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Leadership is about empathy, Mr President –

It appears Ghanaians are now accustomed to highly accomplished people swapping their high-paying and respected professions for the grind of our nasty politics. Professor Frimpong-Boateng is one good example of recent years. For these people, moving away from traditional professions and ditching their first careers to enter politics and serve others is liberating. Further, more than anything else, working in a predictable, nine-to-five work environment may not be sufficiently challenging.
Similarly, the people who venture into politics prefer the adrenaline rush of the political fray to the drudgery of monotonous office work and culture. No matter the situation or the odds, they want to be the ones that win the day. Yet, just like Dr Frimpong-Boateng, after rising to the top, they quickly find that the place is cold, isolating, unforgiving, and even perilous. Why? While the top job gives one access to and control over resources and opportunities for self-aggrandisement, being entrusted with the powers of the state also comes with great responsibility and makes one vulnerable to criticism, insults, and hate. Thus, those who make it to the top of the political ladder quickly realize that the expectations are insatiable and may find themselves asking whether it was worth all the personal sacrifices.

The President of the Republic, Nana Akuffo Addo, who was a very successful lawyer and businessman, nowadays finds himself in this situation and may be questioning his own decision to go into politics as he is confronted with a classic “Catch 22.” He knows the country is facing an extremely difficult economic crisis caused by a sharp rise in fertilizer, food, and energy prices. The country is also struggling with debt sustainability and currency depreciation. The catastrophic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have resulted in a global economic crisis and have hit developing nations including Ghana particularly hard.
Also, the President knows inflation is causing economic hardships; however, scrapping some inflationary policies such as high import duties and taxes on gasoline will reduce revenue and compromise his government’s ability to pay its bills. Unable to ease the hardships in the near term has resulted in angry protests in the streets, death threats towards members of his government, inflammatory language online and over the airwaves, and insults, which are bound to make the President agitated and test his empathy and leadership qualities.
It is tough enough to be a political leader in the age of social media but even more difficult when dealing with an economic crisis on a scale unprecedented in its reach and devastation on average people. Hence, in order to navigate this terrain, the President must achieve a balance between ego and empathy. It’s not enough to be a visionary and transformative leader, it’s important for him to meet the people where they are right now. The President can show empathy by being aware of his own strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, preferences, and other personality traits. These qualities will help him focus both on fixing the economy and on responding to the anxiety that arises from economic uncertainty.
The literature shows that leaders with high levels of self-awareness can consciously influence situations and have a positive impact on awakening the collective consciousness. They also tend to have high levels of emotional intelligence and are able to successfully regulate their emotions, even in tough situations. On the other hand, leaders who are not self-aware make decisions and behave in ways that can lead to undesirable or negative consequences. In a nutshell, leadership requires a mixture of skills to foster the conditions for engagement with the people, stability, and performance, and empathy tops the list of what leaders must get right.

Clearly, the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted individuals, families, and communities in many unimaginable ways. It’s likely that a significant portion of the population is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder arising from the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic devastation. Thus, the President must look beyond traditional strategies for crisis management and adopt an empathic leadership approach to manage the situation. Empathetic leadership means having the ability to understand the needs of
the people, being aware of their feelings and thoughts and taking concrete steps to validate them.
Any reasonable person understands that the external forces disrupting the global economic order are beyond the President’s control. There are, however, some soft skills such as empathy, which the president needs to bring the country together and deepen his connection with the people. Undoubtedly, Ghanaians will trust him and have a greater sense of engagement and commitment if he can relate emotionally to what they feel, see things from their point of view, and put himself in their shoes.
The President’s recent address to the nation was a step in the right direction. However, he needs to demonstrate more empathy in action. The President can do this by rethinking and streamlining the structure and design of his government to maximize productivity: merging certain ministries such as the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Chieftaincy and Religious Affairs, Aviation and Railway Development under Transportation, Communication and Information, etc. As the saying goes, people may not remember what you say, but they will remember how you made them feel. The people are hurting and crying out for a calm, forward-looking, and empathic leader whose verbal and non-verbal cues resonate with them.
Yes, shrinking violets, after all, do not dare to enter the political fray. Nor would battling to the top of the political ladder be possible without a large ego. However, notwithstanding his necessary ego, the President has made a lot of sacrifices for his position, including personal wealth, time and energy, friends and family, not to mention risking the ire and constant criticism of the naysayers. A healthy ego is simply a necessary part of a presidential skill set and President Akuffo Addo cannot be blamed for having one.
Arguably, the President’s ego could account for his ambitious policies in his first term, which elevated the country’s economic growth to one of the highest in the world. Also, when everyone said he could not implement his free SHS, the 1D1F policies, or end dumsor, he defied the naysayer and said watch me. The President’s ego is also reflected
in many other mega projects he supervised and successfully completed. Examples include the Pokuase interchange, the interchanges in Tamale, Takoradi, and the railway lines he has built across the country.
The President may be understandably angry that all he accomplished has been wiped out by forces beyond his control. This is where he needs to rise above his anger and grief at the unprecedented pandemic-induced economic challenges facing the country and take an inclusive, collaborative approach with all actors in the national development ecosystem.
In conclusion, the success of any post-pandemic reconstruction and development program in Ghana will depend on good economic policymaking and a social compact between all actors in the political economy. Regardless of the President’s current popularity, one quality that stands out is his love for challenges. Empathic leadership is the new challenge the President must embrace.


The writer, Kwame Abrefah, is a private legal practitioner.




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