Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Perspectives on leadership that delivers social and economic change

By Linus Gitahi
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The celebrated African writer and thinker Chinua Achebe in his watershed title, The Trouble With Nigeria, says:

The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership.

This is an apt prognosis of the African challenge and a subject of serious discourse. Leadership has a serious bearing on us as a society today and for generations to come. Leadership is a journey. In this journey, progress is made and sometimes we go backwards. Sometimes mistakes are made and other times great progress is made. But in all these, we take solace in Abraham Lincoln’s living statement: “I walk slowly, but I never walk backward.”

In this context, I would like to offer some perspectives on leadership that I think can more often than not lead to great progress, and which can transform a society in both social and economic terms. I would like to explore a few areas or imperatives for Leadership that can inspire and lead a society to the Promised Land.

Great leadership is selfless. In business, I have watched a few companies that have made it big time in this part of the world and quite frankly elsewhere as well. Equity Bank, arguably one of the biggest banks in East Africa, became what it is because of the selflessness of its founders.

They were willing to share their profits with the customers quite early, when they were a building society. I remember opening an account with them and a year later they were pleading with me to buy shares.

By the time they were going public, none of the founders had more than 10 per cent of the shares. Did it make them poorer? No! They have a small share of a big ocean, but most importantly it’s the institution in the region that has made the most millionaires and emancipated millions out of poverty.

On the political front, do we need any reminder of Nelson Mandela? A man who sacrificed his all to stay in isolation and endured much pain and suffering for 28 years despite offers for release coming every day provided he affirmed apartheid. He stayed on, kept the faith and ultimately triumphed, shamed the oppressors and brought glory to all South Africans—and has more statues built for him and institutions named after him outside South Africa than any other leader.

Great leadership is self-discipline. One of the greatest virtues of leadership that is often played down is discipline. Yet discipline defines character. It enables you to do the right thing at the right time and in the right way. Indeed, another legendary American President, Harry Truman, captured this vividly when he said thus:

"In reading the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they won was over themselves… self-discipline with all of them came first." 

This is one of the biggest challenges of our time. Discipline means allocating resources equally. Discipline means optimal resource use. Discipline is adhering to the principles of justice and fairness. Leaders who are not disciplined soon get exposed.

Everybody talks about Singapore and Korea having been at par with the East African countries in 1960 but because of the economic decisions they made, were catapulted to the ranks of the first nations. That’s true. However, few ever recognise and talk about their discipline. Inter alia they have created some of the cleanest cities in the world.

Great Leaders are accountable and transparent. They create accountability mechanisms for themselves and their followers. We are all humans and, as leaders, we must be acutely aware of the consequences of bad decisions or actions we make. We need to have systems that guard against temptation.

Accountability is generally high in the private sector. So we have these very good leaders in Africa who get to the top of the corporate ladder in the private sector. They then move on to politics and in fact become ministers. Soon after, you hear that they are being accused or are even convicted of corruption.

What changes? It is lack of systems in the public sector to make people pay for their actions. One can steal and get away with it. What is more, if you are caught, you can negotiate your way out. Little of that that happens in the private sector. So we must create a system where actions have consequences.

Leadership and democracy in Africa. The world is divided into two. We have the developed and the developing world. While we have great examples of great economic transformation in democratic states of the developed world, the sad reality is that we do not seem to have good examples of simultaneous democracy and economic transformation in developing countries.

When you look at the evolution of Singapore, Dubai, Taiwan, Korea and China, among others, they have registered rapid economic transformation, but through a hybrid model that can’t quite fit within the domains of democracy in the Western orientation.

China’s system is particularly intriguing. It has a way of getting very smart people to leadership who then set the pace for everybody else to follow. Some of us may not like it but China is set to be the biggest economy in the world in the next 10 years. They have overtaken a largely democratic country like India. Is there any lesson that Africa can learn from this?

It is that young leaders must actively engage in discussing the governance we want, and Africa must chart her own path and contribute a new form of democracy, instead of just taking what others have made for themselves. In the end, the critical point is that any good governance should rapidly move millions out of poverty – otherwise what good is it? 

