Opinion and Analysis
Diverse experiences shape leadership style
Posted Wednesday, July 4 2012 at 18:50
At a recent workshop I asked the leaders of a large NGO to share their first leadership experience.
I heard lovely stories, many going back to school days, and some even from primary years. I heard about looking after naughty siblings; about graduating from stealing avocadoes and leading schoolboy rebellions to becoming promoters of discipline and integrity; and about struggling with student leadership in the days when universities were not exactly enabling environments.
The participants were curious to hear from me too, and I readily confessed that I was never a leader in my early years.
A solid member of groups, yes, but never “the boss.” Not being great at field games I never captained cricket or rugby teams. (I loved racket sports – tennis, badminton and table-tennis – where only self-leadership is needed.)
As often as not it was those who were good at sports who became prefects, so I was never a prefect either. At university too the question of me and leadership never arose. I was not involved in student politics, and there were few other opportunities to lead —certainly not on a badminton court.
Upon graduating I joined a large British computer company, and after a couple of years I became a sales executive for large accounts.
This experience taught me about how to exert leadership over the support staff on whom I depended… without having any formal authority over them. And ever since I have urged many who aspired to lead others to first manage major sales campaigns and major accounts as I once did.
After time at business school I was placed in an aggressively anti-intellectual environment, where the worst thing I could do was to apply anything I had learned in my programme.
The hard men in HR felt I needed to come down to earth with a thud, and that’s exactly what I did, managing a small team of people who were far older than me, men who scorned the fancy academic theories they imagined I might spout at any moment.
Instead of placing me where I could use what I had learned, I had virtually to feel ashamed of my time of study, hide it away, like some disease from which I needed to be purged.
It was my first taste of man-management, but I had nothing I could teach to these tough old warhorse-salesmen who reported to me, and I had little to gain from them. I was very miserable.
My real baptism in leadership came when I landed in Nairobi in 1977, to manage my company’s Kenyan subsidiary. Finding myself responsible for a staff of about 100, my intuition led me to select a small portfolio of tools through which to develop my neophyte management team.
First and foremost there was the I’m OK – You’re OK, Parent-Adult-Child, Win-Win framework that has stood me in such good stead ever since.
Then I called on Maslow and his Hierarchy of Needs; Herzberg and his Motivation-Hygiene theory; and MacGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y. Finally I pulled out the Management by Objectives discipline, the closest we got to visions and balanced scorecards in those days.
Two external opportunities arose during my early years in Kenya that seriously accelerated my development as a leader.