Humble beginnings do not translate into virtuous leadership

Bassirou Diomaye Faye gives his address as Senegal's President at an exhibition centre in the new town of Diamniadio near the capital Dakar on April 2, 2024. [AFP]

Images on social media depict newly elected President of Senegal Bassirou Diomaye Faye in his earlier days, portraying him as a humble young man alongside his wife on a farm, barefoot and seemingly content.

The narrative spun around these images suggests that his modest upbringing will equip him with the empathy and understanding needed to uplift the downtrodden.

However, it is essential to scrutinise the assumption that humble origins invariably breed humble individuals. While it is tempting to romanticise the trajectory from poverty to power as a narrative of virtue and empathy, it is crucial to distinguish between being humble and coming from a humble background.

The circumstances of one’s birth and upbringing are not choices; they are thrust upon individuals without their consent.

Equating humility with poverty overlooks the involuntary nature of poverty and the inherent desire of individuals to transcend it.

Drawing a parallel between involuntary poverty and voluntary humility, akin to mistaking starvation for fasting, elucidates the fallacy of assuming virtue solely based on humble beginnings. Just as a person who has experienced starvation may not see virtue in fasting, individuals who have risen from poverty may not inherently possess empathy.

History is replete with examples of leaders who ascended to power from humble backgrounds only to succumb to corruption and greed once in office. The belief that such leaders, by virtue of their origins, will prioritise the interests of the marginalised is a simplistic and misguided notion. The allure of wealth and power often eclipses any genuine intent to effect positive change.

Furthermore, the tendency to valorise poverty as a badge of honour, as exemplified by the narrative surrounding individuals who endured hardship on their path to leadership, overlooks the inherent injustice of poverty. Poverty is not a virtue to be celebrated; it is a systemic failure that deprives individuals of opportunities and dignity. Conversations around leadership and representation should transcend simplistic narratives of humble origins.

Individuals should not be judged or chosen based on circumstances of their birth but rather on their character, values, and vision for a better future. It is imperative to recognise that individuals, regardless of their background, are driven by self-interest and self-preservation.

The fear of reverting to poverty may compel some leaders to prioritise personal gain over welfare of their constituents. Genuine empathy and altruism cannot be assumed based on past hardships; they must be demonstrated through actions and policies that uplift the marginalised and address systemic inequities.

The correlation between humble beginnings and virtuous leadership is tenuous at best. While personal experiences may shape one’s perspective, true leadership is defined by integrity, empathy, and a genuine commitment to justice and equality. Let us not conflate circumstances with character, and instead, hold leaders accountable based on their actions and principles, rather than their origins.

The writer is an expert in property law