Nature vs nurture: Where leadership runs in the family

From left: Rongai MP Raymond Moi, Baringo Senator Gideon Moi, Bungoma Senator Moses Wetangu'la and West Lands MP Tim Wanyonyi. PHOTOS | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Both Mr Njoroge and Rev Muheria subscribe to the Opus Dei (Work of God) group within the Catholic Church, holding strongly to its ideals of living modestly and using every day work as a chance to minister.
  • The lastborn in the family, Gideon Moi, is the Baringo senator and the Kanu party leader, and he was handed the symbolic baton of leadership during his father’s burial in February.

It quickly becomes a conversation about nature versus nurture. While most families are known for producing one prominent leader, there are homes that produce more than one.

They raise siblings who hold leadership positions, small and big, wherever they go. And it often invites debate on whether they were born leaders or taught how to lead.

An example is the family of University of Nairobi (UoN) Vice Chancellor Kiama Gitahi. Prof Kiama is the fifth born in a family of nine children hailing from Othaya, Nyeri County. The eighth born is Dr Githinji Gitahi, a man who has held senior positions in Kenya’s corporate scene, and now heads Amref Health Africa, which has more than 1,000 employees implementing hundreds of projects across 30 countries in Africa.

Then there is Nyeri Archbishop Anthony Muheria. Since being ordained as a priest in 1993, he has held a number of leadership positions in the Catholic Church, among them being bishop of Embu (2003) and Kitui (2008). His appointment as Nyeri archbishop in 2017 happened two years after his brother Patrick Njoroge became the governor of the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK).

Mr Njoroge’s term as CBK boss was renewed in June 2019, placing him at the steering wheel of Kenya’s fiscal journey until the end of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s reign.

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Both Mr Njoroge and Rev Muheria subscribe to the Opus Dei (Work of God) group within the Catholic Church, holding strongly to its ideals of living modestly and using every day work as a chance to minister.


There is also the Wetangula pair comprising Bungoma Senator Moses Wetangula and his younger brother Tim Wanyonyi, the Westlands MP. Both have a background in law, and there is a time Mr Wanyonyi used to work in his elder brother’s law firm.

Mr Wetangula had his introduction to national politics by being nominated as a Kanu MP in 1992, a post he held until the 1997 General Election, when he was elected Sirisia MP. He was re-elected in subsequent elections until 2013 when he vied for and won the Bungoma senator seat, which he holds to date.

Mr Wanyonyi, on the other hand, joined elective politics in the 2013 General Election, clinching the Westlands MP seat that he retained in 2017. He had an incident with carjackers in 1998, which saw him shot in the back, leaving him paralysed from waist down.

Mr Wanyonyi subscribes to the ODM party while Mr Wetangula leads Ford Kenya. The Westlands MP told a local publication earlier this year that they do not discuss politics whenever they talk.

“When we meet, we discuss family issues. He knows my stand on this and cannot ask why I am not supporting Ford Kenya,” the MP said.

Still on the political front, the sons of former President Daniel arap Moi are holding various elective positions.

The lastborn in the family, Gideon Moi, is the Baringo senator and the Kanu party leader, and he was handed the symbolic baton of leadership during his father’s burial in February. The third born, Raymond Moi, is the MP for Rongai in Nakuru County. Both the Moi sons are allied to Kanu, the party through which their father ruled Kenya for 24 years.

So, are people born to be leaders or they learn the ropes as they grow? According to Mr Jeff Nthiwa, a Nairobi-based life coach, training is key.

“What I can tell you after coaching so many people to become extraordinary leaders is that leadership is not something you are born with or without. It is a skill that anyone can learn,” he told Lifestyle.

UoN scholar Purity Kithiru Gitonga delved on the matter in a 2006 project for her PhD.

“Theories of leadership other than the trait theory imply that leadership is a set of skills that can be learnt, developed and applied to organisational involvement and everyday life. Leadership is not an inherent trait. Leadership is for everyone,” she wrote in her project titled A Critical Analysis of the Meaning and Nature of Leadership.

“While there is no definitive agreement among the experts, it seems that leadership is a function of both nature and nurture. IQ and aptitude, which are largely innate, may determine the field that one enters, but not necessarily one’s success in that field,” she added.


“So, though leaders are gifted in some areas, those gifts and talents alone are not enough. Experience, correct choices and exposure to right situations are also key to leader development.”

The Gitahi brothers told Lifestyle that at least everyone in their family of four boys and five girls has had a leadership role somewhere, be it the church or the community.

“Looking at my siblings, they all have social leadership skills, but in terms of being in the public limelight, I would say it is the two of us — myself and my brother Kiama,” said Dr Githinji.

