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Is there a link between more formal education and better political leadership?

Holistic systemic and institutional change in Zimbabwe is now the only avenue to future progressive politics that can deliver genuine socioeconomic and political inclusivity. An informed person specification will be crucial in how we identify a pool of leaders to carry out our mandate.

There is debate on the extent to which formal education impacts the quality of leadership in Zimbabwe and by extension in Mthwakazi. How and at what stage does formal education impact leadership quality? An interesting debate ensued on social media recently, triggered by a Mthwakazi scholar’s suggestion that the region needed to look up to and field more candidates with more formal education in the next general election to improve the quality of our leadership.

Is there a link between formal education and quality of leadership? The controversial contribution of the post was the insinuation that members of parliament with more formal education made good leaders, performed better in office and produced better government compared to those with lesser academic qualifications. A brave point to make, but is that objectively true or just an academic elitist myth?

Progressive formal education has a key role in the development of any society; however, it is but a part of a solution and not the solution of itself. How effectively we use formal education to compliment other forms of learning will determine our progress. An obsession with academic attainment must not be allowed to exclude other forms of learning for, by so doing we lose skills held outside university and college graduates, and skills that universities and colleges cannot recreate.

The biggest downfall of Zimbabwean mentality is the illusion that formal education will deliver everything, will solve every problem and more arrogantly, we think we are the best formally educated beings; the system breeds arrogance that blocks people from learning from those with less formal education. Talent on less formally educated shoulders is ignored and lost.

It would be reasonable to argue that the perceived superiority of leadership credentials of individuals holding university degrees is a superstition artificially created and maintained through a network of lies and falsehoods; a superstition that has effectively deprived the nation of access to a large pool of talent and increases our misplaced arrogance and conceit. Do people with more formal education make better political leaders than those with less education?

Given formal education is universally a key credential for elite recruitment, extending that into the criteria for the political leadership selection process remains controversial and unjustified. There is just no convincing case to support the elevation of formal education into a major criterion in selecting our political leaders.

The few political studies conducted to date have not shown conclusive evidence of the advantage of the possession of university education by political leaders. The mere fact that the success or failure of a leader is a complex combination of intricate factors makes pinpointing academic achievement as the essential quality for leadership candidates difficult, if not preposterous.

Studies have found little or no consistent influence of the quantity of formal education a leader has received and their effectiveness in government. Formal education may equip a leader with vital factual knowledge, but leadership is about turning those facts into practicable use; in other words, making those intricate facts understandable to an average man and woman on the street. A different set of skills and abilities is required to engage with the public, and we cannot ignore personality, experience and local connection, etc.

In their study of the link between formal education and leadership quality, Carnes and Lupu (2015) found little evidence of a link between education and leader quality: on the different measures examined; university educated politicians performed about the same as or worse than leaders who did not have higher level of academic qualifications. The authors argue that politicians with university degrees did not tend to govern over more prosperous nations, were not more productive legislators, did not perform better at the polls, and were no less likely to be corrupt.

Arguably, the above findings have important implications for how citizens evaluate candidates, how scholars measure a leader’s qualities, and how we think about the role of education in policy making.

The relationship between education, competence, and leadership is more complex than our Mthwakazi scholar assumes. The author’s presentation did not provide objective evidence proving the link between education, competence and leadership. We do not know what measurements were used to make the conclusion. This was perhaps a mere assumption by a person who possesses high quantity of formal education.

Not all university and college graduates are leaders. The formal educational attainment of political leaders has no bearing on their leadership credentials, perhaps our focus must be educating leaders to enhance their leadership performance and promote competence. Here we emphasise the importance of leaders being educated on the procedure and other processes in government for them to effectively perform their duties within the set legal parameters.

No university course will turn a follower into an excellent leader; leaders are self-made, they will take advantage of virtually any usable item laid in front of them, including formal education, to enhance their leadership abilities. Leadership is about impact, influence and inspiration. Impact involves getting results, influence is about spreading the passion one has for what they believe in, and their ability to inspire everyone around them to buy into their ideas.


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