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Youngsters, step forward to lead!

Aug 14, 2005 Leadership, Sunday Nation

Can anyone of sound mind be against the idea of renewal? We see it in nature all around us, every day of our lives. The magnificent flower is in full bloom for a few days, and then its petals drop away and its beauty fades. The proud lion, monarch of the plains, is master of all he surveys for a few years. Then his mane gets thinner, his bones weaken, his hunger abates. Decline and eventual death is an immutable fact of life on earth.

We are all momentary phenomena. We are born, we grow, we thrive, we diminish, we are extinguished. But our source does not die. The wise tell us that we are merely waves in the ocean. The ocean is always renewing itself, and yet it is always the same. Its renewal depends on new waves, new droplets, new movements. The cycle repeats itself over the millennia: more waves emerge, sometimes bigger and better than their predecessors, sometimes lesser.

Forgive me for waxing a little lyrical this Sunday, but I am concerned about the problem of renewal in Kenya. Forty years after independence, many of those who led us when we were set free as a country are still leading us. Those who managed our affairs in the 1960s and 1970s still have their hand on the wheel. Is it not about time the soil was turned so that fresher, younger shoots can break through?

Nelson Mandela might have been the world’s most respected political leader of recent years, but he has left the main stage now. Jack Welch may well have been the most admired manager of his era, but his business is done. Bill Gates, still a young(ish) man and still the world’s most powerful business leader, will hand over the reins at some point, of his own choosing or that of his shareholders.

Renewal brings forth new energy, new ideas, new methods. It is a vitally necessary part of national and economic evolution. The Kenya managed by Kenyatta is not the Kenya we live in today. That Kenya had no mobile phones, no ATMs, no laptops, no internet. It also did not have to deal with unmanageable crime, vicious terrorism and the threats and opportunities of globalisation. It was a different country. Renewal demands that the people who understand a new era and are part of its ethos, also play a key role in managing its affairs.

Renewal is happening in the corporate world. Our chief executives are, on average, getting younger. Management teams are generally brimming with the ideas and energy of youth. Boards of directors, too, are changing (albeit more slowly). The board of yesteryear, filled exclusively with grey-haired males born before the advent of electricity, is evolving into a fresher institution that combines the wisdom of age (and make no mistake, age does impart a wisdom that youth can never have) with the energy and savvy of a younger set of leaders. Experience is gradually being balanced against energy. The elders are guiding and overseeing, the young are initiating and implementing.

The effects are apparent in corporations across the land. Our leading organisations are transforming themselves from unresponsive monoliths to lithe and flexible institutions that listen very carefully to customers and keep ahead of the curve of change. The renewal of human capital is paying the right dividends. That is exactly as it should be.

But where is the renewal in our politics? Why are we still led by the wazee of eras past? Why are we still looking to the economic strategies of yesteryear to deliver development? Look around you: we are still thinking raw materials rather than fibre optics, aid rather than investment, big cars rather than big ideas. Don’t blame the wazee for that – they’re only doing what they know well, the “plan A” that worked in the seventies. It’s down to the renewers to suggest something else.

But we have so many young parliamentarians and young ministers, you protest. But I ask again: where’s the renewal? Where are the big, bold, new ideas for various sectors of the economy? Where are the investments in knowledge, the emphasis on technology, the focus on productivity? These are the things that will propel our economic growth tomorrow, but on whose agenda are they to be found? They may look young and dress young, some of our new leaders; but thus far they have shown us that their mindsets are of the same antique era.

The leaders who will represent the 21st century in this land have yet to emerge. But why is that? If you ask young people why they do not step forward to vie for leadership, they will tell you that no one giving them means to do so. We lack funding and training, they moan. We lack platforms and institutions, they cry. The old ones lock us out, they grumble.

Oh, please. By what astounding hope does any young person expect leadership to be handed over in a neat package? That those who have accumulated power over the decades will just pass the baton in the interests of revitalisation? It’s strong coffee time. Leaders do not come out of a production line; they do not generally emerge fully trained out of institutions ready to take over the reins as part of a smooth succession plan. Certainly at history’s inflection points the old world does not play midwife to the new.

When Mahatma Gandhi emerged on the Indian scene, the land was in the grip of the world’s strongest empire. What funding, training or platforms was he given? When Nelson Mandela began his crusade that ultimately ended in the emancipation of his people, who was there to ease his task? Indeed, what aid and support did our own freedom fighters receive when they took to the forests? Far from being supported, all these people were beaten and jailed, and denounced as dangerous heretics – even by their own.

Let’s pause there. We live in a functioning democracy, and I am not for a moment advocating that any youngster needs to stone vehicles on the highway as a route to power in today’s age. Those are the ideas of feeble minds. But, if anyone wishes to play a role in the future of this country, they have to first step forward and get organised. For democracy to deliver a new order, the stewards of that order have to emerge and put forward their manifesto. Where are all the young wannabe politicians preaching the ideas of the new economy? Or did we all grow old in our teens?

Here’s something to help you. By some estimates, in 2007 nearly two out of every three voters will be aged under 40. Smelling the coffee yet? Do you have the philosophy that resonates with these voters? Do you have the ideas that will create growth in the era of nanotechnology? Do you have the determination to make change happen and make it stick? If you are the genuine article, you will be harnessing the biggest constituency of all. Step forward and make it happen – your time has come.

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