He added that the eldest brother, Dickens Ndirangu, has been in church leadership for years and at one point he vied unsuccessfully to be Embakasi MP against Muhuri Muchiri.

They believe their upbringing under their disciplinarian mother Teresa Wanjugu Gitahi, a Presbyterian Church believer who wanted all her children to get a good education, played a huge part in shaping them to be who they are.

Their mother was largely responsible for running the household because their father lived in Nairobi, running his tailoring business and a food kiosk opposite Muslim Girls in Ngara.

“Our mother was upcountry and she was a subsistence farmer, basically with under one acre of land. We grew a bit of coffee; a few bushes, then the rest of it was maize, beans, which we fed on,” recalled Dr Gitahi.

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He described her as a woman who did not hesitate to punish errant behaviour.

“She was a disciplinarian and would not allow us to mingle freely with people she thought were not of good standing or good discipline, even in the neighbourhood. If she found that the child you were hanging out with in her view was somebody who was wayward, she would make it her singular duty to see that friendship end, and I think that kind of shaped our early upbringing,” Dr Gitahi said.

Prof Kiama said the mother inculcated the spirit of working hard in the family.

“Our mother ensured we woke up very early to do a certain task, whether it is to pick coffee, going to get fodder for animals, going to look for firewood, cultivating the farm, harvesting potatoes or any other task,” he said.

And though none of their parents had had formal education, they ensured all their children went to school. All the nine went to Gatugi Primary School, which is near their home. That would be the start of a journey to Nyeri High (O-level) then later Mang’u High l (A-level) then UoN’s School of Medicine for Dr Gitahi.

For Prof Kiama, Gatugi Primary was the launching pad to Kenyatta High, then Nakuru High and later UoN’s College of Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences. After obtaining his veterinary medicine degree in 1990, he joined UoN as an assistant lecturer and rose to full-fledged lecturer status five years later.

He became a senior lecturer in 2002, an associate professor in 2012 and a full professor in 2016. During this time, he held various leadership roles among them being the associate dean of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (2003-2010) and being the principal of the College of Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences (2016 to February 2019).

His appointment as the UoN vice chancellor to succeed Prof Peter Mbithi took a dramatic turn when Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha negated his appointment, but he later retained the position. He officially took over office in June.

He spoke to ‘Lifestyle’ in between meetings.

So, who is the first person he informed when he learnt that he would be heading Kenya’s oldest and largest university?

“That was obviously my younger brother, Dr Githinji Gitahi,” he said, laughing heartily. The laughter was a clear illustration of why, in the village, their family is fondly known as the “laughing family”, or the family of ever-happy people.

Added Prof Kiama: “Even before I applied, he would say I would become VC because I had worked with him for a long time and mentored him quite a bi. We also share a lot as friends.”

As for Prof Kiama’s younger brother, being a medic was good, but he soon realised that he needed to nurture his leadership side more. After obtaining his medicine degree in 1996, during which time he had been the vice-chairman of the Association of Medical Students of the University of Nairobi, he practised briefly at Kenyatta National Hospital then left for the private sector, securing a job at Avenue Healthcare.

“I started working there as a medical officer in the outpatient. But over time, I think my leadership skills started to come up. So, whereas I was working, I started being given roles.”

“I began the job as a medical officer but started being given roles to manage the outpatient side, and the hospital. And that is how I developed my management skills,” he said.

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He also developed a passion for communication, and that drive saw him engage in radio interviews while working with medicine manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline.

While at GlaxoSmithKline, he developed an interest in marketing and decided to pursue a master of business administration (MBA) in the field. He would later be the Africa regional director for Smile Train International. Then he became the general manager for marketing and circulation in East Africa for the Nation Media Group, the company that publishes, among others, this newspaper and Taifa Leo that his father often carried whenever he returned home from the city.

He joined Amref Health Africa as the CEO in 2015 and has been at the helm since. His love for commenting on health matters has seen him take an elevated position during these times of the Covid-19 pandemic as he has been giving media interviews to discuss the deadly virus.

In all, Dr Githinji said the environment they grew in played a part in moulding them as leaders, and that their parents might have also transferred to them some leadership traits.

“My mother is highly respected in her local church. At some point, she was a treasurer collecting offertory. I remember thieves coming for it at one time,” he narrated, laughing.

“My father was also involved in leadership. Here in Nairobi as he did his tailoring and ran his kiosk, he was involved with local councillors and stuff,” he added.

Dr Githinji also believes that his mother’s steadfast faith played a part. “All of us grew up knowing that every Sunday you go to church,” he said. “Therefore, there was an element of fear of an unknown superpower that actually ruled over your life, and you knew that even if your mother didn’t see you, there was another power that saw you.” Being a large family where sharing was encouraged, Prof Kiama said, might have also contribute to moulding the leadership skills in the family.