I’m fed up. Fed up with the inability of so many Kenyans to even acknowledge, never mind celebrate, their achievements and the strengths that explain them. I’ve been unhappy about this debilitating national hang-up ever since I arrived here, back in 1977, and I referred to it in one of my very first articles in this column, back in 2007, in the context of performance appraisals.
Self-exploration is such a minority sport in Kenya that very few people have any experience of it. They are poor at it, awkward with it, and so find all sorts of reasons to deny its very legitimacy. The culture has taught Kenyans that it is unacceptably immodest. It is bragging, and so it is quite improper. No, I rage, on the contrary, it is vital. And good for you. For how else will you feel good about yourself and about what you do? And how else will you become confident and bold, willing to take risks? Be able to stumble, and learn from failure without losing heart?’
From time to time, as an ice-breaker to a workshop, I invite the participants to share personal stories of transformation, to talk about a time in their lives when, against all odds, they achieved something extraordinary which changed them forever. The stories I hear are always wonderful, with so much for the story-tellers to be proud of. Yet when it comes to explaining their heroic achievements in terms of their strengths, they just can’t manage it. “It’s not in our culture,” they admit readily.
Cut to a very pleasant young woman I have been coaching, and like most Kenyans she is humble to a fault when projecting herself – including in her stilted useless CV. I take her through my Virtuous Cycle of Confidence; get her to stop beginning every other sentence with ‘maybe’ and to not fold her arms in front of her.
Her homework is to list her achievements and her strengths, and to have a second go at her CV – with help from her husband (a salesman with Kenya Breweries). And to come to terms with defying the traditional Kenyan/Christian/Kikuyu culture of ‘not blowing your trumpet’… or, to do a little more bragging – in Kikuyu, to ‘kiberebere’.
D&S for my annual emotional intelligence session, and as always it’s hard to get these tight young engineers to open up – except when I introduce the role plays with difficult customers, challenging them to end the skits with adult-adult win-win outcomes. They come to life wonderfully, so why all the inhibitions before? It’s the culture, my dear, the culture.
Time now for the 1,350 graduands to file past and receive their degrees, and Noah, Vimal and I form the first trio of hand-shakers. As always I look forward with some concern to seeing how many will find it too hard to make eye contact, and while many are bright-eyed and confident in their body language, others are overwhelmed by their humility. This year though I develop what turns out to be an exceptionlessly successful technique: I hold on to their hand, and the shock of not being let go of forces them to look at me. Now I give them a big smile, a signal that they too can relax their expressions.
But is that ongoing? Inevitable? I ask. No, a few say. Jolly good.