Leadership character can be used positively to empower others

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.

Monitoring, evaluating… and then what?

This is an article I wrote for ‘UN Special’, a magazine published by the UN for civil servants.

Click here (link will open in a new window).

Book review: NEW TOME: A journey through Ethiopian churches

And here’s a link to one of my book reviews which was recently published in the East African:

Click here (link will open in a new window).

Write more like you talk to get the message across

When I came to Kenya in the late seventies I was struck by how very differently people here wrote from the way I had been used to in the UK. It was as though I had journeyed back in time to the Edwardian or even Victorian eras of stiffness and formality.

As I wondered why the way I had been brought up to write was so much more relaxed, I same across how “Commercial English” was taught in schools and colleges.

Just as at occasions where formal speeches are delivered, everything was (and to a large extent still is) about being “proper” and observing “protocol”. Never mind among lawyers in court, with their horse-hair wigs and their white bands instead of ties.

No wonder bolder speech-givers, not wishing to waste time, now open with the “All protocols observed” short cut… except that too many still only do so after already having recognised a long list of dignitaries present. (At my cheekiest I have taken this further by launching speeches with “No protocols observed”.)

The formalised writing style is perhaps at its most stultified in minute-writing, as those taking them too often prize convoluted elegance over meaningful, punchy reports.

I experienced a classic case of such “proper” minutes following a recent council committee meeting of a state body of which I have been a council member.

The minutes were presented at the full council that followed, with all the statutory requirements fulfilled but with nothing of the robust brainstorming that had dominated the proceedings included: all that was important had been ignored, leaving only empty expressions of compliance.

In a session on effective written communication I ran a few weeks ago at the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications I asked the participants how alive their writing was. “How different is the way you write from the way you talk?” I posed, and not surprisingly the reactions were overwhelmingly that their writing was indeed very different, requiring so much more effort.

I then introduced my central message, urging them to write much more like how they talked, to think about dictating what they would otherwise have said: to write conversationally, as though it were a transcript. And for this to happen it was essential that they unlearned what they had been taught in school and college about what was “proper” English.

Here I quoted novelist Elmore Leonard, who claimed: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” And a further thought came from another novelist, Ray Bradbury: “Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.” Tell a story, I suggested in my last column, which means have your narrative flow, with a good beginning, middle and end.

Next I turned to my experience as an editor, where (particularly for those with “at least a Master’s degree”) I help them simplify their language, using short words in short sentences in short paragraphs. Another quote helped me on my way, from Churchill: “Short words are best.”

I couldn’t have put it more clearly! I talked about using verbs more interesting than “have” and “get”, about keeping to the active rather than passive forms, and I encouraged them to occasionally pose questions that they then answer. Oh, and to sort out the difference between colons and semi-colons.

Not just here, too many people merely aim for adequacy in their writing – more so in this age of texting and tweeting. It’s just to get the basics of a message across, with no thought of quality.

Others, though, feel disrespected if they receive scruffy writing that hasn’t been Spellchecked or proof-read. So as we rush out our texts, whether on our laptops or our phones, it pays to pause and read through what you have written – and not just once. I don’t know about you, but I am frequently surprised by some typo or other issue that had escaped by notice till that extra perusal.

My concluding advice for those at my session was to “Write, write write; keep getting better; and be proud of what you have created.”

Greek philosopher Epictetus put it well: “If you want to be a writer, write.”