If you think your leader has lost it, science says he probably has

Why would a smart man like Mr Mugabe not know when it is time to leave on a high? Why should a smart man like Mr Museveni not take to heart his own early insight about Africa suffering under the yoke of leaders who stay past their sell-by dates?


BY Bernard Tabaire


Rapturous celebrations served as bookends to Mr Robert Mugabe’s long run as leader of independent Zimbabwe. That should not be a surprise, except that the mass feeling of joy came from different places each time. The first time it was to welcome a hero. The second time it was say good riddance to a villain.

Judging from the events of the last couple of weeks, however, president Mugabe had long become a loathed leader by the people he led.

An economy that once pulsated was in a coma. Political opponents were enemies who were bludgeoned. Political expediency informed all decisions. The first lady flaunted obscene wealth as much as she flouted rules of public decorum and aggressively angled to replace her nonagenarian husband as president. The palpable promise of independence had turned into a palpable despair. Nearly four decades of same-man rule had grated on the people enough. So Mr Mugabe had to go for Zimbabwe to survive.

Why do leaders — sensible men and women when they ascend high office — turn into caricatures of their earlier selves yet age is supposed to suggest wisdom?

When a leader governs for decades, his or her missteps have a way of building up to a crescendo. This is so because the people tend to remember the bad more than the good.

So, when President Museveni promises to govern for only four years and that turns into 31 and counting toward a life presidency, people notice. When while at it he smashes opponents, people notice. They also notice when wealth accrues more to “politically exposed” persons. They notice when there is a thorough breakdown in the services that matter most: health, education. Slowly, this builds up into a concrete picture of leadership arrogance and failure. The public then only awaits a spark to explode.

Why would a smart man like Mr Mugabe not know when it is time to leave on a high? Why should a smart man like Mr Museveni not take to heart his own early insight about Africa suffering under the yoke of leaders who stay past their sell-by dates?

Some of us have muttered about what it is exactly that makes people change (mostly for the worse) once they have big power. Apparently, “power causes brain damage”. That is the breathless title of an article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, an American magazine. The sub-head says: “How leaders lose mental capacities—most notably for reading other people—that were essential to their rise.”

The magazine piece is based on the findings of various research studies conducted by psychologists and neuroscientists. It reports that people “under the influence of power … acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view”.

For a political leader to get elected, for example, he or she must be a good listener, empathetic, adjust his or her ideas and actions, suggest sensible solutions to societal challenges, essentially channel the people’s fears and aspirations. That disappears once he or she has settled in power. “Once we have power, we lose some of the capacities we needed to gain it in the first place.” The article adds that “power lessens the need for a nuanced read of people, since it gives us command of resources we once had to cajole from others”. There is no need for negotiation because you can have your way through the unquestioned use of state resources.

But can’t the presidential aides keep a Mugabe or a Museveni in check? Not a chance, reportedly. “The fact that people tend to mimic the expressions and body language of their superiors can aggravate this problem: Subordinates provide few reliable cues to the powerful.” In short, advisors turn themselves into yes-sir-types incapable of showing the Boss that there is another way.

Before long, you end up with an autocrat with hubris syndrome … ‘“a disorder of the possession of power, particularly power which has been associated with overwhelming success, held for a period of years and with minimal constraint on the leader”.
The article says that 14 clinical features of hubris syndrome include “manifest contempt for others, loss of contact with reality, restless or reckless actions, and displays of incompetence”.
Say that again.
Poor Compaore. Poor Jammeh. Poor Mugabe. And — very, very likely — Poor Museveni.

Bernard Tabaire is a media trainer and commentator on public affairs based in Kampala.

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