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Are Kenya’s tyres connected to its steering wheel?

Dec 20, 2009 Strategy, Sunday Nation

A board member with whom I was discussing his company made me laugh out loud recently. When I asked him how effective his board’s policy formulations were, he told me, with refreshing honesty: “You know, sometimes I wonder whether the steering wheel is really connected to the tyres…”

Hilarious imagery: a bunch of important personages sitting at the wheel of a car and steering it left and right; but seated beneath them, hidden from view, is the person holding the REAL steering wheel, the one whose movements the vehicle actually responds to. So the pompous chaps at the top might actually be steering thin air…

When I stopped laughing, I wondered whether this reflects the reality of most large organisations. We pay a lot of attention to the people at the top, and think that they are in control. But large, complex entities usually take on a life of their own. The systems, processes and cultures that are embedded into the organisation actually rule everything; the people occupying key offices are often only symbolically in charge.

I watch ambitious chief executives trying to create cultural change in ‘frozen’ organisations, and I see all these efforts usually ending in abject failure. The object they are trying to move is immovable – or only pretends to move. And many such leaders leave in frustration, while the immovable object stays where it is.

I recently observed senior executives of a top multinational trying to make an urgent payment to a valued supplier whose invoice had been swallowed up by the system. The embarrassed executives issued frenzied directives and stern commands to try and override the system, which was blocking the payment. To no avail whatsoever: the process was cast in stone and its supporting IT system was hosted overseas. Nothing would circumvent it. This would be a good thing if the system was a good one; but it is not.

I also began to realise something bigger: that Kenya itself may have tyres not connected to the steering wheel. In recent years, this country has spiralled out of control. Its systems and bureaucracies have taken over, and its leaders are only nominally in charge.

Watch what happens whenever we have a national crisis (which means every day): horrific crime waves; environmental disasters: internally displaced persons; endemic corruption; compromised public examinations; woeful disaster management systems; the list is endless. What we usually see is the president or prime minister or relevant cabinet minister coming out before the cameras to “issue a directive” to the organs of state to do the needful. The leader then slinks back and…nothing happens.

So we have heard various directives of late: for IDPs to be resettled immediately; for the police to end the crime wave and disarm all militias; for squatters big and small to vacate the Mau forest; for exam cheating to be ended; for judicial reform to be fast-tracked. I hope you haven’t been holding your breath, for these directives are issued into the ether. The bigwigs make a big show of spinning the steering wheel, but the tyres have no intention of moving.

This is a rank failure in leadership. In the Kenyatta and Moi era, it was unthinkable for a direct command from the top to be disobeyed. The system punished severely those who failed to implement directives. Yet, that alone did not make those presidents good leaders; the steering wheel may have been connected to the tyres, but the country was not taken anywhere good.

We tired of that over-emphatic driving style, and soon the tyres began to detach from the steering system. Command-and-control has been replaced by anarchy, apathy and self-interest. Which commands are going to be heeded by our grotesquely malformed organs of state, whose only interest is the pursuance of the status quo?

What have we forgotten? We have mistaken leadership for word, not action. A leader’s job does not end in commanding someone to do something; it involves making sure the damn thing is done! Things get done when a number of conditions are met. First, that rules exist to govern behaviour, and are enforced. Second, that good work is rewarded, and inaction punished.

Third, that leaders and doers are part of the same team, and their success or failure is collective. Fourth, that there are enough people in the system in key places whose focus is on gain for all and on the long term, rather than on immediate self-aggrandisement. Fifth, that there is a system for measuring results that is made public, to focus attention on outputs, not intentions.

And lastly and most importantly we need leaders who understand that there is more to leadership than issuing proclamations from pulpits. A real leader is one who lives amongst his followers, enthuses them with a cause, imposes order in their lives, and personally delivers the results that matter. Until that happens, our tyres are going to keep spinning in the sand.

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