Posted by: davidjmarlow | 29/09/2011

In appreciation of George Price and great leadership…

I have been privileged to work with and for many great ‘leaders’ during my career – and I like to think I have learnt from each of them.

The first Prime Minister I worked for was the Right Honourable George Price. Mr Price was Premier of Belize during the twenty years leading to independence, and then Belize’s first post-independence Prime Minister from 1981-84. He died, aged 92, last week. Widely recognised as the ‘founding father’ of the nation, it is somehow appropriate that he passed away on the cusp of the 30th anniversary of Belize’s independence (on September 21st). As I attended a 30th anniversary party being given by Belizean friends in the UK, more than one of my (all too many) ‘toasts’ that evening were quietly in appreciation of his memory.

On reflection, Mr Price illustrates for me two fundamental dimensions of leadership that are as important today as they were in the 1980s – leaders as ‘keeper of the narrative’; and the importance of leaders as role models, leading by personal example.

George Price’s recognition as ‘father of the nation’ is not, I would argue, based on the constitutional progress he achieved from colony to independence during the 1960s-1980s. Arguably, given Britain’s wish to divest itself of colonial responsibilities, and the prevailing international climate, there was a certain inevitability to that process.

What Mr Price crafted, though, was a coherent and compelling ‘story’ of Belize rooted in a positive and progressive interpretation of the nation’s reality. Mr Price’s narrative envisioned Belize as a small nation that could bring together its diverse populations – Creole, Mestizo, Mayan, Garifuna and many others – into a cohesive whole; as a bridge between Caribbean and Central American regions, between North and Latin American communities; showcasing a politics that reconciled a dominant (in that hemisphere and era) free market US with social democratic and more radical philosophies. It was always difficult to label Mr Price politically, particularly for a UK commentator, but I suppose he encapsulated something of a radical Christian democrat approach (if such exists and is not an oxymoron!).

This narrative was immensely important in nation-building – whether articulated openly or providing a subliminal foundation for Belize policies and practice. It was and is distinctive, inclusive, and relevant for decision-making and implementation.

The shaping and realisation of a ‘strategic narrative’ is surely one of the principle roles and responsibilities of leaders today – whether of nations, cities and regions, or in fact any organisation. The presence of a leadership team that can articulate distinctive strategic goals, which can engender inclusive buy-in (internally and externally) to the direction of travel, and which uses the strategy coherently and consistently for decision-taking, provides a clear determinant and signifier of future successful places and organisations.

I learnt the ‘keeper of the narrative’ lesson over many subsequent years, although in retrospect I can see that George Price was a master of this quality. My more immediate impression of Mr Price, though, was his selflessness. Although head of government for over twenty years, he lived in a small one-bedroom house in Belmopan – the capital of Belize. He dressed smartly but simply, appeared to accumulate no ostentatious wealth, and had no obvious business interests. Although part of a large family, Mr Price had no partner and children of his own. Without fail, interests of state were laid to one side at least one morning every week for his regular public surgeries. All Belizeans could bring him any issue, without fear or favour, that he would listen to intently and attempt to deal with respectfully – whatever the merits of the case.

This single-minded dedication to Belize, accessible to all its citizens, and the lack of interest in personal wealth, distinguished George Price from most of his contemporaries. It is not something we habitually observe in powerful leaders (whether political or business) today. I tend to think that, were our public leaders more able to project a variant of the George Price role model in this respect, they would be much better able to persuade us to embrace and pursue their (and our) public and community ambitions.

Of course, George Price was not perfect, and the Belize story has had both positives and setbacks over the 30 years of independence. However, this is not the topic of this blog.

A cousin of mine recently reflected at his 70thbirthday party, ‘what legacy does a man leave if he leaves no children?’  At Belize’s 30th anniversary of independence, Mr Price’s legacy is evident for all to see and celebrate. In that sense, he had many children. And his legacy was much more far-reaching than he appreciated – stretching even to teaching a then young economist something of the meaning of public service, and of the qualities needed by Leaders who want develop and deliver change successfully.

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