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Leadership begins at home

May 18, 2008 Leadership, Sunday Nation

Business leaders have been asking a question repeatedly since January 2008: “What am I going to do with my staff? After all the ethnic strife and bloodshed, some of them don’t want to sit with each other on the same table. There is mistrust and acrimony in the air, all over my company. All that team-building, gone up in smoke…what shall I do?”

The last CEO to ask me that question received a brusque reply: “Why don’t you just close down your company?” Harsh, I know, but there was a point I was making. The more reasoned response is as follows: “When did you stop being a leader? Just because the country has ethnic problems, is that a reason for you to abdicate your leadership role? Who, other than you, can solve this? Why can’t you set the example and lead the way to communal harmony, in your company? Why can’t your organisation become a model of what Kenya could be? Is it not within your power to demonstrate a higher calling to Kenyans than mere ethnicity?”

I am always surprised by how few Kenyans there are (including leaders) who want to take responsibility for events. Our ethnic conflagration was not our fault, it was someone else’s. The British, the Americans, the global media, tribal warlords, rapacious leaders, primordial anger, dumb natives – there’s always a scapegoat we can find. But we educated, business-minded, sophisticated, urbane managers can never be responsible for such a thing, can we?

Oh really? Then why were we the ones gleefully sending on hate-filled text messages and e-mails? Why were we donating funds for ethnic militias? Why are we the ones who can’t discuss anything with any fellow Kenyans until we know their name and home area – so that we can proceed with an armload of prejudices and stereotypes? And why, when we could see the negative ethnicity present all around us for years, did none of us ever step forward to do something about it?

Give it a break, people. That song is out of tune. We all live in this country; we must all take responsibility for its state and do something about it.

So, there are you are sitting at the board table with your top team before you. You see that your Luo executives are counting the number of Kikuyu at the table for ‘enslaving’ them, and the Kikuyu are glaring with barely disguised resentment at the Kalenjin, for dispossessing them and taking ‘their’ property.

What should you do? Be a leader! Whatever you do, don’t do nothing. Don’t let these feelings simmer: they’ll boil over one day and turn very ugly. Face the demon, and bring it out into the open. When it is removed from the darkness, you’ll see that it is a rather small and not very scary animal.

Appeal to your team’s higher nature, the one that transcends tribe and birthplace. Everyone has such a higher nature – without it we would be beasts of the jungle. Banish and outlaw boorish, bigoted behaviour in the organisation – and punish it ruthlessly if it happens. But also understand the resentments that cause this sort of thing: pay deep attention, and focus on the child inside the adult who feels thwarted and belittled.

Some leaders are able to do this just fine. At Bidco’s Thika refinery, ethnic problems flared up in January just as they did everywhere else. But at Bidco they weren’t allowed to escalate. When communities started exchanging ultimatums, the leadership team swung into full gear. Company-wide meetings were called to denounce the threats. The police and the local MP were brought in to quell misgiving and unease. All employees were given mobile phone numbers to call, day or night.

In addition, Bidco employees held hands and sang the national anthem every morning, in addition to their regular ‘Kaizen’ pledge. Staff members were encouraged to speak freely about their fears and anger, and issues were discussed openly. Needless to say, the problem did not last long at Bidco. The company is one Kenya’s most admired businesses, and aims to be an Africa market leader very soon. Are you surprised?

We are all given a sphere of influence in our lives. Few can affect the entire nation, but most of us have a spouse, a family, a neighbourhood, a community, an organisation. We can extend great influence in this arena. We can set an example, and we can show a better way. We can instil good values, and talk the good talk. But do we do it? Mostly, no. We sit back and let madness build around us, without for a moment thinking through the consequences of our inaction.

Will President Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila and Minister Karua deliver national healing and reconciliation? Is that what we are waiting for – commissions of enquiry, national task forces, fine words? Or are we – you and I – going to embrace each other, do the right thing and spread the right message?

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