  • L4D is about dealing with multiple and sometimes competing stakeholders, each having their own peculiar needs and expectations. Dealing with these potential contradictions and tensions is a significant challenge and requires a heterodox approach and a careful consideration of the uncertainties and interests inherent in the development process as well as the dynamics of power relations among critical actors.
  • Power is, therefore, an overriding principle in understanding how L4D is conceived and how development policies are formulated and implemented in a given context. This is especially so because power and power relations are translated into ‘control mechanism’ within organisations/institutions, and reveal themselves in policy decision making processes and leadership/management systems.
  • Values and ethics are also central to L4D because development leaders are expected to be transparent, value-driven, be sensitive in their dealings with others and be committed to delivering a more sustainable future. Leading development involves being fair, honest, respectful and ensuring that individuals’ rights and dignity are guaranteed irrespective of race, gender, sexual orientation, religious views and other differences.

The issues highlighted above, place fresh demands for new competencies in leading development, and a rethinking of traditional leadership development programmes that are often geared towards the development of individual leaders as decisive authority figures has become crucial and long overdue. The emphasis on ‘leader’ development ignores the socio-cultural dynamics of leadership as well as the idea that leadership is a collective and interpersonal process. The focus of leadership development initiatives should instead be on initiatives that will collectively equip all organisational members with the competencies necessary to work as part of a team in developing relationships and social capital that could help facilitate the effectiveness of the leadership process. It is important to stress here, however that the emphasis on collective leadership development does not in any way imply making everyone a leader or obscuring authority and accountability. Instead, it is a recognition of the increasingly relational and collective nature of leadership, especially in development practice (Uhl-Bien, 2006; Ardichvili & Manderscheid, 2016).

There is a strong case for more research to deepen our understanding of the issues highlighted in this piece, especially of the distinctiveness of L4D and the implications of the changing context of development for leadership theory and practice. This will hopefully help us to begin to gradually move away from technical approaches to leadership that are often underpinned by Western leadership epistemologies which assume that organisational structures are universal and premised on neo-liberalism (Castells, 2010), to alternative approaches that give primacy to the interlocking factors of context, perceived developmental needs, institutional requirements and development history. Achieving this paradigm shift is admittedly a significant challenge that requires the concerted efforts of all stakeholders, and the universities arguably have a pivotal role to play. In this regards, universities and institutions of higher learning should perhaps, consider commissioning more research projects and introducing more programmes, especially at postgraduate levels that resonate with these issues.

Further reading: 

Participants at the two-day workshop held between 1-2 July were: Jaco Renken, Kelechi Ekuma, Shirley Jenner and Rory Stanton (The University of Manchester); and Elise Klein and Violeta Schubert (University of Melbourne).

Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole