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Ideas & Debate

Leadership character can be used positively to empower others

ideas, brain
Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to be a panelist on NTV’s am Live Friday morning Leadership Forum, and when anchor Debarl Inea told me the theme would be “Leadership Character” I began thinking about how to fill the few minutes I would be given within the programme to present on the subject.

My mind immediately went to the World Cup football match between Colombia and England I had watched a few days before, in which the Colombian players behaved with uninhibited aggression against their opponents, not least when English players looked like striking at goal.

Yellow card followed yellow card, and then a penalty was awarded against the spoilers, showing them that their inability to hold back from manhandling the English players did not pay.

Thanks to the presence of the referee, and hence to bad character being penalised, the more restrained English carried the day. Then, as I drove to Nation Centre for the early morning show, even at that pre-dawn hour I encountered numerous examples of rude driving, and not just by matatus. Gratuitously ignoring priority, lane discipline or any kind of courtesy, wherever such road-hogs saw the opportunity to jump ahead of others they took it, with no second thought.

So finding the strength to hold back from doing the wrong thing became the mantra for my slot about what it takes to be of good character. The next examples I talked about that morning were positive ones, first about the faculty at KCA University.

Just the day before, as chairman of its University Council, I had told the Commission for University Education committee carrying out their five-year audit about how our staff have launched numerous initiatives to become really lean, making great sacrifices in time and money, taking more courses with no extra pay, understanding it was to build a stronger future for the university and for themselves.

They showed great character, as did the university leadership in leading the way and inspiring them to such mature behaviour.

Next I went back to my time as general manager of a British IT multinational in the late seventies, when my mzungu bosses expected me to be the feared macho manager, the Big Man who gave instructions and whose word was law. Somehow, I found the strength to defy them by trusting my people, empowering and supporting them, against the inclinations of my superiors… who therefore saw me as “weak and indecisive”.

Rising to the national level I hammered the kind of win-lose leadership character embraced by the likes of Trump and Turkey’s Erdogan, leaders who lack the strength to hold back from stirring up their bases against “the other”… an approach likely to end up in lose-lose.

I contrasted these disrupters to win-win consensus-builders such as Obama, Trudeau and Macron, who bring their people together around a higher purpose and shared uplifting values. I also praised our local “Handshake” duo, while condemning all our politicians who take the easy way to electoral victory by appealing to ethnic loyalties and treating their supporters “generously”. These supporters meanwhile are fully aware of who would make the better leader, the one who would bring development and improve services. But most lack the strength to hold back from casting their vote for an ethnic posturer, and a cash-spreading one at that.

I concluded by reading the quotation by Henry Ford from the back page of the day’s Business Daily that ‘Quality means doing it right when no one is looking’. (As, by coincidence, was previewed earlier by my fellow panelist Gituro Wainaina.) I and my fellow panelists agreed that it is the leaders above all who must find the strength to hold back from doing the wrong thing, and it is they who must inspire others to do so – ensuring there are rewards for behaving with good character and penalties for falling short.

Around the time I was writing this article I watched a CNN programme on Washington DC in which this quote from Abraham Lincoln featured: ‘Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.’ Including testing their power to hold back from doing the wrong thing.

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