Crisis of Leadership
By Padre James Bhagwan*
Last week I shared the findings of the research project on what the focus group discussion participants and interviewees thought of decision-making in Fiji. Now we now explore the state of leadership at different levels and in different spheres of society, from the family and the village to the national level, in churches, politics, business, and civil society etc
A political understanding of leadership sees leadership as a social relationship and a political process that is both socially and culturally embedded. Applying the concept of hybridity (as introduced last week in this column), the authors described and analysed different types of leadership, and the ongoing fusion of these leadership types in Fijian society today.
The report's findings suggest that Fijian society and politics today are characterised by the co-existence and interaction of different types of leadership, in particular, traditional leadership in the form of the iTaukei chiefly system, and modern leadership in the spheres of state and civil society.
This has led to some confusion and inconsistencies in leadership, to such an extent that it is possible to speak of a leadership crisis in Fiji today; on the other hand, however, people are actively addressing the challenges posed by this leadership crisis in their everyday lives, and are engaging in processes of change.
Leadership structures in Fiji are complex and in constant change; as a result, people are confronted with the challenge of dealing with and negotiating different types of leadership, and the changes they are undergoing. The research team's findings suggest there is a leadership crisis in Fiji today, with some interviewees identifying this crisis as one of the main obstacles to democratic development in the country. On the other hand, the findings also led researchers to a (qualified) positive outlook with regard to the prospects for overcoming this leadership crisis, and hence the prospects for democratic development.
The study found people are fully aware of the existence of different types of leadership, and of leaders with different sources of legitimacy, e.g., chiefs as hereditary traditional leaders, and politicians laying claim to rational-legal legitimacy on the basis of elections and other democratic procedures.
It also found people in general do not have problems with the co-existence of different types of leadership, despite the acknowledgement of tensions between these types. There is some confusion because of inconsistencies in and the overlap between different leadership types because of ongoing changes; nevertheless, people find ways of making sense of what is going on, and actively engaging in processes of change.
This is not to say, of course, that everything is running smoothly, and without causing considerable stress. However, change is taking place (albeit incremental and slow), which is bringing about a fundamental transformation of leadership structures, and, flowing from that, society as a whole.
Participants and interviewees alike are in agreement that leadership in Fiji today is still predominantly male and hierarchical. However, hierarchical leadership styles are challenged, particularly by young people, be it at village level (chiefly leadership no longer remains unquestioned), or national level (all governments come in for criticism). Views regarding the pace and extent of change differ; change is slower and less visible in rural areas than in semi-urban and urban areas.
Outlooks on the desirability of change differ too, with rural people in general being more patient, and the urban elite being more impatient. However, hardly anyone totally opposes changes to Fiji's leadership structures; even traditional leaders and elders in rural communities of Fijians of Indian descent agree on the necessity for change.
On the other hand, hardly anyone advocates a complete and revolutionary overthrow of current leadership structures; even progressives from the urban elite do not advocate a complete abolition of traditional iTaukei leadership. It seems that both "ordinary" people and the elite are in agreement on their preference for gradual transformation.
Everyone agrees that the traditional iTaukei system of leadership is undergoing serious change. There is disagreement, however, as to whether this system needs explicit and direct reform, that is, political and perhaps also legal/juridical, intervention.
Some are confident that, in the course of change, the current problems will be overcome almost naturally, and a new structure will emerge. Others support active interference to implement reforms e.g., the election of chiefs; the development of criteria for chiefly leadership; a code of conduct for traditional leaders; training for chiefs in good governance; and/or formal clarification of the relationship between the traditional sphere of leadership and the modern political sphere (such as a prohibition on chiefs engaging in the formal political system).
A critical aspect of the debate about the reform of the traditional system is whether the GCC should be reinstated, substantially reformed, or abolished altogether. Substantial reform could include: reform of membership; reform of its rights and responsibilities (such as removing some of its formal political powers eg the right to elect the President); and/or shifting its focus to the preservation of iTaukei culture.
Given the centrality of the traditional leadership system in Fijian society and politics, any reforms in this sphere will inevitably have an impact on other societal spheres — civil society, relations between different races and religions, and not least, the political sphere in the narrow sense, including leadership structures of political parties, and accountability mechanisms for political leaders. The study found widespread agreement with regard to the deficiencies of the leaderships of previous democratically elected governments, and the need for improvements here. In other words, in general, people do not just want a return to the pre-2006 state of affairs, but long for substantial reform, which also includes reform of democratic political leadership.
The findings confirm that Fijians have an interest in organised, well-planned and comprehensive debates about what kind of leadership Fiji needs, not only at the national level in the political arena, but at all levels and in all societal spheres. The current public discussions about the need for constitutional reform could provide a good starting point, but these debates should not be confined to constitutional issues. Rather, they should be thought of as long-term endeavours. Effective and legitimate leadership cannot be installed overnight; in fact, it cannot be installed at all — it must emerge of its own accord in the context of societal and political debates, and this takes time.
If this leadership crisis is to be successfully addressed, it must be done in a comprehensive and incremental way. Based on their findings, the researchers propose the following points if this route is taken: firstly, to undertake leadership education — both in the sense of educating the leaders, and educating the public about what constitutes good leadership; secondly, to draft a code of conduct and a code of ethics for leaders; thirdly, to conduct targeted programmes for female and youth leaders; and finally, to reform party political leadership.
One should be aware, however, that both these and similar practical measures can only achieve so much. They have to be embedded in a more general and comprehensive transformation of leadership culture in all sectors of society — in churches and other religious institutions, academia, schools and families, as well as professional and civil society organisations, and political parties.
"Voices of the People: Perceptions and Preconditions for Democratic Development in Fiji", is co-authored by Volker Boege, Aisake Casimira, Manfred Ernst and Felicity Szesnat.
A full copy of the report, "Voices of the People: Perceptions and Preconditions for Democratic Development in Fiji" is available from the Pacific Theological College's Institute for Research and Social Analysis.
"Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity"
* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained minister of the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma, currently a Masters of Theology student in Seoul, South Korea. The views expressed are his and not of this newspaper.