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Leadership messages for public servants

From time to time I have been asked to speak at the Kenya School of Government’s Strategic Leadership Development Programme (SLDP), and late last year I was invited to close its 224th iteration, virtually hosted by the Mombasa campus.

The participants were informed that I was to be their “motivational speaker” but, as I did then, I always vehemently resist such a label as too often it implies being someone who merely hypes and entertains rather than provokes serious purposeful reflection.

It’s been quite a while since I have addressed such a grouping, and as always I was impressed by the calibre of the civil servants before me, for this programme online. They were from county governments and county assemblies; from commissions and State corporations; from ministries and public universities: a great diversity. On each occasion I have been with SLDP cohorts I have been greatly reassured by the calibre of whom we employ at both the national and devolved levels of government.

What brought them all together was the desire to develop their leadership prowess. So after several weeks of intensive study, what parting shots could I add? My opener was to urge them to be “MAD”, leaders who expect to “Make A Difference”. (A phrase I adopted from KEPROBA Chairman Jas Bedi.)

I encouraged them to venture beyond the far too common “output indicators” so conveniently retreated to in government – as I have written about from time to time in this column. Not least in the context of performance contracts, too many indicators are easily quantifiable but woefully inadequate measures such as “40 staff members trained”… without bothering to assess the consequences of the training in terms of how it led to better results.

I then talked about the importance of dealing with the non-technical challenges to performance, going beyond just the technical ones. By non-technical issues we mean people problems, to do with values, attitudes and behaviour. This of course takes us to leadership, and here I explained the work I have been doing with some of our county leaders to help them develop a coaching style of leadership, one that nurtures those around them and brings them together around common visions and values.

It contrasts to the “Big Man” style of leading, the know-it-all who issues instructions rather than the enabler, the encourager, the champion. The idea is to develop an environment where staff are trustworthy and therefore trusted, with leaders feeling comfortable empowering them and delegating to them. All this in support of higher performance.

Such a culture assumes collaboration within an organisation between programmes and functions, breaking down those all too common silos; and it speaks of effective communication between levels too. The consequence of this is to reduce the waste of human, financial and other resources – so prominent in government.

In my consulting work with government entities, I explained, I bring different units together to resolve misunderstandings, conflicts and other sources of tension. I do this by having them exchange offers and requests and then involve them in a give-and-take in which they negotiate to win-win outcomes. I work in similar ways to achieve vertical alignment between levels of leadership – including within parastatals and commissions, where understanding and engagement between boards and management are improved.

As several of the participants were from the academic world, I mentioned the need for them to see their students as customers. And for these customers to emerge into the workplace fit for purpose there is a vital and urgent need for faculty members to transform from being traditional lecturers and dons who talk at an audience into facilitators who interact with engaged participants.

My final point was one I often make when addressing public servants. I encouraged them to be cheerful in their workplaces, and to apply a light touch. Too many of our technocrats feel that even to smile is to trivialise the very important work they undertake, without appreciating that such grimness prevents their people from looking forward to coming to the office.

I advocate an approach of “having a good time doing good things”, as no higher authority ever told us it is only possible to do one of these at a time. Surely a healthy culture is a happy culture, whether in government or elsewhere. And it is the job of leadership to show the way.