Key leadership lessons I learnt from my father

Two days ago I reached the age of 75 — the age my father was when he passed away 35 years ago. So it provided an opportunity for me to reflect on our relationship and on how I was influenced by his example.

Bruno Eldon enjoyed a 33-year career in Shell. He joined the company in Romania, from where he and some of his Shell colleagues escaped the Nazis in 1941. He then rejoined the company in Israel (the British Mandate of Palestine at the time) and finally again in England in 1948, where over the years he rose to be the head of Shell’s management training division.

As I was growing up, at school and then at university, I was exposed to all the latest management thinking, as my father had to keep right up to date in running his workshops for Shell executives from around the world. I learnt about the newly emerging leadership styles as organisations like Shell increasingly employed skilled knowledge workers who needed to be motivated quite differently from those who came before them.

Indeed, as I have written before in these columns, it was in those 1950s and 60s that the foundations were laid for today’s best leadership practices. Since then we have been hearing incessantly from subsequent generations of management gurus, but in essence, it’s more fancy new jargon than fundamental developments.

I was fortunate in not only having my father explain all about motivation and teamwork and appraisals and other leadership matters as practised in one of the leading global corporates, but I had the privilege of meeting many of those who participated in my father’s programmes. For he would invite them to our home for Sunday lunches, where this mere teenager would act as a co-host to those senior executives.

But my weekends were spent in other ways too. For I was the family’s gardener, cutting the lawn and the hedges and pulling up the weeds while my father played the horticulturalist. My job description included washing the car, and every evening I would wash the dishes after dinner as my sister dried them. Later, my father and I would often walk our dog, and it is here that he played the role of my coach.

I attended the London School of Economics for some of my undergraduate studies, 40 years after my father came from Romania to study at LSE. During those years, while an intern in Paris with Eurofinance (the first investment company to operate at a European level), my father came to visit me and it was the first time I remember us conversing as adult to adult rather than as parent to child: a true relationship shift.

When he retired from Shell on entering his third age my father continued with his management training and also became a management consultant, running workshops all over Europe and also in Africa. This was largely with Management Centre Europe, which was associated with the American Management Association — both still prominent institutions today.

Not many years later, now living in Kenya, I became very involved with the Kenya Institute of Management, and when I turned 60 I too reinvented myself as a management consultant, spending many of my days in ways uncannily similar to how my father spent his at that time of his life.

Shortly before he died I visited my father in London for what turned out to be our last meeting. We seemed to be aware that this would be our farewell, and as we sat in his study he notionally handed over his books and papers and overhead slides on management, many of which now adorn by bookshelves at home. Bruno was a very talented painter, and our house is also filled with his wonderful works of art.

What a shame he is not around for us to compare notes on how my life has mirrored his since he passed away. There is so much value he could have continued adding to me, and I would like to think he could even have benefited from my experiences too.

To conclude, let me invite you to share important conversations with your father, before it’s too late. Learn from him, and let him also learn from you.

Krystall: Man who drove the social reforms agenda

Dr. Eric Krystall (left). FILE PHOTO | NMG

Dr. Eric Krystall (left). FILE PHOTO | NMG

In my last column I wrote about the first part of the rich and varied life of my dear friend Eric Krystall, from his birth in South Africa to his years in the UK and in America until his arrival in Kenya in 1971. Today I want to continue sharing his journey up to his death earlier this year, just two weeks before what would have been his 92nd birthday.

In his autobiography Swimming through Life he wrote about his first impressions of Nairobi, including mentioning its then tallest building, Bruce House – where my office was located from 1977, when I first arrived in Kenya.

Eric and his team immediately got down to planning their pioneering population education programme in the then new Longonot Place, and this was at a time when the country was experiencing a population explosion that easily exceeded the ability of the economy to cope with the fast increasing number of people.

With its sky-high fertility rates, Kenya had already become the first African country to adopt a population policy – under the leadership of Tom Mboya, the Minister for Economic Planning and Development. When Eric arrived, while the policy was already in place it was yet to reach the implementation stage.

Indeed the whole concept of “development” was new, he explained in his autobiography, not just in Kenya but all over the Third World. Eric & Co were greeted with open arms by the enthusiastic professionals in the Kenya government, and not least by his fellow-student from their time together at the London School of Economics, Mwai Kibaki – now the Minister for Finance and Planning.

Eric’s “Programmes for Better Family Living” took advantage of all his earlier practical American experience in implementing high impact social initiatives, and his great leadership style, based on training, sharing and teamwork, together with his ability to integrate in all environments, led to it progressing smoothly.

But ups and downs inevitably followed, both in Kenya and other countries where Eric became active with the programme. A major personal incident saw his 1980 ending on an explosive note – literally. For Eric and his wife were enjoying their new-year’s eve dinner at the Norfolk Hotel when the terrorist bomb exploded there.

In 1983, after a stint in Rome, the opportunity arose to start the USAID-funded “Family Planning Private Sector Programme”, which was again a great success, supporting private sector company clinics to add mother and child health and family planning to their services. One of its high impact and enduring features became the use of puppet shows as a communications tool, following a great example Eric came across in South Africa.

He arranged for over 500 Kenyans to be trained as puppeteers, and all over the country shows were put on dealing not only with family planning but with other topics that were otherwise too sensitive or embarrassing to discuss openly. “Puppets against AIDS” followed, and also productions to combat topics such as female genital mutilation, early marriage, corruption and conservation.

In 1984 I introduced Eric to my Rotary Club, which became a further avenue through which he was able to work on social issues – not least Aids and including beyond Kenya. A few years later I also persuaded him to become our president, where he was again able to apply his great leadership skills.

Meanwhile Eric and Abigail had separated, and in 1991 he married Nani Croze of Kitengela Glass fame. Since then he has been enjoying life out there in Kitengela, overlooking the Nairobi Game Park. A great swimming enthusiast, he built a pool on the compound, and there as well as by the ocean in Watamu where they own a property, Eric was able to contemplate his life’s journey, one that both started and ended in Africa.

There is much more I could have told you about my friend, but for now let me just end by saying how honoured I feel to have known him as I did. For those of you who would like to learn more about his life you can access his autobiography on Amazon. I strongly recommend that you do. And if you want to contribute to the Puppetry Hub, go to