ART CHECK

The art of listening eludes our leaders

Ruto missed chance to show listening skills in interview with media

In Summary

• True peace cannot be mandated from above; it must be cultivated via engagement

President William Ruto in a roundtable interview with journalists
President William Ruto in a roundtable interview with journalists
Image: COURTESY

At a time when the peace of our nation is at stake, the President had a chance last Sunday to show that he had listened to protesters attentively, perceptively, skilfully. His interview with the media, however, left a lot to be desired.

Peace, in its truest form, is a construct built upon the foundations of mutual respect and dialogue. However, when a leader turns a deaf ear to the cries of the people, peace is shattered, reduced to mere coercion using state organs and organs of state allies, for example, churches.

This fractured peace is tenuous and deceptive, appearing serene on the surface but roiling with discontent beneath. True peace cannot be mandated from above; it must be cultivated through active engagement and listening.

The most enduring and prosperous societies here in Africa have been those where the leaders have not merely ruled but have listened. For example, Tanzania under Mwalimu Julius Nyerere in his last years of rule. In contrast, regimes characterised by despotic silence — where the voice of the people is stifled — have often descended into chaos and dissolution.

The vain pursuit of absolute control without consent transforms governance into a tragic narrative of a dead spirit sailing to the nether world, where rulers are alienated from their subjects and ultimately, from their own humanity.

The essence of leadership lies not in the assertion of power, but in the ability to foster a sense of community and shared purpose. This sense of community is nurtured through dialogue, where the leader is as much a listener as a speaker.

Without this exchange, the relationship between the leader with acute shortage of listening skills and those he leads, disintegrates into a series of unfulfilled promises and wordless songs. The resulting disillusionment manifests as civil unrest, rebellion, or even the erosion of societal bonds or respect for institutions as has been witnessed here lately.

A leader who fails to listen breeds a culture of distrust and fear. In such an environment, the led may resort to whispers and clandestine murmurs, their grievances suppressed yet simmering only them to erupt as chaos.

The absence of open communication channels means that the leader remains oblivious to the brewing discontent, mistaking the silence for consent as he inaugurates unpopular policy after another. However, this illusion of peace is but a fragile facade, a fractured peace that can shatter at the slightest provocation and invite revolt from the most unexpected or hitherto quietest sections of society.

The trajectory of a disconnected ruler mirrors the descent of a dead spirit sailing to the nether world, endlessly drifting, searching for relevance but finding none. The populace, stripped of a voice, becomes disengaged and disempowered. Governance without listening leads to a loss of legitimacy, as the aloof or aerial leader’s decisions become increasingly detached from the realities of the people’s lives.

The refusal by a leader to listen is a rejection of the very humanity that binds him and the governed. It is a denial of the shared experiences and collective wisdom that inform just and equitable governance. When a leader dismisses the input of the governed, they undermine the social contract, transforming leadership into a monologue—a wordless song that fails to inspire or unite.

So, listening is the bridge between authority and legitimacy. When leaders genuinely listen, they create a bridge between their authority and the legitimacy bestowed by the people. This bridge fosters trust and cooperation, enabling a governance model that is both resilient and responsive. Without it, authority becomes brittle and prone to collapse under the weight of unaddressed grievances.

The voice of the people is the soul of governance. Ignoring this voice is like discarding the soul of governance itself, leaving behind an empty shell. Such a shell may maintain the appearance of order, but it lacks the vitality and direction needed to navigate the complexities of leadership. By listening, leaders infuse their decisions with the lifeblood of the populace, ensuring relevance and acceptance.

Listening transforms power into service. Power wielded without listening is often perceived as oppressive. However, when leaders listen, they transform their power into a form of service to the people. This transformation builds a reciprocal relationship where the ruled feel valued and respected, enhancing the stability of the regime.

The silence of the ruled is the prelude to upheaval. When people are not heard, their silence is not an indication of contentment but a precursor to upheaval. Leaders who ignore this silence are often taken by surprise when unrest erupts. Proactive listening can preempt such crises, allowing for the resolution of issues before they escalate.

There lived a king in western Kenya. He had advisers who spoke endlessly, citizens who raised their concerns, and enemies who whispered threats. Despite all the noise, the king felt isolated and unable to govern effectively. One day, he met a wise old hermit by River Nzoia, who gave him a simple, yet profound piece of advice: “You are surrounded by sound but not by voices.” What did the hermit mean, and how did the king transform his rule based on this advice to become one of the fondest leaders of the 19th Century?

The views represented here are those of the author and are personal

WATCH: The latest videos from the Star