Mfonobong Inyang: Remembering Chadwick Boseman & Reminiscing on Leadership Lessons from The Black Panther
First of all, rest in peace, Chadwick Boseman.
It’s said that art imitates life; the first instalment of the Black Panther movie from Marvel Studios presents a cultural archetype of the phenomenon of choices and consequences. Inspired by the genius of Chadwick and in honour of his legacy, I wrote a book distilling tons of leadership lessons from Wakanda. The lore of Wakanda as a model society is not just because it is egalitarian or has mounds of vibranium, but its entrenched respect for its own political norms and governance systems. Anecdotally, two scenes jumped at me when drawing a picturesque parallel between a Wakandan ritual combat and this year’s elections in Africa’s most populous country.
T’Challa, the young king is being challenged by the feisty leader of the politically estranged tribe of Jabari, M’Baku. On the surface, it looks like a fight between two persons but in reality – it’s a fight of two worldviews, two ideologies and two diametrically opposing visions. Many years had gone by and Zuri, son of Badu, a former spy on War Dog assignments has become one of the chief custodians of the Wakandan culture. Amongst other things, he oversees the Challenge Day – a ritual where the heir to the throne or an incumbent king is challenged in a fierce duel by any other member of the royal family or a warrior from any of the five tribes – the River, Mining, Merchant, Border and the Jabari tribe respectively.
Remember, the very first Black Panther is a warrior-shaman who received a vision from the panther goddess, Bast, where he is given the heart-shaped herb – a plant that granted him superhuman strength, speed and instincts. This plant grows within the royal courts and is given to successive kings so they can discharge their duties effectively as Protectors of Wakanda. To ensure that the challenger is given a fair chance, a substance is given to the incumbent, in this case, T’Challa, which causes him to lose those superhuman powers. T’Challa then has to dig deep into his being and answer the question of who he really is without those heightened abilities. This is exactly what would later play out as his challenger, taunts him about having, “…no powers, no claws, no special suit o… just a boy not fit to lead!” Thankfully, his mother, Ramonda immediately calls out to her son, “…show him who you are!” He draws strength from that encouragement and finds his voice, retorting: “I am Prince T’Challa, son of King T’Chaka!”
In the pristine Wakandan culture, leadership is not served à la carte – any sense of entitlement is in the poteaux poteaux. Even though a successor is traditionally nominated from the royal family after a king’s demise, that successor still has to go through ritual combat – where victory comes by one person yielding to the other or by death. This is to ensure that Wakanda has a strong king who can really defend its people and not just a weakling who inherits a throne he cannot efficiently superintend. The unanimous decision of the four tribes not to challenge T’Challa reflects the overlapping benefits of goodwill and effective stakeholder management. His father, King T’Chaka, was a very good leader who put Wakanda first even before his family or personal considerations – he literally sacrificed his own brother just to protect another Wakandan who was a covert intelligence operative in America. Aside from his inability to arrest Klaue and bring the Jabaris into mainstream Wakandan politics – his reign was largely successful.
“…we will not have it”
M’Baku, the leader of the Jabari tribe and an elite warrior himself interrupts the proceedings of the day and makes both his presence and intentions known. He doesn’t think much of T’Challa as a worthy successor to the throne, M’Baku’s angst is really with the direction in which the nation of Wakanda has been heading. He is obviously an irredentist who is not pleased with the fact that technology is rapidly advancing under the supervision of Shuri, someone he considers a child who “…scuffs at tradition.” He wants a primordial Wakanda; one that doesn’t possess the nuances of modernity. These polarised philosophies are further entrenched by the fact that whilst four Wakandan tribes worship the goddess, Bast, the Jabari tribe worships Hanuman. During the duel, when M’Baku taunted T’Challa by asking, “…where is your god now?” He is alluding to the fact that the Jabaris served a more powerful deity who gives him strength in battle – a metaphor for the clash of gods, the quest for supremacy.
“…don’t make me kill you”
The winner of the challenge emerges only when the other person yields or is outrightly killed. So this isn’t a threat, it is a legal option available to the young prince who had gotten his opponent in a deadly submission grip. M’baku prefers to die than yield. T’Challa further admonishes him that he had fought with honour and that his people need him. This shows the type of leader T’Challa is, a sharp contrast to M’Baku. One believes that he doesn’t want to win the challenge but lose his brother – so he is gracious in victory in an otherwise unforgiving combat. He believes that by being empathetic, he could gain over the separatists. The other is uncouth and wants the death of the incumbent as a trophy for what he considers to be an unqualified government.
One believes in technology as a catalyst for growth whilst the other believes in a redundant culture that is not sufficient for contemporary Wakanda. One applies a high level of emotional intelligence, and the other believes in brute force. So it is beyond the person who won – it was a matter of which of the philosophies would emerge. Whenever you’re faced with the choice of leaders in an election, you’re not just voting for persons but their mindsets. As a person’s mind is, that person’s leadership style will be. Beyond political affiliation, probe to know which of the mindsets can deliver the future you envision. Is that mindset seeking to take you back to the past or is it flexible and futuristic?
T’Challa gets a sweet victory in his first fight but he’s not so lucky in the second against a returnee challenger. The prodigal prince, N’Jadaka (Killmonger) comes back home to challenge the king for the throne. Killmonger’s quest to fulfil his father’s rogue dream and W’Kabi’s dissatisfaction with T’Challa’s handling of Klaue find common ground when he returns to Wakanda. W’Kabi has a sense of justice served when the man who killed his parents is personally delivered in a body bag, he quickly develops an unspoken, sentimental and tacit allegiance for Killmonger which is manifest more expressly when Killmonger briefly ascends the throne.
Understandably, many of those watching the duel between T’Challa and Killmonger have a dog in the fight. According to the extant culture that governs such encounters, a winner is only determined by the yielding or death of a combatant – Zuri, more than anyone else knows this. However, as Killmonger braces up to inflict a deadly blow on the incumbent, Zuri in a knee-jerk reaction, intervenes in the fight to save T’Challa – an aberration. Even with tears in their eyes, nobody dared to intervene – not even the fiercely loyal general, Okoye. Zuri – who is supposed to be an “unbiased umpire” – fails to sense that some moments are sacrosanct and that any attempt to subvert something, simply because the turn of events isn’t going in a certain direction, is going to be considered a reckless act of provocation.
“You are not fit to be a king!”
Okoye has had enough. She and the Dora Milaje move to stop Killmonger, W’Kabi and the Border Tribe before they wreck further damage on Wakanda. She addresses T’Challa as “king”, inferring that Killmonger has no legitimacy. People like Okoye understand nation-building; they are loyal to the country and the rule of law, not necessarily the government in power. She may have a quiet preference but when it comes to the law, she has no dog in the fight. She is a metaphor for the Lady Justice; blind to the sentiments, impartial to the politics and weighs every case by its own merits – not technicalities. Patriotism isn’t always a smooth ride, many have paid the ultimate sacrifice for a nation they believed in. We should realise that we’re all children of sacrifice, at whatever cost we must commit to bequeathing a better nation to our descendants than we met it.
“Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.” – King T’Challa.