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What it means to lead responsibly

As we enter the new decade, more and more leaders of organisations are thinking about what it means to act responsibly. For it is an increasingly significant factor in ensuring sustainability, and this expectation of acting responsibly applies to how one treats all stakeholders. Today, in my first article of 2020, I focus on what behaving responsibly with one’s staff means.

Of course some leaders have always understood why this is but enlightened self-interest, based on the assumption of reciprocity. And anyway it’s just in the nature of such people to be good to others.

Their style is most likely the consequence of how they were brought up, and how their early bosses treated them. This can work either way. Several of the managers to whom I reported when I joined a British computer multinational company on graduating from university in the 1960s left me distinctly unimpressed. It seemed to me that they understood little about how to motivate and coordinate others, leaving us to find our way by other means. As I read in an article recently, we may well learn at least as much from bad bosses we have endured about how not to lead as from good ones we seek to emulate.

On a much more positive note, at that critical time in my career I benefitted greatly from the wisdom of my father, as he was then leading Shell’s management training division, nurturing the leadership skills of Shell executives from around the world. He and his colleagues (including Charles Handy, who later became Britain’s leading management guru; and for a while Nick Muriuki, who was then Shell Kenya’s Personnel Manager) developed a sense of responsible leadership in them way ahead of their times.

But back to the present. Today’s employers are facing all kinds of challenges that could not even have been predicted when I was a young man. In those days when we joined a company our expectation was that we would stay there for many years, gradually rising up the ranks of management. Now, by contrast, our nomadic millennials assume they will bounce from opportunity to opportunity every few years – correction, every very few years – and expecting to be treated respectfully and be given serious responsibilities in support of worthy causes. (Let’s not overstate this though – baby-boomers too sought uplifting challenges.)

Then, globalisation and the advent of the Internet have led to the internationalisation of the job market in many kinds of activity, from the off-shoring of manufacturing to the online provision of services from anywhere on the planet. Now other fast-developing technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence are replacing increasing numbers of human beings, and in particular those who lack the skills to contribute to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

So where does this leave responsible leadership? How must leaders behave to attract and retain high-flying and mobile millennials? How can they provide jobs in communities where unemployment is high and the development of skills and attitudes needed for the jobs available – never mind those needed to become entrepreneurs – are lacking? Where to remain competitive they must introduce labour-saving technology, everywhere from banking to farming.

In our turbulent times further concerns appear. Everywhere, as people live longer, how to handle those in their “third age”? We resent them holding onto jobs beyond the age of 60, as a result of which subsequent generations are prevented from fulfilling their potential, and yet many still have much to contribute.

How do we develop a culture of diversity and inclusiveness, that not only allows different generations to work harmoniously together, but also women and men, people of different ethnicities and religions, various temperaments and preferences?

In countries like Kenya we have hundreds of thousands of long-term refugees, passive recipients of day-to-day humanitarian aid. How can they be assisted more sustainably? What is the role of government, and what can leaders beyond government contribute?

Today my space only allows me to pose the questions. But I don’t feel at all badly about that. For it offers you the opportunity to reflect for yourselves on the “so what?” of these questions, without being influenced by my responses. Please do reflect, knowing though that in my next column in a fortnight’s time I will be offering my thoughts on the subject.

Let’s be optimistic despite the flood of negative news

From time to time my colleague Frank Kretzschmar and I host what we call “Leaders Circles,” where our guests tell personal stories relating to the theme of the day. For our recent one we selected the topic “Holding on to optimism – we can set an example.”

In Kenya as elsewhere these days it’s not easy to be an optimist. There’s certainly enough about which to feel pessimistic, and going by what the media reflects, Kenya – and for that matter just about everywhere in the world – is headed in the wrong direction. Here, too many of our conversations revolve around Kenya’s zero-sum political games, our untrustworthy society’s lack of integrity, and not enough around how to take the country forward. Many feel they are but impotent observers, struggling to survive despite it all.

So portraying ourselves as optimists lead others to describe us as “naïve” and “starry-eyed”. But just joining the complainers isn’t good enough — never mind that many Kenyans, in all sectors of society and at all levels, are competently taking the country forward, quietly and without being celebrated.

Where are we in all of this? The country needs forward movement, and it is optimistic leaders who must point to more than what is broken. How can we influence others to recognise opportunities as well as challenges, highlighting the uplifting dimensions of our society?

