Legacy-focused leadership

October 19, 2022

In Martin Luther King’s speech to sanitation workers in Memphis on April 3, 1968, he told the workers that they had some difficult days ahead, but the challenges and possible costs of what his and their actions may bring him, did not matter to him anymore for “he had been to the mountain top”. 

Black American civil rights leader Martin Luther King (1929 – 1968) addresses crowds during the March On Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC, where he gave his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech.

King’s decision, lived through the course of his life, to focus on giving and serving rather than on getting, being served, and hoarding for himself, has earned him an indelible place in history.  One of the foundational principles of leadership is that the leader should make the leaving of a mark the focus of his or her life, and according to Stephen Covey, in his bestseller, Principle-Centred Leadership, one should live and lead with the end in view.

The foregoing precepts are embedded in the construct of “legacy-focused leadership”.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness’s legacy-focus

Prime Minister Andrew Holness, in a speech at an event a few days after he had ordered the demolition of some unfinished houses in Clifton, St. Catherine (seemingly stung by public criticism about his handling of that situation), declared that he was no longer concerned about popularity but his legacy. 

The assertion by Mr. Holness that he is no longer concerned about his popularity and is now focused on doing what is right for Jamaica, is an exceedingly bold assertion which should be welcomed, but which of course is only valuable if Mr. Holness delivers.

The Honourable Andrew Holness, Prime Minister of Jamaica

It is somewhat a disappointment that it is all of six years into his role as Prime Minister that Mr. Holness is making this pledge, but it is not too late and one hopes, that for Jamaica’s sake he will be bold.

It should, however, be recalled that when Mr. Holness won his first term he had a one-seat majority in the Parliament and often gave, as a reason for not taking certain decisive steps, the fact that he had only a one-seat advantage and that if he were to offend a member on his side that person could cross the floor and throw his party in Opposition.  However, in September 2020, Mr. Holness’s party won two-thirds of the seats in the Parliament thus giving him all the cushion he said he did not have.  One may argue, however, that it is only two years later, and we should welcome the Prime Minister’s arrival as this place.

Aspects of national life in need of urgent fearlessness

If the Prime Minister’s words are to carry any value, then, as in the case of leaders like Martin Luther King, a motif of fearlessness ought to envelope his commitment to do the right thing in Jamaica’s interest.  There are five aspects of national life which I believe stand up for immediate legacy-focused, fearless leadership by the Prime Minister.  These I suggest are:

  • Setting standards for how members of the executive conduct themselves.  It is a nationally known fact that Minister Everald Warmington is uncouth, disrespectful, and a poor model of a public servant.  He was a late addition to the Prime Minister’s 2020 executive and there are various explanations on his late addition. Whatever the reasons he was initially excluded, it is beyond dispute that Mr. Warmington is not fit to hold public office based on his repeated, glaring acts of disrespect for citizens, members of the media, and his parliamentary colleagues. 

If Prime Minister Holness does not wish to be stained with the legacy of having around him people who are not models for the rest of society, particularly the young he should immediately relieve Mr. Warmington of his position.  What is most ironical is that Warmington has just been bestowed with national honours.  Yet I wait to see if the Prime Minister will be fearless.

  • Speaking truthfully. Mr. Holness has, on several occasions, lied to, or misled the country on various issues.  Very often people lie or mislead when they are hiding something.  Now that the Prime Minister is adorned with the desire to leave a legacy, he should now no longer be afraid to speak truthfully always.
  • Tackling corruption. Polls have consistently shown that most Jamaicans see the Holness administration as corrupt. Yet, corruption is one area of national life then Opposition Leader Holness had pledged to tackle.  It is an uncontestable fact that he has not succeeded in so doing.  This area therefore represents an opportunity for Mr. Holness to repair his image, protect Jamaica, and leave a legacy. 
  • Showing regard for the law and the constitution, meticulously. Mr. Holness has been rebuked by the court on at least four occasions for acting in a manner which violates the constitution and has also broken the law.  That kind of leadership undermines the fabric of society. If the Prime Minister breaks the law, he loses credibility on matters of keeping the law. 

I would recommend that as a start, the Prime Minister garnishes his pledge of focusing on his legacy by courageously speaking to the errors and missteps he has made in relation to the law and the constitution and commit to be radically respectful of both.

  • Transforming education. The future of our society depends on a solid education system.  Prime Minister Holness was for four years, between 2007 and 2011, the Minister of Education.  As Prime Minister for the last six years he holds the keys to determining the priority spending on education.  Having commissioned the appraisal of the education system, captured in the Patterson Commission Report, he has a road map for the required transformation.  In addition, the National Council on Education has prepared a strategic plan to guide the transformation of the education system.  Massive investments are needed. Unless those investments are made Jamaica’s level of poverty and, by extension, under-development will worsen.  At present, two-thirds of citizens cannot afford a healthy meal.  Transforming education is the most urgent calling of the hour and is the best legacy the Prime Minister could leave.

Aspects of national life in need of urgent fearlessness

 1. Setting standards for how members of the executive conduct themselves

2. Speaking truthfully

3. Tackling corruption

4. Showing regard for the law and the constitution, meticulously

 5. Transforming education

If the prime minister is earnest and sincere about his new focus to act based on principles and not be concerned about popularity, then he will undoubtedly take these and other areas of national life into attention.

The PM has the capacity and tendency to make touching speeches and moving promises. I trust that he is mindful that his account balance of trustworthiness is very low, and the making of this grand promise without delivering will deplete that account and place it in massive overdraft. Going forward he will only get credit from the most diehard whose willingness to make ‘trust funds’ available will be based purely on partisan interests.

I urge the PM to be whom he says he has become and do the right thing.

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 of eight books and over a dozen journal articles, and the operator of leadershipreimagination.com website.

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