August 24, 2022
One of the qualities which distinguishes great leaders from mediocre ones, is the capacity to develop and communicate a clear and compelling vision and to build support among would-be followers and even opponents of that vision. A vision is, simply, the power of seeing beyond the immediate and obvious and beholding a future which is transformative and uplifting compared to whatever are the pressing realities – whether positive or painful, which characterize the present. A key ingredient to the capacity of displaying the power of seeing beyond the immediate and beholding a transformative future, is boldness and frankness in contending with the existing realities. Contending with existing realities does not mean accepting them as final and binding and the determinant of the future, rather it constitutes acknowledgment of what is and a willingness to probe such realities to ensure that they are properly understood.
The foregoing characterization of vision, and the visionary leader’s engagement with reality means, ultimately, that the demonstration of vision is rooted in being truthful with oneself, and the people one leads, concerning the conditions from which the vision represents the desired alternative reality. In short, visionary leaders do not deny that what confronts them does exist, they do not try to paper-over and sugarcoat the obvious or what is uncovered. Visionary leaders are open-eyed about the state of affairs which confront them and then proceed, with urgency and purpose, to create the desired alternative reality.
When the denial of reality is rooted in a mindset which holds that the existence of such a reality reflects poorly on oneself, the behaviour is called denialism. Denialism can be exceedingly dangerous for the individual as well as the organization.
When, for example, a person whose body mass index is badly disproportionate lives in denial about that reality, pretending that the reality does not exist, the person will likely expose himself or herself to the dangers such as stroke, damaged spine, cardiovascular malfunction, etc. The same can be said about a country. If a country faces severe problems of maldistribution of resources, hunger among large sections of its population, poor educational outcomes, high levels of crime, and increasing damage to its environment, “pats itself on the back” about how well its economy is doing, that country risks worsening the realities it denies. The leadership of a country cannot mobilize citizens to tackle problems said leaders pretend do not exist. The articulation of a vision which challenges the existing reality and which constitutes a bold alternative to that reality, must be rooted in an acknowledgement of the existence and state of the reality.
VISIONARY LEADERSHIP INCOMPATIBLE WITH DENIALISM
I was drawn to reflect on this issue of visionary leadership as I observed the many instances of denialism in the utterances of various cabinet ministers in Jamaica. I will mention three examples.
2009 IMF Agreement
In 2008, when the global recession was emerging, then Finance Minister Audley Shaw asserted that the global recession would be good for Jamaica. Based on his assessment, the Minister argued, in response to analysts, that there was no need for Jamaica to put measures in place for balance of payment support through having an arrangement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). By the time Jamaica began to feel the effects of the recession and a deal with the IMF became inevitable, the terms were largely unfavourable and the adverse consequences of that delay would end up hurting Jamaica for the next several years. The government defaulted on the agreement it signed in 2009, and it was not until 2013 that Jamaica, after much humiliation, was able to secure a new arrangement, the terms of which included a pushing primary balance of 6.5% of GDP one of the highest imposed by the IMF. (The primary balance is the amount of money of its budgetary allocation that a government is required to set aside as a cushion and which it is not to allowed spend).
In early May 2022, Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, Pearnel Charles, Jr., in reacting to global concerns about food security, asserted that Jamaica does not face a food security crisis. A report on his position was carried in the Jamaica Observer on May 5, 2022, under the heading “Charles Jr calls for calm amidst food crisis concerns”. Were it the case that Charles were taking action in the midst of the crisis and calling for calm, that would be commendable. But he actually denied that Jamaica faced a crisis. Within a few weeks of making that assertion the Minister was forced to walk-back those comments. While the walking-back of the comments was sensible, the earlier comments reflected the propensity towards denialism. A July 2022 report highlighted that the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries was partnering with some agencies to ensure food security.
2022 Teacher Migration Crisis
In late July news emerged that the education sector in Jamaica would be faced with major fallout resulting from increased levels of migration of teachers. Plausible reports, later confirmed, indicate that some schools were set to lose up to fifty percent of their staff in some cases and many other schools were facing losses of up to twenty to thirty percent. In response to public panic, the Minister of Education was dismissive indicating that the expected level of attrition was no different from previous years and thus asserted, derisively, that there was no crisis.
Social media bloggers sympathetic to the governing party were even more derisive in their comments describing the concerns expressed as unfounded. In the weeks following, the unfolding situation showed that there was indeed a crisis, which was global.
The existence of the crisis was further reinforced by a World Bank report which showed that it was not only teacher migration which has reached unprecedented levels but migration in general with Jamaica having the second highest levels of human flight and brain drain globally among 177 countries.
Just before going to press with this article, I received a bulletin issued by the Ministry of Education to school boards advising of seventeen (17) measures being put, or in place, to address the teacher migration issue, which included:
- Pre-approval being granted for replacement of teachers in clear vacancies
- The creation of a facility for school boards to request extension of teachers who are scheduled to proceed on retirement
- Approval for school boards to employ teachers using the part-time facility.
A story carried by Nationwide90FM on August 23 reported that Prime Minister Andrew Holness has described teacher migration as ‘a potential threat to the education system’. The Prime Minister emphasised that several countries are poaching teachers from ‘countries like Jamaica with a well-developed system of training teachers’. Among the solutions being recommended to treat with teacher migration, Mr. Holness proposed the relocation of some teachers to help fill emerging gaps. His position is in direct contrast to the response from education minister Fayval Williams who was adamant that there is no widespread migration of teachers. The education minister insisted that the volume of teachers leaving the education system did not warrant a crisis, and indicated that ‘resignations are not uncommon in the profession’ as was reported by The Gleaner dated August 22, 2022. Notwithstanding, the minister saw it fit to convene a press conference to address the matter presenting a raft of strategies aimed at minimising possible chaos that could ensue in the sector as schools reopen in early September.
Also included in the bulletin was a list of 2022 Teacher’s College graduates, across various specializations, which the Ministry said were available for deployment.
The obvious question which arises is: if a crisis does not exist why employ these measures, some of which are radical enough, reflecting an awareness of the crisis.
The Minister and the government would have earned great credit if in response to the news of a crisis it indicated that it was aware of the matter and was taking steps to address it. How much advantage and planning space schools have lost as a result of the denial, we may never know.
Is there a cure for denialism?
Denialism can be deadly to democracies and the development of a country. The USA is paying the price for denialism related to its 2020 elections. Donald Trump manufactured a denial of the results of the 2020 presidential elections. This denial was rooted in personal political ambitions and probably the desire to hold onto power to avoid further accountability for his various misdeeds. But the larger problem, which almost cost America its democracy is the support Trump received from Republican officials, most of whom knew that Trump’s claims were false, but who were too afraid of Trump to publicly say Trump was lying. Cowardism, or lack of courage, therefore, is the root cause of denialism.
Cowardism is seen in leaders who lack the grace and humility to admit error, who are afraid of appearing weak or to say they do not know, or to accept that they can improve, or to acknowledge that they have failed. The cure for denialism then is the development of courage.
Dr. Canute Thompson is Senior Lecturer in Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership at the School of Education, The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, and Head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning. He is author of two award-winning books and articles, among his collection seven books and over a dozen journal articles, and the operator of leadershipreimagination.com website.