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It’s decision time. Let’s play big

“…one quality that leaders I admire have in common is knowing when to act decisively…Effective leadership inevitably means taking decisions – and often pretty tough ones at that. Good leaders have to have the drive and ambition to lead from the front. They don’t accept the necessity of always doing things the same way simply because no one else has bothered to see a different path. They continuously search for improvement, often in the face of some fairly vocal criticism from the outside.”

Allan Leighton, On Leadership (2007)

Allan Leighton is the iconoclastic former CEO of Britain’s ASDA supermarket chain, and currently the chairman of the Royal Mail Group. He has a great track record of unconventional success behind him; nevertheless, he set out to write a book about other great leaders – those of his peers that he holds in particular high regard.

The excerpt above zooms in on that key leadership attribute: decisiveness. A great leader does not wring his hands when it’s decision time. She does not keep analysing and consulting and procrastinating when the building is on fire. There is a time to act, and most good leaders take it with both hands.

That doesn’t mean they don’t get it wrong. They often do, but that failure causes learning which makes their future decisions better. The point is, they do something when it’s needed. They rise to the occasion, rather than shirk the moment.

We sorely need that kind of leadership right now. Any sober assessment of Kenya today would tell us that we are in deep, deep trouble. Never in our history have we been in so much trouble as a nation. Our very soul is at stake, as the fabric that kept us together was revealed to be threadbare and weak. Our ability to live together, keep talent within our borders and attract the world’s business is at stake. It doesn’t get any more fundamental than that.

It’s big picture time. A certain set of recent circumstances – a flawed election process, a non-credible outcome, cynically manipulated violence by militias and state forces – may have brought us here. Addressing those circumstances alone will not get us out again.

The leader of the moment is the one who will play big now, not play small. Playing small involves making trivial negotiations about immediate power sharing, posts and positions, ego trips and the like. Playing big means rescuing Kenya from the precipice by playing the long game – the game that rewards the next generation of Kenyans, not this one. It means playing for history, not for votes.

Is any Kenyan leader big enough to do that? Can any of them make the leap of imagination that requires them to read the history books that have yet to be written? Playing for history will mean doing something truly big for the nation: ending the violence; managing the healing; and setting the example of oneness. It means moving beyond today’s power plays and thwarted ambitions. It means climbing down from self-righteous positions. It means letting go of today’s reward in order to make the eternal gain – the gain that is bigger than self.

The very capable Mr Annan has started the negotiations. Now let those who know how to play big come to the table.

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