Top managers need to boost leadership skills

We are all so busy these days, and the more senior we are as leaders the busier we are. In among the frantic activity and the e-mails, with our ambitious targets and tight timescales, there’s no time to reflect – never mind to invest time in doing so with others at our level.

When I entered the workplace in the late sixties we only talked about “management”. The “L” word emerged later, but now we talk more and more about the need for enlightened “leadership”, almost looking down on mere “management”.

Yet our most senior leaders are the ones least likely to get together and invest time in reflecting on how they can further develop their leadership skills – in particular the non-technical ones, those that inspire and motivate and bring together those whom they lead so they may perform at their best, individually and together.

When in the early seventies I was facilitating IT strategy workshops for top leaders in the UK, I remember how hard it was to get the targeted participants to attend. Their immediate instinct was to consider whom among their subordinates they should send, rather than benefitting themselves. While some may have genuinely imagined they knew enough about the topic so as not to need to invest in the time required, I suspected that many feared their sheer absence of expertise would be revealed if they were to be in the room.

Here in Kenya, the widespread absence of our most senior leaders from such workshops and seminars is worrying. The common practice is for the top dogs, particularly in the public sector, to come and open or close a workshop (often reading a speech written by others), avoiding being present throughout and hence missing out on the opportunity to listen, to learn and to share.


The consequence is evident, as far too many of our leaders have never been exposed to what it would take for them to fulfill their potential in leading others. They have risen through the ranks, through functions such as finance, production and marketing in the commercial sector, and also through other technical fields in government, but without actively learning about what it takes to lead others.

They have had to progress by trial and error, and by emulating their predecessors and elders – however good or bad they may have been. (I should add that much of what I learned about leadership stemmed from reacting against what I considered to be the poor style of those who have led me over the years.)

Education sector

Take leadership in the education sector. When I served on the council of the Kenya Education Management Institute – responsible for developing the capacity of head teachers and education officers – I was impressed by the quality of its programmes, helping participants to become strategic thinkers and contemporary leaders.

But when it comes to leadership at the university level, our dons have enjoyed no comparable source of guidance. (Some programmes are at last being introduced.) No wonder that these former lecturers and researchers face the challenges they do. What about our Cabinet Secretaries and PSs, our Governors and County Commissioners?

The Kenya School of Government has for some years been running the successful Strategic Leadership Development Programme for upper-middle level technocrats, but nothing comparable exists for the top of the pyramid.

My perception? Despite the infinite need, there seems to be a lack of a want. So this is a plea to the highest level leaders in our country.

However busy you are, whatever pressures crowd in on your time and energy, please do yourself a favour and reach out to each other and to those who can bring you together for purposeful reflection on how you to exert your leadership responsibilities to greater effect.

All of us can benefit from rising up to our mental “balconies” from time to time, to look down on the arena in which we operate day to day, look back on where we have come from, look ahead to where we wish to reach… and above all to look inward and re-evaluate and adjust, maybe even to transform.

It’s not all gloom and doom in government

We are at a time when we’re not sure whether to be depressed by all the bad news regarding the debt, corruption, unceasing politics and other ills that continue to drag Kenya down, or to be hopeful that initiatives such as the Handshake, the Big Four and the Multi-Sector Anti-Corruption Programme will lift us to a higher level.

Following the media it’s too easy to buy wholesale into the doomsday scenario, where our cynical mindsets see only more horror stories, ongoing impunity, and mere idle talk about dealing with all our very serious challenges.

In my column however, I do like airing positive stories, about earnest efforts that are constantly taking place behind the scenes to get us closer to fulfilling our extraordinary potential. On this page I can occasionally shine a light on the unsung heroes who do what they do not for the publicity and their ego but because they simply want to contribute to building a better Kenya.

Regular readers are familiar with my involvement with the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (Kepsa), much of whose work – by design – takes place away from the glare of the media. And today I want to share something about what happened at a recent meeting between the Kepsa leadership and CS Fred Matiang’i, in his capacity as Chairman of the National Development Implementation and Communication Committee.

First, I was so impressed by the deep analysis that had been carried out by the relevant sectors – manufacturing, agriculture, health and housing. They clearly laid out the bottlenecks they were facing, coupled with very specific practical proposals on what the various arms of government must do to create a more enabling environment for the Big Four.

As I listened to the four presentations one thought was uppermost in my mind: the wish that Dr. Matiang’i would simply take the whole list of proposals and just have them be implemented. For I am convinced that were he and his colleagues to do so, we would indeed see our productivity and competitiveness transformed, and the desired national goals fulfilled.

Then, when Dr. Matiang’i responded he affirmed the basic premise that “the private sector is the engine of growth” and that “the business of government is to support business”.

He said the mission of his cabinet committee is to make the government more aligned and cohesive, readily admitting that bureaucracy is the enemy – as a result of which “nothing gets done, with those involved just going round in circles”.

“What matters,” he said, “is getting work done. It doesn’t matter who is boss; we are just concerned about outcomes, not just process.” He talked about taking decisions together, with courage and commitment, so as to resolve bottlenecks and fast-track project implementation. And this without endless memos and meetings, never mind having to go to Naivasha to hold them!

He explained that his cabinet committee meets every Tuesday morning, and then on Wednesday mornings the Technical Committee, composed of the PSs, immediately follows up.

The CS appreciated the pragmatic ideas offered by the private sector, and looked forward to building the partnership with us to the next stage. Specifically, he invited us to work with the Technical Committee, holding them accountable for delivery of the agreed actions and desired impact.

All this was music to the ears of us private sector listeners, and as the encounter reached its conclusion we heard expressions of feeling “refreshed” and “rejuvenated”, as we looked forward to a swift re-engineering of government (June of this year is the target), with fewer competing and conflicting institutions and regulations among other initiatives. It reminded me of the Rapid Results Approach, which to date has been applied in only a scattered few and ephemeral cases without it in any way building to the intended “new normal”.

So now we are at least seeing a serious opportunity to break through the stalemate. Let us not be unduly cynical, appreciating that much of the important work must be done without fanfare. So, as I have said before, know that there are plenty of very good and very impressive Kenyans – including in the public sector – who are working very hard at proving the naysayers wrong.