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Lessons in leadership from a true elder

Mar 25, 2007 Leadership, Sunday Nation

This is a year in which we’re going to select new leaders in Kenya. That’s why we should take lessons in what leadership really means; from wherever we can get them, and long before we go to the polls.

John Adair was in town recently, at the invitation of the British Council. He is the world’s first Professor of Leadership Studies, and a top authority on the subject of leadership and leadership development. This soft-spoken, quietly confident man eschews the title of ‘guru’, but there is no doubt that he is one – in the original Sanskrit sense, which means one who guides others from darkness into light.

Professor Adair is no high-decibel, in-your-face kind of management guru, however; he is quiet, thoughtful and methodical. He seems to come from a bygone era – a more serene, more contemplative one – and listening to him made me realise what we lose when we no longer have ‘elders’ we can respect in our society. His message – gleaned from a lifetime of thinking about what makes leaders great – is worth sharing with all Kenyans.

The first thing he noted is that it is a fallacy to think of leaders as being those at the very top of nations or organisations. Leadership is exercised at all levels, and leaders are found on all rungs of the ladder. The person at the top – the ‘strategic leader’ – has a special role, no doubt, but let us never forget that there are leaders at operational level, and also at the level of the team. Leadership is happening – or not – on many planes. We must therefore get away from the flawed tendency to focus on who’s sitting at the top of the tree.

What are the qualities of a leader – what should we observe in their demeanour and their work? Prof. Adair says courage is a necessary condition – leadership is not for the faint of heart, or the weak of will. Other qualities might also cause us to accept a particular leader: enthusiasm for the task; integrity; fairness; warmth; humility; the setting of example, amongst others.

Situations can also bestow leadership – rank or status, for example, are often in themselves thought of as leadership. We often fall prey to this tendency in this country: the person with the large house, flashy car or many acolytes is the leader, full stop. No other qualifications needed. Prof. Adair advises us to think more holistically about leadership: not just what leaders need to BE, but what they need to KNOW and what they need to DO. Qualities and knowledge must be applied to have any effect other than the academic.

So we must emphasise the work of leaders – not just their qualities. And make no mistake, a true leader has plenty to do. He or she must plan – set objectives and action plans; initiate actions; control tempo and standards; support and encourage; evaluate performance; and take corrective action. We would do well to remember that list of functions when we listen to all those announcing their presidential ambitions. Assuming leadership is not an achievement; it is the beginning of what should be a busy life.

Leadership, in other words, is no minor matter. There is method to understanding it. Prof. Adair has given us a framework with which to assess leaders. One of the things we must do is to reject those who disdain knowledge. Those who attend only the university of experience, notes the good professor, will be too old when they graduate – and the fees will have been too high!

Equally, let us look out for those who understand the subtler qualities found in the best leaders. We are being assailed by those whose egos have turned them into maniacs, and those whose love affairs with their own voices are reaching fever pitch. At a time like this, we would do well to reflect on the wisdom of Dag Hammarskjold, the UN Secretary-General who lost his life in a plane crash on a peace mission to Africa: “Your position never gives you the right to command. It only imposes on you the duty of so living your life that others may receive your orders without being humiliated.” A subtle wisdom that we have yet to see in the candidates lining up before us, I fear.

Lastly, let us understand that leadership is not developed by the mere act of sitting on a particular chair for decades. We need to see more than just grey hairs on the heads of those we select. If you’ve had a leader for 30 years, did you really experience 30 different years, or just the same year 30 times? A pertinent question to ask, and put even better in the form of an African proverb quoted by John Adair to much hilarity: “No matter how long a log of wood lies in the water, it doesn’t become a crocodile!”

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