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Testing the Waters?

Testing the Waters?




Before plunging into the issue (the doctored news), let me begin with a detectivesí work. Detectives examine motives and behavioral patterns of potential suspects before looking for the smoking gun. The motive is as clear as day and the smoking gun is posted in the open. What helps, in this case, is the pattern- especially the timing. What happens whenever the main suspect travels? Murders, arrests, and massacres ensue. What happens when the main suspect attends some major event? Somebody important is targeted. International travels and celebrations have become warning signals for bloodletting in Ethiopia these days. They sounds like strict ritualistic traditions the plotters canít skip.

The doctored news we read recently is not a random fabrication one can ignore. It might be a failed mission manifesting as plan B. If you canít beat them, scare them. If you canít take their leader, take away their sense of security. Itís a twisted fetish that a serial killer would indulge. Death is no longer an exception. It has become the norm. There are two possibilities in this morbid fantasy. The main suspect planned to kill but failed to execute. He already prepared condolence notes shedding crocodile tears. He didnít want to waste the impact. So, he unveils it as bad news to distraught his enemies. Or, the main suspect is planning to execute mayhem. But he needs to test the waters first by sending out the bad news. He wants to see how his enemies and their supporters will respond. If the followers donít respond drastically; he gives a green light. If they respond beyond anticipation; he pushes the break. The second strategy seems more realistic. But this calculus is effective in fragile systems. It doesnít work for anti-fragile systems.

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Nassim Taleb has a definition for anti-fragile system. If something is anti-fragile; there would be a ďplease break it!Ē sign on its cover. Some systems get stronger when one applies pressure on them. Our muscular system is one. The muscle gets stronger when one applies pressure on it. Many think anti-fragile systems are snakes that die out when one cuts the head. But anti-fragile systems are like the mythical hydra. When you cut one head, you get to face two. You cut two; you confront four heads. Anti-fragile systems follow the geometrical ratio which Malthus ascribed to procreation. They flourish under pressure.

Now letís look at Tigrai. Tigrai is anti-fragile. How could minorities emerge as the strongest political force in the face of Africaís strongest military machine? What manifested after they took out Sihul, Muse, and others? Didnít that create the Meles, Hayelom, and others they tremble before? Who took over Kinfeís spot? Wasnít it the illusive Getachew Assefa? What happened after they orchestrated the 1984 famine and the Hawzein massacre? Didnít it forge a formidable Tigrean force they knelt before? Meles, Seare, and Gezaei and others passed away. But, isnít Tigrai more powerful than it ever was, i.e., arenít Tigreans more united and organized than they ever were? That is why I present Tigrai as anti-fragile entity. The more pressure you exert on it, the stronger it becomes! If you cut one head (thinking it is a snake), you will face two heads-ad infinitum! So, much for the detective work. Let me pass to the crux of this essay.

As I put it elsewhere, the current regime in Ethiopia is anocracy. And, anocracy is a set of inept political elites and institutions. Inept elites and institutions lack the will and capacity to restore order. This makes them vulnerable to the onset of civil conflict more than autocratic and democratic political orders. But what entails inept political elites? This is the domain of leadership studies. Some among the inept anocrats claim to have ďMasteredĒ (earn degree) in transformational leadership. They seem to have plagiarized a chunk from that literature while publishing their books. Their leader pirated his vision from the literature on ďtransformational leadershipĒ. He applied it on the Ethiopian context in the treatise written under a pseudonym. It seems he overlooked the literature on ďpseudo-transformational leadersĒ.

Burns, Bass, Conger, OíConnor and other pioneers of transformational leadership wrote and cautioned about leaders posing as transformational leaders. They warned about the danger of narcissistic, paranoid, and power obsessed leaders that destroy organizations. These leaders flourish when organizations fail to manage succession. They appear when organizations stop playing sportsmanship: vetting, training and promoting the right candidates. The pseudo-transformational leader has high need for power. This is not bad as all politicians have it. But he wants power for personal gain, not for common good. The pseudo-transformational leader crafts his vision and the strategies/goals to serve his personal glory. He sees his followers as mere objects created to serve his purpose.

The pseudo-transformational leader might control people temporarily by distributing carrot and stick. He might assemble masses by penetrating their intellectual loopholes. But he canít control the information on his environment because no one (but the gods) wields perfect information. This uncertainty is a major source of discomfort that triggers paranoia. Paranoia induces the personalized charismatic leader (pseudo-transformational leader) to take irrational measures that will harm the long-term survival of his organization. In this process, the pseudo-transformational leader will manifest his true self to his followers as superfluous, vain, and cruel. His followers begin to suspect, detest, and despise him. They soon find out his words contradict his act and start to distance themselves from his circle. His best friends become his worst enemies. A leader unable to maintain a meaningful relationship with his followers canít transform them. He leads the organization towards disaster.

Having canvassed the key conceptual strokes, let us look at Ethiopia. The country had a transformational leader until 2012. Meles envisioned an advanced Ethiopia. He spearheaded renaissance by crafting a growth and transformation strategy. He died trying to realize this vision. His successor was, at best, a transactional leader. He was preoccupied with the task rather than the relationship. How can followers expect to implement a transformation strategy with a transactional leader at the helm? This was a major blunder in succession management (a major topic in leadership studies). This mismatch frustrated the transactional leader and the people. People inspired by a transformational leader would have gone to great lengths to appease him. But uninspired people have no appetite for going extra mile. So, they rightfully rebelled against incompetent leader and the team that followed him.

Ethiopians face daunting challenges. They needed and deserved transformational leadership. This huge demands for and low supply of transformational leadership opened the door for the pseudo-transformational leader that we see today. This guy feasted on the peoplesí need. He offered the assurance of bright future Ethiopians craved for many years through rhetoric. It was a great relief to see the mumbling transactional leader go. The rhetoric of the new leader seemed enough. Everyone hoped action would follow as no one thought things could go any worse. Unfortunately, they did.

It was not long before the pseudo-transformational leader started dividing the people. He mobilized majorities against minorities. He created a coalition of majorities posed against minorities. He portrayed elites from minorities as conniving thieves and murderers. Other elites were blameless victims. The pseudo-transformational leader attacked self-determination. Self-determination, i.e., decentralized rule was a threat to his centralizing scheme. He condemned proponents of federalism as Marxist-prophets of balkanization. His quest towards absolute power corrupted him absolutely. He threw the baby with the bathwater by turning against his independent minded colleagues. His best friends became his worst enemies. International accolades mean nothing to an aspiring dictator robbed of trusted followers. So, how could anyone blame him for acting psycho?

The best other organizations can do is derive lessons. All leaders have need for power. But pseudo-transformational leaders need power for personal goals. They are not interested in the common good. They formulate their visions and craft strategies and policies with a personalized goal in mind. They treat their followers as mere objects. So, they canít retain a meaningful and lasting relation with their followers. As a result, they lead their organizations to disaster. Organizations that wish to survive should, therefore, weed out pseudo-transformational leaders from their ranks. They should manage succession carefully by playing organizational sportsmanship, i.e., through proper recruitment, training, evaluation and promotion. This is what contemporary literature on leadership imparts in a nutshell. ††

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