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What the VIP lift says about leadership

Oct 05, 2008 Leadership, Sunday Nation

If you walk into one of the many government-owned high-rise buildings in Nairobi, or one that houses government bodies, you will notice a strange phenomenon: the VIP Lift.

This is, quite simply, an elevator reserved only for Very Important People; or, sometimes, only for one Very Important Person. Presidents, Prime Ministers and Vice-Presidents of course qualify to enter this lift; so, generally speaking, do cabinet ministers, parastatal heads and permanent secretaries. The VIP Lift is kept reserved for VIPs and it usually has a red carpet inside. Perhaps even some wood panelling.

The rest of the world piles into the Common Man’s Lift. This is the standard grubby cage that carries a dozen or more people at a time up and down the storeys of power. Thousands of people enter the Common Man’s Lift on a given day, while the VIP Lift might rarely be used (VIPs don’t come to office much).

Why am I pointing this out this Sunday? Because it shows up the absolutely flawed model of leadership that we are following in this country. It is rare to find the VIP Lift in private-sector buildings, because they make no financial sense. There are some exceptions, of course: the private sector has a few monster egos lurking, but they are thankfully few and far between.

What is the flawed model? Quite simply, the one that thinks that leadership is about the leader, not the followers. We are conditioned to imagine that we want to aspire to leadership because it will be good for US. We will get pay, perks, status and VIP Lifts. People will swoon when we arrive somewhere, and will start falling over and running around after us. We will have large offices we will rarely use, and will receive curtained limousines and lots of foreign travel of no discernible benefit.

It’s great to be a leader, in other words, because it’s great for me. That is utterly the wrong way of looking at it. Leadership is only great when it’s great for the followers. A leader’s only true achievement is the betterment of the lives of followers. A genuine leader is in place to serve, to guide, to inspire, to manage emotions, to offer direction and act with wisdom.

Since when did getting into your own lift make you wiser?

This flawed model of leadership has real consequences. It creates a great distance between leader and follower, and it takes only a short while before the leader is unable to even imagine the nuances of the life of the follower. The leader soon has no clue what the ordinary grunt goes through every day: the struggle to get to work; to fill the stomach; to fight a losing battle against inflation.

It also gives leaders a fake aura of greatness. The leader is great because he has the convoy of limos; because he has three secretaries, two drivers and two messengers; because he has his own lift. He is NOT great because of achievements that have benefited his followers; he is ennobled by his accoutrements, not his accomplishments.

This matters, because it is the model that leads ultimately to the creation of a Robert Mugabe. Anything that separates leaders from followers eventually causes dysfunction and ineptitude. Egotistical leadership has led to the impoverishment of millions.

This self-importance is consuming many a leader in Kenya. It is what causes leaders to become so chained to the trappings of high office that they will not resign in any circumstances, and will withstand condemnation and ridicule rather than step down. It is what causes our nabobs to go to a coastal hotel just to write a report, rather than sit at a desk to do it, like ordinary people would.

The true leader is an altogether different animal. He is emotionally in tune with his followers, and understands their lives and contexts. She is highly aware of what her followers need in order to uplift themselves. Great leaders feel their greatest pride when they have enabled great progress for those they lead and serve. There is nothing else that matters.

Who will fix this? Obviously, only the followers can. We are as much the problem as the leaders are. Why do we swoon with fake delight when a bigwig walks into the room? Why do we accept the ridiculous amounts of money spent on just making egomaniac leaders feel good about themselves? Why do we ignore budgetary allocations made so that leaders (and their families) can live in absurd luxury and comfort, in a country that still can’t build roads and supply water to all corners?

Let us stop getting carried away by delusions of rapid enrichment. We are not a rich country, and will not be one anytime soon. It doesn’t matter what your personal net worth is – you’re still a pygmy on the world stage because of the state of the country you have emerged from. The VIP lift takes you nowhere worth going.

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