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Rice University Undergraduate Leaders

Rice University Undergraduate Leaders

This post is written by students in Professor Michael Lindsay's leadership course at Rice University.

A new narrative for Egypt

Question: Egypt's unfolding political crisis raises a broader question: Can an entrenched, powerful leader, one who has resisted change, successfully lead a country or an organization in a different direction if circumstances suddenly demand it? Or is it necessary to bring in new leadership?

In order to dramatically shift a country or organization's direction, the presence of new leaders is necessary for cohesive, long-lasting change to take root. The first factor to consider when implementing change is the symbolism that communicates that change from the leadership to the people below. An entrenched leader who has consistently resisted change represents the old way of doing things. Even if he has the capacity to lead the country in a new direction, one has to wonder whether he can successfully distance himself from his previous image of being resistant to change.

According to renowned psychologist Howard Gardner, leaders communicate with their followers by creating a narrative that consists of their actions, history and present agenda. This narrative is the key to forming the public image of a leader, and once it has been identified, it cannot easily be altered. A leader whose narrative shows that he is resistant to change will find it very hard to disassociate himself from this image in order to pursue a new direction. However, a new leader starting afresh can form his own narrative quite distinct from the previous leadership, one that better supports the idea of change without being associated with past wrongdoings and false promises.

This new paradigm of power is especially important if the people have been disenchanted with the previous power structure, as in the case of Egypt, and if they are already determined to seek a complete and thorough transformation. President Mubarak is a symbol of Egypt's old, repressive government--one that the people want to do away with entirely. His narrative of autocratic and unquestioned rule has been found wanting by the people and, thus, must be replaced by a new leader with a new narrative.

Inspiring confidence and building the trust of the people is also critical to leading successful change. Keeping the old leadership in power brings the risk that the change will only be temporary and superficial, and that the leaders will return to their old ways as soon as possible. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the ruling regime has promised popular elections for decades but has yet to substantively fulfill this pledge. There is little hope among the Saudi people that real change will unfold under current conditions. The more centralized the power structure is, the greater the need is for new leaders to take over and restore widespread confidence in the decision-makers.

Especially in Egypt, where Mubarak has set a record of not understanding or providing for the needs and interests of his people, only a new leader will be able to persuade the people that their voices will be heard and their interests looked after. Reputation is key in building mutual trust and thus creating unity within an entity, and once a leader's reputation is tarnished, it is very difficult to change the minds of the public.

Iran is the quintessential example of this truth. The 2008 protests over the presidential election in that country demonstrated the nation's unraveled unity due to broken trust and lack of confidence in President Ahmadinejad. His government cannot, as evidenced by its perpetual public disapproval, reclaim the people's trust, which is requisite to establishing successful leadership. In order for a country or organization to implement sweeping reform, the leadership must show firm commitment and thorough comprehension of the changes, as well as build trust and gain the support of their followers.

New leadership is essential when circumstances demand major change and the incumbent has previously shown himself to resist new direction. This is true especially in the case of Egypt, where an autocratic ruler's tired narrative of authoritative leadership has broken the trust of the people and lost their confidence. If the people can no longer trust or respect the old leadership, the best option is to bring in a new administration. A new leader will be able to start fresh and establish a relationship of trust and understanding with his followers, as well as craft a new public image and paradigm for his power. Only this new narrative of power and renewed trust of the people can forge sustainable and significant reforms.


Authors: Danny Cohen, Alex Johannigman, Kayla Opall, Shep Patterson, Julia Retta and Nathan Valdez

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By Rice University Undergraduate Leaders

 |  February 2, 2011; 4:33 PM ET
Category:  Crisis leadership , Government leadership , Making mistakes , Managing Crises , Political leadership , Presidential leadership , Wrong-Doing Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Crises test a person's leadership. Even if Mubarak took advantage of this time of conflict by modifying his behavior to appease his followers, I doubt he will ever successfully lead his country. Instead, it is vital to Egypt's future and stand in the global community that it brings in, not just new leadership, but a new image. A new symbol for the country. The citizens of Egypt are looking for an end to the hardships they have faced during the past months. They are looking for a new start. This new beginning cannot be achieved with the world looking at it and still seeing Mubarak as the face. Instead, they need a new symbol of what Egypt stands for. They need an Obama. Political views and inclinations put aside, when President Obama came into office, the world looked at him and saw change. When President Obama came into office, the world looked at him and saw change. Despite whatever plans he had for the country, he stood for a new start, and compelled the American people to believe the hard times are over. Egypt needs this new face. A leader who not only takes the country to a different direction but embodies hope. This can also be said for any country or organization that has faced extended hardships and wants a new image.

Posted by: NneomaElendu | February 11, 2011 2:41 AM
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While it is true that many countries find strength in new leaders, one cannot state that "a new leader will be able to start fresh". Changing the power-holder will not automatically bring peace to the nation. Egypt has gone through so much struggle already and the country is in such great turmoil that simply bringing in a new leader is not sufficient for change. When someone steps down from a position during a state of unrest, it often happens that matters get worse before they improve. President Mubarak has been ruling in a way that is hurting the nation, and it may be best to remove him from power in exchange for a leader with sights towards the future (as opposed to continuing with the old rule): but it is not a simple switch. There is a process of change that must occur for Egypt to remain stable. There is much hope for the nation, but it is very important for the leaders there, as well as the masses, to understand that while new leadership is on the horizon, there are many obstacles that will get in the way of peace along the way. A new leader will not erase the past. There is much that cannot be undone. President Mubarak should work to better his reputation with the people and while this is occurring new leadership should be arranged.

Posted by: kelseypedersen | February 4, 2011 2:58 PM
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I personally also agree with this essay's perspective on the distinction between what represents "new leadership" and "old leadership;" from a symbolic stance, President Mubarak represents almost all that has been despised by the Egyptian people - his leadership remains centered on oppression, autocratic rule, and resistance to change. As the public has demonstrated throughout these recent days, it has become clear that Egypt yearns for a very different form of leadership and power and wishes for a new start.

Additionally, I believe that the situation in Egypt indicates that the public is no longer willing to respond to their current government - they have shown that they do not want to be led by the people who lead them. A new representative government and an onslaught of reform would now be in the best interests of the country as a whole; such changes might possibly be the only way that the country can move forward.

Posted by: AngelaGuo | February 4, 2011 2:55 PM
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I agree with the group that new leadership is important when change is demanded but the leader has a reputation for being resistant to change. However, we must be careful about making generalizations with an extreme case in mind. A change in leadership is not always necessary or practical. The Egypt case is a little extreme and obvious because the protestors are specifically calling for a change in leadership. To make matters worse, the authorities’ actions against the protesters have shown that the government is in a battle against the people. There is no doubt that a change in leadership is necessary in this case.

To show that a change in leadership is not always necessary or practical, consider the case of an institution that is a leader in school reform in the United States, teachers’ unions. To many people, teachers’ unions have created an image of being resistant to change. However, both reformers and teachers’ unions agree on the ends of their work, improving schools in the United States. Some reformers have called for the elimination of teachers’ unions but this is impractical because teachers’ unions have support of followers and have a role to play in achieving the goal of improving education in the United States. They are also capable of reforms that are necessary even if a portion of the public sees them as entrenched, powerful, and resistant to change. When change is demanded, the necessity to bring in new leadership to replace leadership that has been resistant to change should be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Posted by: PlacidoGomez | February 4, 2011 2:12 PM
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