Leadership in and beyond Rotary

A speech held by Mike Eldon at the Rotary Club of Nairobi on 7th February 2019

In Rotary we are all leaders in our profession, and here today we are all past, present or future leaders in Rotary. Sometimes we lead, and sometimes we are led, and in Rotary we must establish our reputations as performers and leaders afresh. We are all of equal status, and in this flat organisational pyramid of ours we must remain humble.

We are amateurs (from the French ‘aimer’, ‘to love’) and volunteers (again from the French – ‘vouloir’, ‘to want to’), leading other amateur volunteers, all professionals. And this profoundly influences the appropriate leadership style we should adopt.

We must first create and communicate the vision and values of our Club, in the context of the District and of Rotary International. We must inspire our members, appreciate and respect them, consult with them, coordinate them, delegate to them and empower them. We must do all this with a sense of humour, with a light touch – and not least at the weekly meetings, where we are the MC for 52 shows, plus at other social and project events. And we must not be ‘know-it-alls’, but rather, as I wrote in one of my recent articles, to practice ‘humble inquiry’, asking more than telling – and hence building trusting and positive relationships.

Then, we must deal with the egos of our members, some too high, some too low. We must handle their sensitivities and insecurities, that too often lead to conflicts and tensions and require us to pour oil on troubled waters, to negotiate, to mediate and help mend fences. For this is how to motivate and engage them. This is ‘talent management’ everywhere, and not least in the context of Rotary.

But possessing the soft skills necessary for all this, however necessary, is still not sufficient. For in addition Rotary leaders must also be professional managers: of projects, of processes, of finances, so that the Club runs like a well-oiled machine.

When I joined this Rotary Club in 1978 the members were predominantly older men and overwhelmingly white, with just a few Asians and Africans. I was in my early thirties, and by far the youngest. Of course there were no women! What a contrast to our membership composition these days – so diverse, of gender, of age, of sector, with several sub-cultures, each possessing different interests and preferences. The challenge to our leaders is to find ways of bringing them all together so that everyone is adequately happy, and accepting that many activities will appeal to some members much more than to others.

Today too we are all subject to the far greater pressures on our time that this 21st century has imposed on us, making volunteering that much more challenging.

These were key themes of last year’s PETS, and it was good for our incoming leaders to have the opportunity to discuss such issues. But PETS is a one-off, and Rotary leaders need ongoing opportunities to review their leadership styles and challenges. The DG, AG and Country Chair are available as mentors, but leaders should also reach out to others among us who can help coach them along their yearlong journeys.

Our Club used to be known as The Rotary Club of Nairobi. We were considered cocky and arrogant, imagining ourselves to be above and distant from all others. I never related to those images of us, but happily I believe we are no longer perceived in such ways. We are still respected and admired, but not with those negative connotations of years gone by.

There is so much expertise in our Club, so much institutional memory. We have held on to longstanding members, while attracting vibrant young men and women to join us. We have a rich array of vibrant, high-impact projects. And we enjoy good and productive relationships with our Rotaractors and Interactors.

What has enabled all this? Consistently good leadership down the years, generating positive energy among so many of our members, from the newest to the oldest.

The title of my talk was to do with leadership ‘in and beyond Rotary’, and it leads me to suggest that of you can lead peer volunteer professionals such as we are in Rotary, with all our expertise and all our egos, who can you not lead? It is for sure why many Rotarians, like Manu and Joe and Yusuf here, who have learned so much about leading volunteers in Rotary, have gone on to lead so many other important organisations as volunteers.

In conclusion, let me ask each of you: where are you headed in contributing to the leadership our Club so it can continue into an equally successful and sustainable future? How much are you learning about and practicing leadership here – bearing in mind that this is a cost-free risk-free opportunity to have a go, and so to learn and to grow? And finally, how are you applying what you are learning about leadership in our Rotary setting to your day job and to all your other activities?

What I have been trying to do here today is to stimulate you to reflect, and to do so purposefully. I wish you well with your reflections… and to their positive consequences.