The Fish Gets Rotten from The Head: The Leadership Question

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OUTSIDE THE BOX

BY ALEX OTTI; alex.otti@thisdaylive.com

“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep, I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion” Alexander The Great.

Great minds have defined leadership in different ways. But the above description of leadership appeals to me most. Alexander the Great attempted to situate strength within leadership arguing that no matter the amount or volume of resources available to an institution, society or nation, they would fail if the leadership is not right. Professor Warren Benise, a notable thinker in the subject matter tried to differentiate leaders from managers thus, “leaders are people who do the right things, while managers are people who do things right. Literature is replete with postulations about leadership. Leadership is about setting a clear and sharp vision, setting a clear direction, and establishing a clear road map that will guide a team, an organisation, a company, or a nation to win and achieve set goals and targets within a defined time frame.”

The Global Leadership and Organisational Behaviour Effectiveness (GLOBE) research project  initiated by Robert House in 1991 and published in 2004, identified 21 valued leadership attributes to include trustworthiness, foresight, intelligence, administrative skills, excellence, planning, decisiveness, communication skills, dependability, information orientation and team building skills. The project also highlighted undesirable attributes which define ineffective leadership as lone ranging, irritability, ruthlessness, asocial posturing, non-explicitness, dictatorial tendencies, noncooperation and egocentricity.

To my mind, most of the positive attributes of a leader would come under the term, vision. Vision can simply be defined as a proactive, realistic and convincing depiction of where one wants to be in the future. Even the Holy Scripture records in the book of Proverbs that where there is no vision, the people perish.

The performance of any organisation has a lot to do with its leadership. Starting from the family, there is no argument that successful families, (and I have used the term successful very loosely here) trace their success to the quality of leadership that they parade. Same can be said of institutions, businesses, clubs, societies and geographical entities. In business, if the leadership is not clear about its vision and wants to be everything to everyone, the chances that it would excel are very slim. Several top-rated institutions of higher learning have therefore designed different leadership programmes for top management of organisations and they charge a lot of money for that. If you take a look at organisations whose management have prepared for leadership, you would notice that they stand out amongst their peers.

Writing about his vision, the ruler of Dubai, Sheik Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, noted that the major crisis most nations face today is that of leadership. “This is the kind of crisis that is bound to happen when lust for power prevails over granting people the love and care they deserve, and when the interests and destiny of one individual become more important than those of a whole nation. This is also what happens when the interests of some groups and cliques benefitting from certain leaders are served, instead of those of all the people; in other words, when you put the people at the service of the government, in sharp contrast with the norm.” He went further to argue that the distinctive development experience of the UAE is an example of what can happen when God blesses a country with a selfless leadership that strives for the good of its people and not its own.

When you look around you, you are bound to notice relics of failure of leadership in some form or the other. It may be in the form of failed families with failed values or failed organisations or failed companies or failed governments. There is always this tendency to blame the failure on the people, the workers or in some cases, the followers. It is our contention that nations fail because of the quality of leadership that they have had. The nation may be blessed with natural resources like ours. But when you do not have the right kind of leadership that will articulate a clear vision of how to harness the resources to benefit a greater majority of the populace, the resources would not save that country. It has in fact been argued that most resource rich countries tend to be inflicted with lousy leadership that end up frittering away the resources and leaving such countries in sorry states of underdevelopment and poverty. This is not untrue of our country and a lot of other third world countries.

Recently, we have been told of attempts to resurrect some of the moribund organisations owned by government that went under. These include Nigerian National Shipping Line, Nigeria Airways and probably a few more. A lot of arguments have been adduced for the volte face. The major one being national pride. I am still researching “national pride” as a factor or reason for taking an economic decision without much luck. Be that as it may, I believe we can find other reasons including job creation, and economic development to rationalise such decision. It is a known fact that in some cases, governments invest directly in the economy to provide basic infrastructure and to bridge the gap in areas that the private sector may not find very attractive. Such areas may include transport and other public utilities like pipe borne water, healthcare delivery and education. Before we go too far with revitalising the dead public enterprises, it is important to understand why they went under in the first place. This is necessary to forestall them going the way of their predecessors. Let me state that I am not against government investing in the economy.