Kenya needs our unbroken optimism. Not unjustified and ill-informed, but rational and evidence-based. What’s required — and what’s achievable — is indeed a culture of “holding on to optimism.”

My co-host Frank and I always browse for suitable quotes on our topics, and there’s no shortage of these on the subject at hand. One of our favourites came from Winston Churchill, who observed that “a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Another, from Mehmet Murat ildan, ran: “The young pessimist is much older than the old optimist!” And here’s a third, from the ever-quotable Oscar Wilde: “The optimist sees the donut, the pessimist sees the hole.” Do go to Google — you’ll find many more.

One by one the participants dug into their reservoir of good-news experiences, trying hard to hold back from sharing less optimistic ones.
Frank told us he has been coming to Kenya since 2004, and that he quickly became a fan, appreciating our spirit of optimism.

So that when he carries out his consultancies in Europe, he has the participants learn from Africa. Another described how he has been promoting CSR for over 25 years, from a time when others thought him mad for doing so. No longer.

One participant tries to smile through the ups and downs of life, and talked about his “instinct to survive.” Another told us that whoever one asks how business is faring they respond by complaining.

Despite that, he insisted, we must find optimism in what we do, and we must keep learning. And a third shared that even though she is not a runner she has been greatly inspired by Eliud Kipchoge.

A father among us enjoys showing his young daughter that life can be magical; and a mother tells her daughter to pay attention to the 90 percent positive and not just the 10 percent negative. She also confessed that when she was younger she thought she could change the world, while now appreciating that it is only herself she can change.

As we talked we took each other on roller coaster rides between optimism and pessimism, showing that each of us travels along an ever-shifting spectrum of moods.

But we held on to “adequate” optimism, acknowledging that while not all our experiences are so positive, those that are strengthen us.
We heard about the power of working together with like-minded leaders, so that our circle of optimistic influence can widen. And we acknowledged that just sharing our stories proved very helpful.

My expectation is to be able to “have a good time doing good things”, to keep cheerful enough even in the darkest of times such as when my son was killed in Somalia.

What about your expectation? Are you setting an example of holding on to optimism?

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.

Influence, not power yields better output from employees

My first leadership experience came when I arrived in Kenya in 1977 to be the general manager of the local subsidiary of a multinational IT company.

Both the Kenyans who reported to me and the Brits to whom I reported expected me to be the proverbial “Big Man”, perceived as all-knowing, all-wise and all-powerful.

And when I refused to buy into such an impossible scenario, when I took time consulting with and developing the newly-promoted management team around me, I was branded by my bosses as “weak and indecisive”.

It was something I learned to live with, knowing that my style meant that the staff felt more respected, more empowered, more motivated – and hence more productive.

Dominant personalities anywhere tend to impose their will on others. Never mind if their title and corresponding authority make it possible for them to adopt a “do as I say” approach.

Yet more so in these days of flat organisational pyramids and loose networks, not to mention the nomadic tendencies of knowledge workers, it is unlikely to get a leader very far.

The challenge for such leaders is to graduate from being perpetual overloaded decision-makers and dispensers of instructions to becoming spreaders of positive influence.

OK, other than in the middle of a crisis perhaps. You need a particular kind of strength to hold back from micro-managing, and a boldness to trust others and to delegate to them.

This in turn presupposes an optimistic disposition and a positive view of human nature. It was Douglas McGregor who in 1960 introduced his Theory X and Theory Y, where Theory X supports the view that we humans are lazy and try to avoid work. Theory Y, meanwhile, postulates that working comes naturally, and also that under suitable conditions people do seek responsibility.

Each set of assumptions leads us to a different view of how we can and should lead. If we think people are intrinsically lazy then we must control them firmly for work to get done.

Theory X also imagines that most people prefer to be told what to do, and dislike taking risks or assuming responsibility. So again, we must play the “stern parent” to the “naughty child”.

Theory Y calls on us to provide inspiring visions and to focus on aligning individuals’ objectives with organisational ones.

If this is present then they will feel free to use their imagination and creativity to perform optimally. Adherents to Theory Y believe that leading through supportive influence rather than controlling authority is the path to take.

The way we lead is reflected in how we behave, and to grow our circle of influence we must be emotionally intelligent.

