Governance matters: The West could learn from leaders in Africa and Asia

Governance matters: The West could learn from leaders in Africa and Asia
© Getty Images

At the national security level, leadership analysis and political psychology has profiled and analyzed world leaders and adversaries. But this recently has evolved to ask a different set of questions and apply its reasoning to 21st century leaders and audiences that include private-sector investors, nation states and even voters. In a time of increasingly complex social, political and economic challenges, each of these constituent groups has shown trends away from mere analyses of personality, emotional intelligence and charisma, towards more salient and measurable analyses of governance outcomes and whether or not people’s quality of life will continue to improve under a given leader. 

These trends in leadership have coincided with an increase in “strong” leaders such as President TrumpDonald John TrumpThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Impeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Judd Gregg: The big, big and bigger problem MORE, Russia’s Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinBiden expresses shock that Trump considers attending Russia May Day event Harris swipes at Trump on Russia: 'Always nice to spend time with supporters on the campaign trail' Trump says he's considering attending Russia's May Day parade MORE, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, China’s Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Burmese leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and others. In a sense, such leaders are implicitly asking their electorates and constituents to answer Ronald Reagan’s famous 1980 debate question: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

The richly-deserved awarding of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks to the increasing recognition of the potential of emerging countries in Africa and Asia, and of governance outcomes as a metric of successful leadership. Private equity investors working with emerging economies and frontier markets — such as Myanmar, Mongolia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Ghana, Kenya, Turkmenistan, Cambodia, China, India and Vietnam — intuitively have shifted the discussion towards measures of governance, leadership outcomes and environmental and social metrics. And leadership analysis and political psychology can be applied to help investors, corporations and financial institutions lessen their risk exposure in such markets.

ADVERTISEMENT

Senior U.S. government policymakers have used leadership analysis to understand the intentions of adversaries, and such analyses have stood the test of time as useful tools in profiling, negotiating and making national security decisions. In many countries — including emerging economies and frontier markets with larger degrees of opacity and control under one leader — such analysis matters a great deal. 

Both voters and private-sector investors are interested in a leader’s strengths and weaknesses. They want to know, “To whom does the leader listen? Who has influence with the leader? And most critically, can the leader get things done?” Leaders are judged less by their personalities and more by how they respond to natural disasters, terrorist attacks, wars or threats of war, and political and economic crises.

Strongmen leaders intuitively understand this, and craft their appeal to voters and constituents along this line. Analysts, pundits, scholars and experts — especially in the West — often miss this and fail to understand that, regardless of political, social or economic issues, governance and decision-making remain the coin of the realm, as proxy variables, in understanding leadership psychology. In this sense, global strategy adviser Parag Khanna is partially right, in that “the future is Asian.” But, as a new generation of visionary African leaders have shown us, the future is African, too. 

Leadership analysis and political psychology often have been hobbled by hubris, Western models of analysis and a lack of cultural awareness, as well as preconceived biases and overemphasis on psychological labels. So this is today’s paradox: Leaders, business experts, national security professionals, journalists and scholars in America and Europe can look to other, newer leaders and their countries, and apply novel, creative approaches, best practices and analysis of governance outcomes to the increasingly complex challenges facing modern societies.

Dr. Kenneth Dekleva (@KennethDekleva) holds the McKenzie Foundation Chair in Psychiatry I and is associate professor and director of Psychiatry-Medicine Integration in the Department of Psychiatry at the Peter J. O’Donnell Brain Institute, at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. He served as a senior U.S. physician-diplomat with the Department of State from 2002-2016. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the official views of the U.S. government, Department of State, or UT Southwestern Medical Center.