Great Leadership stays true and promotes a society’s core cultural values and practices. There are three elements that define the fast industrialising countries of the world. These are food, clothing or language. These countries have one or more of them. Tanzania invested heavily in unifying the people around language. Is it any wonder that it has been the most stable country in the region?

Other countries like India, Nigeria and Senegal have a national dress that helps to define them. These are necessary social fabrics that bring people together. This is especially so for Africa where colonial boundaries ended up splitting and scattering communities like the case of Somalis in Kenya and Somalia.

Building national cohesion and a great sense of identity is an imperative and, in my view, observing and practising them is a great way of creating and driving a nation to prosperity. A good society that embraces these things can be seen from very far. The citizenry take pride in belonging and are the biggest ambassadors of the country to the outside world.

Great leadership must seek to offer a new paradigm in our trade practices. The economic theory of production states that for efficiency, goods and services must be produced in areas that offer the greatest comparative advantage. By doing so, you end up with products at best possible prices. However, this theory ignores one simple fact. That in many of our economies, we have idle labour in the form of unemployment.

In our society, when my brother is jobless, he lives with me and I feed him and give him the wherewithal to get around. Depending on me does not bestow my brother with any dignity. He may as well invest his time doing things that are illegal to gain independence from me. But that may have catastrophic consequences. In the meantime, I would be buying all my paper clips from China because it is 20 per cent more expensive to make them here.

Suppose the Government imposes a tax of 25 per cent on paper clips from China because we have set up a factory to do them right here. The result is that my brother will be gainfully employed but we will all pay 20 per cent more for paper clips than we were doing before. But we would have removed many folks from the street and given them dignified ways of earning a living.

That’s how China got to where it is today. You cannot export beef to Europe today although the Banyankole farmers in western Uganda can supply beef there at half the price. The European governments would not know how to deal with rioting farmers.

So great Leaders must help to redefine the terms of trade with the world. Africa is today exporting millions of jobs to the East especially because we have opened up too much and too far without even any reciprocity. Like Chinua Achebe once said: “While we do our good, let us not forget that real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.” Unfortunately this remains a core area of engagement with the developed world.

Great Leadership offers a great vision. Having a vision is the easier part. But having a vision that is inspirational and optimal for a society is often times the difficult part. Getting everyone to rally behind it is what would define great leaders.

Steve Jobs vision was to have a computer that could fit in the palm of a hand. He said it will not just be great, but insanely great! He continued working on it day after day and by the time of his death, the iPads and iPhones were great computers in the palm of a hand.

Leadership is also about critical thinking. Critical thinking is about asking questions, interrogating ideas and self-introspection. Society develops through new ideas. A great leader must be at the forefront of providing new ideas or most importantly, creating a conducive environment for new ideas.

The concept of innovation hubs is now with us, but how much do our leaders support them? Being a critical thinker means acknowledging one’s limitations, getting interested in other people’s ideas and thinking before acting.

Leadership and effective communication: Leadership brings people together and giving direction. To rally people towards a common cause, there must be effective communication. Effective communication helps us to understand each other and resolve differences. It breaks down complex issues to simple and easy-to-understand concepts. And communication is also about being a patient listener. To a large extent, the conflicts in Africa result from misunderstanding yet the costs on human life and resources are enormous.

Leadership, decision making – and the courage to quit: Any leader is daily confronted with the challenge of making decisions. This means that a leader must be discerning and intuitive when making decisions. At a time when economies are stagnating, African leaders must make critical decisions to transform their nations.

Rwanda, for example, has decided to anchor its development on technology and frankly, this has borne fruits given its rapid economic growth. But perhaps the most important decision any leader has to make, is knowing when to quit—as Mandela put it. Don’t hang on to a bad idea because of ego, or because you feel you will lose face by giving it up.

Having made these observations, I wish to conclude by saying that the destiny of this continent lies in the hands of young people like you. The choices and decisions that you make and how you communicate them, will determine the direction our nations will take. No longer should Africa be referred to a dark continent when we have brilliant and promising leaders like yourselves.

The boat is ready, take the oars and sail to the great seas. Let us remember though that the greatest leaders, even in religion, were the ones who were driven by a higher value, greater than themselves and who lived day by day, moment by moment to make the world a little better.

I leave you with one last quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

Mr Gitahi is the Chief Executive Officer of Nation Media Group.