This means that we must, as Stephen Covey told us, “seek first to understand, then seek to be understood”, which in turn requires us to ask questions rather than feel obliged always to provide answers, and to be open listeners.

We must lead by example and build win-win relationships with those around us. We must be coaches and enablers of those we lead, appreciating that the more they grow and the more trustworthy they become, the more we free ourselves to focus on higher level strategic issues.

Such cultures, where leaders create enabling environments for learning and growth, should percolate throughout an organisation. So when we talk about leaders and leadership we don’t only mean CEOs and directors.

Indeed there are no exceptions to leading, as we should all exercise reflective self-leadership, where the coach within acts as our positive influencer.

In today’s world of rapid and uncertain change, no leader can afford to pose as “The Big Man”.

Contemporary leadership requires men and women in positions of responsibility to reassure those around them so they may cope with all the inconvenient disruptions of this 21st century while fulfilling both their own goals and those of the organisations where they work.

Leading through influence is far less efficient than exercising top-down authority. But unless one approaches leadership in this subtler style, respect and loyalty will be eroded and for sure the outcome will be unsustainable and ultimately self-defeating.

Kind of leadership needed to deal with a crisis effectively

I was in London last month at the time when snow covered the city, to work on a leadership programme with the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR).

One of those with me carried a wonderful book that I then also bought, The Greats on Leadership by Jocelyn Davis.

In it Mr Davis offers summaries of what 24 great authors have had to say over the centuries about different elements and circumstances of leadership, and then discusses these in a contemporary context.

So for instance he builds on Machiavelli’s writing to explore change, Plato’s to examine justice, Bernard Shaw’s to promote vision… and Shakespeare’s to help leaders deal with crises.

Mr Davis turns to Shakespeare’s Henry V for inspiration on the subject, lauding the victor over the greatly superior French forces in the battle of Agincourt as a “learning leader”.

I read this chapter with particular interest as on my return from London I was a member of the faculty delivering the Transformative Leadership programme run jointly by the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communication and the Harvard Kennedy School, within which one of my sessions was on the voice of leadership in periods of crisis.

Our whole programme was based on the Adaptive Leadership approach promoted by Ronald Heifetz, the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School, about which I wrote in an earlier column.

Heifetz explains how leadership must be treated as an activity rather than a position, and in his chapter on crisis Davis quotes Heifetz at length on the subject.

The Harvard professor, acknowledges Mr Davis, writes eloquently on the “learning zone” and its importance to teams and organisations in crisis, showing how it exists between the overly cool comfort zone of complacency and the too-hot-to-handle zone of danger and panic.

In normal times we exist in the comfort zone where stress levels are low, but an emergency hurls us into the high-stress danger zone. There, effective leadership as practiced by the likes of Henry V delivers the sharp focus and fast action that overcome the tendency merely to fight, flee or freeze.

Mr Davis then explains more about how to remain in such a zone at these most difficult times. He does this by constructing a chart that shows “Unity” on the vertical axis and “Agility” on the horizontal one, where both need to be high for the learning zone to be alive and well – more so during and after times of crisis.

It’s not so hard for unity to be high in normal circumstances, when there is less urgent need for extreme agility. He calls the upper left quadrant, with high unity and low agility, the “complacency zone”, where signs of impending crisis are met with a chorus of “Around here we always… “.

He then takes us to the lower right quadrant, his “Disconnection zone”, where agility outweighs unity and everyone worries about saving their own skin – the Titanic syndrome. At least as lamentable is the lower left “Blame zone”, where both unity and agility are low and the concern is blame-avoidance.

Finally to Henry V territory, the upper right “Learning zone”, where great leadership first asks how we can resolve our problems and move forward together; then how I contributed to the difficulties and what I must do differently to avoid making the same mistakes again; and only after to examine how they, the other team members, contributed to what happened and how I can coach them to learn and be better prepared for the next crisis.

In the discussion during my session on leadership in crisis the participants — some of whom were in leadership positions in large hospitals — reviewed the recent one at Kenyatta National Hospital, where head surgery was performed on the wrong patient. And later they reflected on how they had dealt with crises that involved their own organisations.

What about you? Are you in the league of Henry V? Or would the Titanic have sunk under your command too? In this volatile and uncertain world of ours, it’s good for all of us to reflect on how effectively we will deal with our next crisis.