Things Fall Apart - Crisis and leadership at the end of an era.

Research Cluster

Speaker:Jonathan Gosling, University of Exeter
Date: Tuesday 20 April 2010
Time: 1300-1430 hrs
Location: Conference Room 1, Xfi Building

Further details

Considering ours as a time of crisis, this seminar asks “What if this were not just an episode, but really the end of an era”; for example, if we face fundamental changes of the scale and order that affected African societies when impacted by colonialism.

Pursuing this analogy, the paper will focus particularly on Things Fall Apart, the first of the African Trilogy by Nigerian author and critic Chinua Achebe. The book was published in 1958, has sold over 8million copies in many languages. It is the story of Okonkwo, a young man growing up in a pre-colonial Ibo village; the psychological and social forces by which he crafts his ascension to greatness; and the unforeseeable transformation of this world brought about by the arrival of Christian missionaries and white colonial rule.

The themes directly related to contemporary leadership studies include the development of an individual with aspirations to greatness and leadership within his community; how this development is mediated by a coherent and shared culture, especially notions of masculinity, loyalty and betrayal; the role of luck and justice in defining a leader’s authority.

The paper will use the first part of the book, which charts Okonkwo’s rise towards leadership within his village, to illustrate the interplay between individual psychology and societal mores, and thus the social construction of greatness. This will form the basis of a critical account of the term ‘worldly’ and ‘indigenous’ leadership currently fashionable in leadership studies.

The second part of the chapter will locate the ‘greatness’ of Okonkwo within wider literary contexts, specifically as a core ingredient for tragedy, which typically recounts the collapse of great persons and the utter destruction of the order in which they flourished. I will make connections to contemporary stories of the downfall of the great (e.g. in corporate and public life), asking if these stories might be read as tragedies, what they have to do with ‘crisis’, and whether their effects can be described as cathartic. Thus the paper will conclude with some comment on the meaning of ‘crisis’.