Thought leadership is one of the contemporary concepts within the leadership and change management discourse. It is leadership based on the power of ideas to transform not only our way of thinking, but also our social, political and economic sphere.
According to Mitch McCrimmon, in his journal article Thought Leadership: A Radical Departure From Traditional Positional Leadership, thought leadership is concerned with the championing of new ideas. It can be directed upwards and ends once the leadership or management accepts the proposed ideas.
Under thought leadership, no one has a monopoly on new ideas and knowledge and both ‘formal’ leaders and their subordinates strive towards differentiating themselves through their technical and intellectual excellence and innovation rather than relying on patronage or clientelism as stepping stones towards success.
For thought leadership to thrive ‘formal’ leaders and managers must go beyond simply empowering their subordinates or employees to manage themselves and starting fostering bottom-up leadership through encouraging and creating a conducive environment that champions new, transformative ideas originating from both ‘formal’ leaders and their subordinates.
The objective of thought leadership in this regard is, hence, to see all employees—formal leaders and their subordinates—initiating process improvements in the organisation.
Equally important is the fact that thought leadership can come from outside the organisation. This simply means that people outside the organisation can contribute innovative ideas on how to improve the effective running of an organisation.
The question as to whether thought leadership is applicable in the Malawi public sector—both the political and administrative levels—is debatable. However, what is important to note is that the leadership and socio-political context in which the public sector is situated can determine as to whether such a “new” paradigm can thrive.
According to Chancellor College’s Blessings Chinsinga in his presentation Malawi’s Contemporary Political Landscape: Marching on or Simply Moving in Circles—delivered at Public Affairs Committee’s Second All-Inclusive Conference in 2012—the challenge Malawi has faced over the years is its political culture which has remained squarely intact despite the transition to democracy.
It essentially comprises beliefs, values and attitudes that are largely non-democratic and anti-developmental and often contravenes formal rules.
Chinsinga lists the following as key elements of Malawi’s political culture: prevalence of patronage, clientelism, opportunism and corruption, centralising authoritarian tendency of the executive; narrowness of the deliberations in the public sphere, fear, docility and suspicion; and excessive deference to authority.
It is this political culture—which is also deeply entrenched in the Malawi Public Sector—that has often made it almost difficult to implement not only thought leadership, but also the much-talked transformational leadership.
Thought leadership cannot thrive in a system that rewards patronage, opportunism, nepotism and cronyism and where fear, docility, suspicion and excessive deference to authority are the order of the day.
Lastly, political leadership—especially the executive arm of government—has a pivotal role in providing a conducive environment to ensure that thought leadership thrives in all aspects of society, including the public sector.
As earlier indicated, thought leadership requires that the formally instituted leadership should be able to listen and act on innovative ideas and constructive criticisms aimed at transforming the organisation even when it is external. n