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Leadership requires an enabling environment

Jan 01, 2006 Daily Nation, Leadership

If there’s one thing guaranteed to excite Kenya’s chattering classes, it’s the issue of leadership. Our leaders let us down every time, they complain. We have such great things going for us as a country; we should be a Singapore or a South Korea (or at least a Botswana). But we keep voting in the wrong people, they moan. If only we could get the right people in, we would go places, they recommend.

Some go further. They argue that we actually need a “benevolent dictator” in Kenya: a no-nonsense, low-tolerance over-achiever who will grab the economy by the belt and haul it into the 21st century. This theory calls for a president cast in the mould of Singapore’s former leader, Lee Kuan Yew; Chelsea Football Club’s Jose Mourinho; or GE Corporation’s legendary former CEO, Jack Welch. We may have to forgo some rights and freedoms temporarily, but we will reap the rewards in the long run. Or so the argument goes.

Caution. Larger-than-life, heroic leaders are the stuff of everyone’s legends. We are an icon-worshipping species, and seem to need individuals to look up to and be inspired by: leaders, gurus, achievers, celebrities. But we need to look behind the myths to understand what underlies leadership and achievement before we offer bold prescriptions for Kenya.

The first myth to debunk is that heroes (or heroines) matter because they did it alone. Singapore’s Lee was no lone ranger; neither was Britain’s “Iron Lady”, Margaret Thatcher. Both cultivated strong teams of like-minded advisors around them: Lee had Goh Keng Swee and Hon Sui Swen; Thatcher depended heavily on Keith Joseph, Cecil Parkinson, Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe.

That is true in Kenya as well. What we remember fondly as “Kenyatta” may actually have been Mboya, Koinange, Mungai and Njonjo, amongst many others. We have a tendency to focus on the central individual and forget the team. Nelson Mandela was the iconic figure in the new South Africa of the 1990s, but there were dozens of very able senior figures working behind the scenes to pull off the political and economic transformation of that country.

Any leading CEO will confirm this: it is the highly motivated, unusually effective team that delivers transformations, not the chief. Yet the leader has a critical role: to keep this team on a high-performance trajectory; and to keep replenishing skills. Modern management thought backs this up: the outstanding leader must be a competent designer, steward and teacher – not a lead-from-the-front-and-die-with-the-troops headline grabber. And recent research has confirmed that those who lead companies that enjoy sustained success are usually of a humble mien – and no less effective for it.

So we are on the right path in Kenya when we demand a CEO-type leader; but let us understand very clearly what that actually means. The executive skills we need in our top men and women are these: the ability to conceptualise a lucid vision for the country; clear thinking skills to design the right high-level strategic initiatives; consummate communications capabilities so that the vision and strategy can be simplified and translated, for the great mass of people to embrace them; and the capacity to exemplify the behaviours and social norms needed in the nation.

Yet even an outstanding chief executive for the country will only be as good as the institutions that support – and monitor – that person. The world’s established economies are only able to survive the effects of the occasional poor leader because they are protected by robust institutions. The USA withstood Richard Nixon’s illegal activities in the 1970s precisely because its media, legislature and judiciary were able to provide independent scrutiny and countervailing power. In Africa, without good institutions to save us, we will suffer the effects of megalomaniacs and plunderers for decades.

Without effective institutions, great leadership will remain pie in the sky. And those looking for benevolent dictators should be worried: have we not seen enough amazing transformations during the Narc era, of the former champions of human rights and reform now becoming the reactionary enforcers of the old order?

Leadership cannot be evaluated independently of the moral fabric of the nation. George Van Valkenburg’s famous definition of a leader is the person who “does the right thing even when no-one’s looking”. Great leaders emerge from, and reinforce, great national values. Lee was able to draw upon his compatriots’ latent qualities of hard work and perseverance. Seretse Khama had the benefit of a Botswana people who valued peacefulness and traditional community spirit above most other things. These values provided the iron from which a national strategy was forged.

What do we value in Kenya that a future president will utilise? The way forward for Kenya will very likely require values such as thrift, hard work, tolerance, a national outlook. Do we have these things? If not, let us not hold our breath waiting for a leader to deliver us from under-achievement. If ethnic suspicion, apathy and get-rich-quick dreams are all that we have to offer, then no leader can help us.

Great leaders flourish where there are strong institutions, good people and robust values. If we do not build these things, not even a combination of Bill Gates and Mother Teresa will make a difference here.

Lastly, let us never forget what leadership is for. The famous economist John Kenneth Galbraith remarked that great leaders have always had “the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time”. The great anxiety of Kenyans in our time is undoubtedly the failure of economic development. We have failed to tackle widespread poverty.

That is the challenge facing anyone stepping forward to offer themselves for leadership: to have a vision and a plan to lift the people out of crippling poverty; and to have the management skills to deliver results. That is what we must demand of leaders, and that is how we must measure their success.

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