Leaders ought to be fair and avoid short-term wins

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.

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.

How to align universities with the new curriculum

Last week I ran a session on transformative leadership at a four-day workshop for vice chancellors and principals of Kenyan universities. It was organised by the German Academic Exchange Services (DAAD), the Kenya DAAD Scholars Association (KDSA) and the Commission for University Education.

Today I will be reviewing the main issues that emerged from our conversation. The dozen or so gathered by Lake Naivasha, a bright and cheerful collection of dons, first discussed what transformative leadership meant in their context. Reassuringly they spoke about being change agents who, through participative management styles, bring people together around common visions and values and achieve extraordinary results. And about doing through research and innovation and, by making optimal use of their human and financial resources, deliver programmes that meet market demands while remaining financially sustainable. Sounds good.

They agreed that they need to add value in this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, where many of today’s jobs will no longer exist and new ones will emerge. Also that as the products of the new Competence Based Curriculum begin entering their campuses in a few years’ time, they must have completely replaced the traditional style of lecturing and examining if they are to match the abilities and needs of their far more evolved and demanding students.

So what does this mean for styles of leadership?

The main thought I offered is that they must be experts at “aligning energy”. First internally, aligning energy vertically between their councils, management, faculty and other staff, and the students and their leaders. And aligning it horizontally, between their main and other campuses; between faculties and programmes; and between the support functions — like finance, HR, ICT and legal — and the student-facing ones.

Then there’s external energy alignment, with the Ministry of Education and the Commission for Higher Education (CUE); local and international partners — universities, research institutions and others; the schools and parents who deliver their raw material, and the workplace that receives their finished products; sources of funding beyond government and students’ fees; and other stakeholders.

Among all these areas of potential lack of alignment — with their weak collaboration, unproductive conflict, and hence wasted energy — the topics we spend time on include the silos that too often exist between departments. And more so in these times of scarce resources and the extreme pressure to become lean.

We heard from one vice chancellor who struggled to bring two programmes together and thereby utilise their resources more effectively. They resisted fiercely, eventually provoking the benevolent dictator in him to emerge. So how, we asked, can such resistance to mandatory change be reduced, given the perception among many of those involved that they will be worse off as a result?

In my work as a consultant the silo challenge is among the commonest — irrespective of the nature or size of the organisation. So I shared with the group how I help soften attitudes that prevent synergy between silos. It is, as I have written in these columns before, by having them exchange offers and requests, enabling them to “negotiate to win-win”. This requires great emotional intelligence, with leaders (and consultants) acting as mediators. And it is by stimulating learning and growth, and therefore enthusiasm, among those involved.

The other common area where alignment needs improving is between the council and management. How does each define its role? Where and how can council members add value? How do all concerned come together around common objectives, and within a healthy culture? All this requires carefully facilitated conversations, with the university CEOs central to it all.

Related topics I introduce include doing a good job with performance management, going beyond compliance and with no room for lame indicators that fall short of assessing ultimate impact; spreading a coaching culture at all levels of leadership; and letting go of counterproductive beliefs.

Such leadership programmes to help universities become more effective are quite new to Kenya. So kudos to those involved, on this occasion DAAD, KDSA and CUE, for having identified the yawning gap and for helping to fill it. Now the participants must stay closely in touch, sharing their experiences and strengthening each other along the way.