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True leadership connects with the people

Sep 11, 2005 Leadership, Sunday Nation

Jose Mourinho is the manager of Chelsea Football Club, the world’s richest such institution. It is bankrolled by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovitch, and has spent record-breaking amounts in the transfer market. So strong is the Chelsea squad of superstars that many analysts predict a long period of total dominance of world football.

Yet the real star is manager Mourinho. He has lit up the normally staid English Premiership managerial scene since his arrival from Portugal last year. He is outspoken, brash, arrogant and provocative. Such is his confidence in himself that some think he suffers from a “God-complex”. Yet his no-nonsense approach and ability to build a team that plays for him took Chelsea to the Premiership title in his first season in charge.

Mourinho does not brook any dissent. When key defender Ricardo Carvalho was dropped recently, the unfortunate player took the bold step of taking his disappointment to the press. Mourinho’s response was brutal and unequivocal. He immediately questioned Carvalho’s mental health and intelligence in public, and then gave him a severe carpeting in front of the entire squad. Mr. Carvalho appears destined for a long spell on the substitutes’ bench.

Why am I telling you a long football story this Sunday? Because a friend raised an interesting issue: does Kenya need a Mourinho in 2007? Or rather: does our underachieving nation and stuttering economy actually demand a larger-than-life, no-holds-barred overachiever? To set an ambitious vision, whip us into shape, grab us by the scruff of the neck and take us, kicking and screaming, to first-world status?

A Mourinho-type personality would certainly do many things for us. He would be very sure of the direction this country needs to take, and what its priorities should be. He would tolerate no nonsense from his cabinet – you’re either with him or against him. Dissenting ministers would be dressed down during full cabinet session. The economy would be given a totally strict ‘system’ to follow to ensure growth – and no wavering or u-turns would be permitted. Would such a man Kenyan take us where we need to go?

There are precedents. Lee Kuan Yew was exactly that sort of president in Singapore, ruling from 1959 to 1990. During that period he took the country from third-world status to first – all in the space of one generation. Singapore is a tiny, resource-poor nation with nothing going for it; yet it now enjoys a per-capita GDP comparable to Britain’s. This “miracle” is synonymous in history with the name of Lee Kuan Yew.

Lee was undoubtedly the visionary and architect at the centre of Singapore’s success. Fiercely intelligent and remarkably determined, he set the example and provided the direction to Singaporeans. Yet, like Mourinho, he was notoriously intolerant of opposing views. He stated that he would rather be feared than loved. His critics dismiss him as elitist and autocratic. He tolerated neither a free press nor political opposition. But he gave Singaporeans unprecedented and rapid economic success. A citizenry that found its average income growing so rapidly did not stop to complain about political freedoms.

Lee had his soul-mate across the world in the form of Margaret Thatcher, who coincidentally also relinquished leadership in 1990. Thatcher, the famed “Iron Lady” of Britain, also took no prisoners. Strident, overbearing, arrogant – all these epithets applied, and worse ones were used by her opponents. Yet she hauled her country up from disarray – the “sick man of Europe”, as it was branded in the late 1970s – to vibrant economic health. And by the time she left the stage 11 years later, Britain was a revitalised country with a new-found belief in entrepreneurialism and personal initiative.

So is this what we need, a Kenyan of the ilk of Lee, Thatcher or Mourinho to haul us up by our bootstraps? It is not that we have not experienced strong leadership: both Kenyatta and Moi were very dominant leaders in their time, yet oversaw economic stagnation. A strong, larger-than-life personality is not the only ingredient in successful leadership. There are many counter-examples. Manmohan Singh is a soft-spoken, visibly humble leader – yet he has probably done more than anyone to modernise India’s economy and lay the foundations for its remarkable recent growth. Seretse Khama was, by all accounts, a mild-mannered and gentlemanly figure, but that did not prevent him from steering Botswana to remarkable economic growth. These are very successful leaders who share the collegiate style and tolerant mien of President Kibaki.

So what can we learn about leadership and economic growth? There are two traits common to all successful leaders: they are able to connect with the abiding anxiety of their people, and they are able to harness the values inherent in the citizenry to produce economic success.

Lee did not introduce Singaporeans to hard work, thrift and dedication – those were already embedded deep in their psyche, just waiting for the right leader to draw them out and use them for economic advantage. Thatcher did not teach self-respect and national pride to the British – she merely restored those qualities by amplifying them at national level. Khama was in charge of a people who valued humility and community spirit above other things, and he made sure that his economic vision leveraged and reflected those core values.

It is the people who create economic growth, not leaders. Yet the leader’s contributions are critical. First, to be the designer of a national vision that draws on the power of the values of the people; second, to nurture, develop and safeguard that vision; and third, to create the framework of freedoms and incentives in the economy that allows the vision to be achieved. A leader releases his or her people to perform. Browbeating them or mollycoddling them is merely a question of style; the real leadership is in other things.

Personal example is vital. All the successful leaders walk their talk. The populace could see and feel the personal values of a Lee, a Thatcher, a Khama, a Singh and a Mandela. They lived their values in their daily lives. And when those values reflect the ideals and standards of the greater population, you have the seeds of an economic takeoff. This ingredient is perhaps the most important one in successful economic leadership.

A leader is more than someone who decides unilaterally and preaches unconvincingly. Modern organisational theory tells us that sustained success comes from a leader who is willing to design, to teach and to nurture. Look behind the legend of all the successful leaders, and you will see these traits. A yearning for a special, heroic leader is a reflection of our own feeling of powerlessness – our own inability to create a personal vision, our own failure to control the forces of change.

Kenya has no shortage of good values. They are merely hidden beneath layers of dust created by mismanagement and wrong example. If we can work on our own personal principles, a leader will soon emerge to weave them together into the fabric of true nationhood. Our task as individuals must be to create the environment that allows such a one to emerge naturally from amongst us.

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