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Leadership Lessons from the Egyptian Revolt

February 4, 2011

Viewing the revolt against the rule of President Mubarak of Egypt from a leadership development perspective is a valuable exercise because leadership development principles and concepts provide insights into the revolt and the revolt enhances our understanding of the importance of leadership. For the purpose of this blog post, I would like to define leadership as commitment to policies and actions that maximize the benefits of the resources a group has entrusted to an individual to the mission of those entrusting those resources. Leadership can be equated with the use of influence as opposed to power in the achievement of those mission related results.

Since Suez, Egypt has been ruled by three military men posing as civilian leaders: Gammal Abdul Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Husni Mubarak.  Initially, Nassar became the Arabs world’s most respected and powerful leader because of the power of the mission he embodied–anti-colonialism. In time, Nasser’s program of anti-colonialism was conflated with opposition to Israel and the support of the Palestinian people.  When Nasser died and was replaced by Sadat, the mission became the implementation of bi-lateral relations with Israel which would enable Egypt to devote a greater percentage of her resources to peaceful economic development. Upon the assassination of Sadat, Mubarak inherited Sadat’s mission as well as his leadership role.

Over the course of time, the Egyptian public has developed the belief that Mubarak is not delivering on that mission and is, in fact, perverting it by funneling those freed up resources to the enrichment of a corrupt elite rather than to the betterment of the lives of the Egyptian masses.  Thus, Mubarak’s ability to move his people through his influence as a leader disappeared and he had to resort to managing them via the use of power. Mubarak’s power was adequate to this task because the masses of the people had neither the tools nor the vision.  However, the revolt in neighboring Tunisia in which a popular uprising overthrew a dictator who had been in power even longer than Mubarak provided the Egyptian masses with an energizing vision–one of relief from political and more importantly economic repression. Furthermore, the presence of cell phones, computers, the internet, and social media provided the tools for a 21st century popular uprising of virtually unprecedented scale.

This pattern of erosion of the mission/vision followed by popular uprising has been repeated over and over again in world affairs. We see the pattern repeated in the fates of General Pinochet in Chile, General Franco in Spain, Mao in China, the Shah in Iran, and many others. The parallels between the Shah and Mubarak may be the closest. Both justified their rule with a vision of anti-colonialism, modernization, and economic advancement. Both maintained their rule through the use of military power when the initial power of the vision began to wane. And both faced enormous challenges when a very powerful counter vision swept through the masses of the youth of their countries.

The events in Tunisia and Egypt in the past month provide a very powerful lesson to those of us in the field of leadership development. They reinforce the need for us to help the leaders for whom we work to create a powerful, ethical, honest, meaningful, and inclusive vision and to explicitly manage their own actions and those of others, especially other in positions of power, in a manner that is explicitly in concert with that vision. These events demonstrate to us that our leaders will lose their ability to influence their constituencies when and if the leader’s vision is replaced by one that has more power to energize the constituency. Recent events in Tunisia and Egypt also demonstrate the limits of the leader’s use power to rule by fear. When leaders in our organizations tell their people, “Do it or you will lose your job,” people will do so only until such time as they are presented with a vision that is more attractive than merely holding on to the job.

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