In era of political madness try unsung heroes for leadership

Boniface Mwangi, the activist who ran a clean, honest and innovative election campaign, lost the Starehe parliamentary seat in Nairobi, but Anne Waiguru, the former Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Devolution, whose tenure was marred by outrageous corruption scandals, won the governor’s seat in Kirinyaga County.

In South Africa, embattled President Jacob Zuma survived a Motion of no confidence in parliament despite evidence that links him to corruption scandals involving the Guptas, an Indian family of wealthy industrialists that has been accused of “state capture”.

What is going on in this world? It seems impunity has become normalised, not so much because leaders have managed to hoodwink their followers, but because their followers have become blind to the truth.

According to Jean Lipman-Blumen, the author of The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians — and How We Can Survive Them, followers cannot escape blame for the rise of their destructive leaders.


Toxic leaders thrive in environments where cronyism and corruption are tolerated and where they are not expected to account for their actions and can easily play on their followers’ fears and insecurities. 

Such leaders attain “godlike” status, even when their actions cause great harm to their followers. (Adolf Hitler was one such leader.)

They offer the illusion of security and certainty when, in fact, they are plotting to destroy the institutions they lead and those they view as a threat to their own ambitions.

They also tend to be cowardly and reckless (United States President Donald Trump’s irresponsible tweets epitomise this type of reckless behaviour.) 

Surprisingly, these toxic leaders are much sought after as managers in the corporate world and as political leaders because they have a deceptively seductive leadership style.

However, allowing these toxic leaders into leadership positions often spells the death or slow suffocation of the organisations or countries they lead, which is why it is important to weed them out early.


This could prove difficult because many leaders are selected not because of their integrity or professionalism but because they are likely not to rock the boat –  they do not threaten the status quo, which could include tolerating or promoting unethical or corrupt practices.

What is an individual, a company or a country to do when confronted with such a leader? Lipman-Blumen does not offer many practical or hopeful answers, but one is to ensure that such leaders have term limits so that even if they do harm, the damage is contained.

This could prove difficult to enforce, especially when the brand name of a company or organisation is associated with its leadership (Imagine Facebook without Mark Zuckerberg).

Another is to change the way leadership is defined; it should not be viewed as a privilege but as a responsibility. Because we have traditionally conceptualised leadership as a privilege, with its associated powers, leadership tends to attract individuals who thirst for power and personal glory.

This has distorted leadership selection because only the most driven, competitive and thick-skinned individuals bother to vie for positions. (Which could explain why the political leadership contest in Kenya has always been so fierce and ugly.) 


Sometimes toxic leadership can help people to reaffirm their own values by becoming dissidents, union leaders or activists who demand more ethical policies and practices. 

Some of these dissenters drop out of mainstream society or become apathetic (which is what I suspect will happen to the millions of Kenyans who voted for Nasa presidential candidate Raila Odinga).

Others forge new careers that are more in line with what they believe in and with how they wish to conduct their personal and professional lives; they dare to be different in a world that values “by hook or by crook” career advancement and conformity.

Lipman-Blumen says if we want examples of good leaders, we should look outside the formal structures  –  people who take on the burden of unsung leadership by, for example, feeding the homeless, or mentoring disadvantaged children in their communities. They could be ordinary citizens, who in their small way, make the world a better place. 

Such unsung heroes may not attain immense wealth or political power, but their influence cannot be underestimated and can linger for generations. (Think Anne Frank’s Diary.)  It is these leaders that we should be seeking and nurturing in this era of political madness and uncertainty.

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It seems impunity has become normalised because many people have become blind to the truth.

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