What Leaders Do to Make a Difference


First, let us state our motivation for writing this piece. Some of you will recall that many years ago, Professor Chinua Achebe wrote a book with the title “The Trouble with Nigeria.” The central message he puts before us in that book is that the trouble with Nigeria is simply the failure of leadership.

Well, more than two decades since that book was written, it would seem that given the current state of our everyday experience, it might just be safe to agree with Professor Achebe that today, the trouble with Nigeria is still the insufficiency of quality leadership at all levels. Most Nigerians, if not all, will easily agree that Nigeria has the potential to become Africa’s largest economy by virtue of our rich human and material endowments. However, the bulk of the resource endowment and potential have remained untapped leading the UNDP to say in its “Nigeria Development Profile March 2004,” that if the previous trends continue, Nigeria runs the risk of not meeting the internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015.

Is there any Nigerian who does not want to see well-maintained, motorable roads, clean, safe and well-organised streets, affordable quality telephone services, clean regular water supply? What about public school, health and justice systems at work? What about affordable housing for the growing population? What about dramatically reducing both income and food poverty? Are we likely to become more secure, confident and “heads held high” people ready to contribute our bit to the global march of civilization if we get a handle on these things? To get the right handle on things, we must accept the leadership challenge which these issues truly represent.

Is the leadership challenge limited to the public sector? Our experience suggests that individuals, families and business organisations are also seeking pragmatic answers to the leadership challenges presented by extraordinary times in which we live. Employees and business leaders alike are asking: How do we achieve and maintain a sensible balance between work and family; between professional and personal life given the never abating pressure to do more at the workplace? How do we release the creativity and resourcefulness of the majority of the workforce to help the organisation overcome marketplace challenges? How do we maintain control and still give our people the freedom and autonomy they need to get the job done and find a fulfilling meaning in their work? How do we improve our ability to inspire others towards a common purpose? How do we articulate an uplifting vision of the future when things are so unpredictable?

In this column, we will be offering guidance in answering these questions and more, for anyone with the desire to lead, whether in the public or private sector, at family, community or national level. We will also be providing inspiring stories of our fellow countrymen and women who have taken up the leadership challenge to make extraordinary things happen in business and in the community to illustrate the leadership principles and practices that we will be describing here. We hope that by talking about what these men and women did when they were at their personal best, we will help to galvanise those still standing on the sidelines to sign up for the most important task of the moment – the task of mobilising the bountiful resources of this land to lift our people from the stranglehold of self-imposed poverty and to extend the frontiers of individual freedoms and liberties.

We should say here now that when we are talking about leadership, we are not only referring to the one person who heads a country, community, organisation or a company. We are talking even more about all those at various levels below them who have leadership roles. Just as the head of a country is in a leadership role, so are heads of communities, religious organisations, companies, etc. Being in a leadership role does not mean we are providing leadership. Whether or not we are providing leadership depends on what we do and not on the position we hold.

Leaders exhibit certain distinct practices when they are doing their best. This process varies little from industry to industry, profession to profession, community to community, and from country to country. Good leadership is an understandable and a universal process. Although each leader is a unique, there are patterns to the practice of leadership that is shared. These patterns can be learnt and replicated to positively transform individuals, companies, communities, and countries.

Five practices of exemplary leadership are:

  • Model the way
  • Inspire a shared vision
  • Challenging the process
  • Enable others to act
  • Encourage the heart

Modelling the way is about the leader going first. By going first, we mean taking the first step in the journey together with the constituents to realise their mutual aspirations. Going first does not mean going first to enjoy the so-called spoils of office or position. Are there sacrifices to be made by the group in order to accomplish long-term common goals?

Going first means that the leader will be the first to make those sacrifices; whatever it is that is required for the business, a community or a country to touch new frontiers and accomplish worthwhile goals. Is it discipline, perseverance, cooperativeness, transparency, fairness, truthfulness, honesty, being forward looking, confidence, etc? The leader must first exemplify what it takes. Only when the leader goes first can he expect his constituents to follow with their hearts and not simply in an uninspired manner or forced compliance.

How does the leader develop the muscles for going first or modelling the way? What repertoires of tools are available to him in confidently displaying this first practice of exemplary leadership? As a starting point, it will help the leader to consciously know that he must believe in something himself first before he can get others to believe in him sufficiently to follow his lead. What do we mean when we say “lead from who you are?” If you say it means to be authentic, you will be right on target. However, we still need to simplify things further.

How does a leader achieve authenticity? To achieve authenticity, a leader needs to find a voice. There is tremendous power in connecting what we say to what we do and what we do to what we say! An interesting story that illustrates this point was told by Max De Pree, a former chairman and CEO of Herman Miller, a major furniture maker based in Michigan, in the United States. In his book, Leadership Jazz, Max De Pree relates the story as follows:

“Esther, my wife, and I have a granddaughter named Zoe, the Greek word for life. She was born prematurely and weighed one pound, seven ounces, so small that my wedding ring could slide up her arm to her shoulder. The neonatologist who first examined her told us that she had a 5 to 10% chance of living after three days. When Esther and I scrubbed up for our first visit and saw Zoe in her isolette in the neonatal intensive care unit, she had two intravenous injectors in her navel, one in her foot, a monitor on each side of her chest, and a respirator tube and a feeding tube in her mouth. To complicate matters, Zoe’s biological father had jumped ship the month before Zoe was born. Realising this, a wise and caring nurse named Ruth gave me my instructions. ‘For the next several months, at least you’re the surrogate father. I want you to come to the hospital every day to visit Zoe, and when you come, I would like you to rub her body and her legs and arms with the tip of your finger. While caressing her, you should tell her over and over again how much you love her, because she has to be able to connect your voice to your touch.’

Ruth was doing exactly the right thing on Zoe’s behalf (and of course on my behalf as well), and without realising it, she was giving me one of the best possible descriptions of the work of a leader. At the core of becoming a leader is the need to always connect one’s voice to one’s touch.”

Connecting one’s voice to one’s touch becomes a fitting metaphor for describing how a leader’s words synchronize with his actions thereby gaining credibility. How do you find your voice as a leader? To find your voice, you must engage in two essential tasks:

  • Clarify your values
  • Express yourself

Clarifying your values starts with first recognizing certain principles of life that are not subject to change. These principles can also be referred to as natural laws as they represent objectively verifiable realities outside of ourselves. We are not at liberty to express opinions about these principles. Can you imagine some group of people somewhere legislating against the law of gravity? How successful will such a group be? What about a business that is set up to do just about anything that is opposed to the principle of reciprocity? The business cheats its suppliers, mistreats its employees, gives shoddy service to its customers, avoids any form of social responsibility, etc. How successful can such a business be?

Once a leader recognises the changeless principles that govern the life of a business, organization, community or country, then he can take the next step of making valid value choices. We say value choices because the only value choices that are in harmony with natural principles can endure regardless of circumstances or time. This step is crucial for a leader for a number of reasons. The value choices you make as a leader provide you with a moral compass by which to navigate the course of your daily life. The clearer you are about your personal values, the easier it is for you to stay on the path you have chosen. The guidance which clarified values provide is especially needed in difficult and uncertain times. When there are daily challenges that can throw you off course, it is crucial that you have some signposts that tell you where you are; whether you are the head of the business, a community or country.

Values are freely and honestly chosen by you which are also underpinned by natural principles not only provide guidance for you as a leader but also define your beliefs and who you are. Before you can communicate your message as a leader, you must be clear about the message you want to deliver. Values help you to be clear about your message.

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