Management Consultant Mike Eldon

Top managers need to boost leadership skills

We are all so busy these days, and the more senior we are as leaders the busier we are. In among the frantic activity and the e-mails, with our ambitious targets and tight timescales, there’s no time to reflect – never mind to invest time in doing so with others at our level.

When I entered the workplace in the late sixties we only talked about “management”. The “L” word emerged later, but now we talk more and more about the need for enlightened “leadership”, almost looking down on mere “management”.

Yet our most senior leaders are the ones least likely to get together and invest time in reflecting on how they can further develop their leadership skills – in particular the non-technical ones, those that inspire and motivate and bring together those whom they lead so they may perform at their best, individually and together.

When in the early seventies I was facilitating IT strategy workshops for top leaders in the UK, I remember how hard it was to get the targeted participants to attend. Their immediate instinct was to consider whom among their subordinates they should send, rather than benefitting themselves. While some may have genuinely imagined they knew enough about the topic so as not to need to invest in the time required, I suspected that many feared their sheer absence of expertise would be revealed if they were to be in the room.

Here in Kenya, the widespread absence of our most senior leaders from such workshops and seminars is worrying. The common practice is for the top dogs, particularly in the public sector, to come and open or close a workshop (often reading a speech written by others), avoiding being present throughout and hence missing out on the opportunity to listen, to learn and to share.


The consequence is evident, as far too many of our leaders have never been exposed to what it would take for them to fulfill their potential in leading others. They have risen through the ranks, through functions such as finance, production and marketing in the commercial sector, and also through other technical fields in government, but without actively learning about what it takes to lead others.

They have had to progress by trial and error, and by emulating their predecessors and elders – however good or bad they may have been. (I should add that much of what I learned about leadership stemmed from reacting against what I considered to be the poor style of those who have led me over the years.)

Education sector

Take leadership in the education sector. When I served on the council of the Kenya Education Management Institute – responsible for developing the capacity of head teachers and education officers – I was impressed by the quality of its programmes, helping participants to become strategic thinkers and contemporary leaders.

But when it comes to leadership at the university level, our dons have enjoyed no comparable source of guidance. (Some programmes are at last being introduced.) No wonder that these former lecturers and researchers face the challenges they do. What about our Cabinet Secretaries and PSs, our Governors and County Commissioners?

The Kenya School of Government has for some years been running the successful Strategic Leadership Development Programme for upper-middle level technocrats, but nothing comparable exists for the top of the pyramid.

My perception? Despite the infinite need, there seems to be a lack of a want. So this is a plea to the highest level leaders in our country.

However busy you are, whatever pressures crowd in on your time and energy, please do yourself a favour and reach out to each other and to those who can bring you together for purposeful reflection on how you to exert your leadership responsibilities to greater effect.

All of us can benefit from rising up to our mental “balconies” from time to time, to look down on the arena in which we operate day to day, look back on where we have come from, look ahead to where we wish to reach… and above all to look inward and re-evaluate and adjust, maybe even to transform.