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Ideas & Debate

Leaders ought to be fair and avoid short-term wins

Leaders ought to be fair and avoid short-term
Leaders ought to be fair and avoid short-term wins. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

I’m recently back from London, where for a few days I witnessed up close the vacuum of responsible leadership in relation to the endless Brexit saga. Ironically, I was following the daily conflict and confusion while being there for an event to launch the Institute for Responsible Leadership, of which I am a founder.

How incongruous it was to be among business and government leaders, senior academics and UN officials, talking about long-term sustainability at a time when British political leaders have been manoeuvring endlessly in support of short-term party and individual interests.

Well, that’s how it was, but let me just focus on our event, and in particular on my topic at the launch; the link between responsible leadership and emotional intelligence.

I first drew attention to the contemporary tug of war between those who succumb to short-term sub-optimisation and those who find the strength to take a longer-term view – those who, as Thomas Friedman put it, have thought through their “second paragraph.”

The here-and-now short-termists in the corporate world allow themselves to be dominated by the “tyranny of the quarter” or at best the year, building their personal CVs before moving on to the next pyrrhic victory; while the political players (those on the current UK scene being prime examples) are concerned with victory in the next election, seducing voters with unrealisable populist promises.

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Both groups use their undoubted emotional intelligence to further immediate selfish goals and, thanks to attributes that may well include charm and bullying, they often succeed. This though while lacking that other essential ingredient of moral uprightness, which sooner or later will be the cause of their undoing.

Such people assume a world where win-lose is inevitable, and so they’d better end up as winners rather than losers in the zero-sum adversarial game in which they are convinced they play.

In this environment of survival-of-the-fittest, of one driven by the quest for selfish instant gratification, we see emerging trade wars, ever-rising inequality, disrespect for the environment, and other ills that can only end in tears for us all.

By contrast, the role of responsible leaders is to apply their emotional intelligence to bringing people together around a longer-term view that builds sustainability. This requires consensus-builders, mediators, people who nurture high-trust give-and-take cultures that over time result in an adequacy of win-win for all the stakeholders in the organisations and societies in which they operate.

Being in London I thought it would be good to draw attention to our African concept of Ubuntu, which proclaims “I am because we are.” And I quoted that paragon of emotional intelligence, Desmond Tutu, who described Ubuntu as ‘the very quality of being human.’

I also shared that within our admittedly predominantly low-trust Kenyan society there are plenty of healthy sub-cultures, ones where responsible leaders with high emotional intelligence have brought their followers together around common visions and values to build healthy, sustainable organisations.

A great example is Safaricom, with its focus on purpose beyond profit, on doing well by doing good, and there are many others beside this ultimate role model.

Those gathered at the University of Westminster, where the launch of our Institute for Responsible Leadership took place, were more than likely already adherents to the cause. So our question to them was how can we work together to expand our collective circle of influence.

How can we develop a critical mass of responsible leaders who accept that for us to get to our promised land of sustainability we must be fair to all our stakeholders, frequently holding back from easy short-term wins that end up being self-defeating.

A key speaker at the launch was a director of UNITAR, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, enthusiastic supporters of the initiative. He spoke in the context of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, seeing the need for collaboration among responsible leaders within and between the government and the private sector.

The next event to be organised by our Institute will be in February 2020, again in London. But our concept is determinedly global, and this certainly does not exclude Africa… or Kenya.

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