On the contrary, I share the view that government intervention is critical to development. It is on that basis that I had argued in the past for government to fund the rehabilitation of our refineries and other enterprises of a public nature. The question of management of such enterprises is open for debate. I wish to contend that public organisations that collapsed in the past did not fail because of their ownership structure. There is ample literature about private institutions and companies that have gone down in the past also. However, one thing is common amongst them. They all failed largely because of poor leadership. You will have to start with an examination of how the leadership was appointed and put in place. What qualifications and experience did the recruiters look at before such appointments were made? Were the appointments based on merit or on the basis of some mediocre considerations including ethnicity, religion, creed or gender? What was the mandate of the leaders? Did the leadership have a vision? What was expected of them and who was responsible for measuring their performance?

The continued bashing of publicly-owned institutions and the almost dogmatic acceptance that the private sector is the messiah seem to have dominated recent discuss. It is almost like saying that anything public sector is doomed to fail as against the private sector. The truth, however, is that for every one public sector institution that failed, there are thousands of private sector institutions that also failed. Granted that there are only a handful of public sector organisations as against the large number of private sector companies in the country, a more thorough comparison may not be out of order. The point, however, is that public institutions that failed, mostly failed because of poor leadership. It is not our intention to ignore some other indicators of inefficiency in public sector enterprises which will include capacity utilisation, wastage, inability to meet targets, staff issues, vague and conflicting objectives, lack of autonomy, inflexibility in decision making, poor credit controls and absence of clear targets. In fact, in 1984, General Muhammadu Buhari, the then Head of State and Commander in Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, set up a study group led by Ali Al-Hakein to look into the problems of Public Sector Enterprises. This group came up with some of the issues highlighted above which is true over 30 years after. Even if we admit that because of the profit motive of the private sector, there is more rigour in managing such organisations, there is nothing stopping public sector institutions from the profit objective and orientation.

The issue remains that because most public sector agencies see themselves as cost centres, in choosing leadership for organisations that should be profit driven, those attributes that make for effectiveness are hardly considered. And because people without vision are in leadership, such organisations are unable to do well. Like we had argued earlier, there are a lot of sectors that are not attractive to the private sector and no matter how much preaching we do, the private sector will not invest in them. Again, some sectors are so capital intensive that the capacity of the private sector to invest in them is simply nonexistent. Refineries will be one of them while some aspects of power will be another. Gigantic infrastructure projects must be executed by government, otherwise, they will not be done. Let me state at this juncture that I am a proponent of the market economy. But I also hear what the people who sold the market economy model to us are not saying. What they don’t say aloud is that government must be on hand to intervene to ensure against distortion and unwanted fall outs of the free market.

I am of the opinion that government must on no account abdicate its responsibility to invest in critical sectors of the economy. We should massively invest in areas that are not immediately attractive to the private sector but are important to the rest of us. It is our inability to invest in our areas of need that has left us in the kind of infrastructural deficit we find ourselves today. In doing that we must ensure that the decision is based on an integrated rational planning and measurable goals, targets and efficiency criteria. Depending on the type of investment that the government wants to make, different models exist. There is the wholly-owned enterprises like rail lines, transmission lines etc. Then there is the joint venture model and the Public Private Partnership model. Most of the international oil companies are in joint venture with government. The beauty of this model is that the operating companies bring their expertise to bear in managing the joint venture companies. An example is the NLNG which is a multi-billion dollar company owned 49 per cent by the federal government through the NNPC and 51 per cent by the trio of Shell, Total and Agip who provide leadership in addition to their equity.

After the investment, we should then settle the issue of management. It has been argued here and elsewhere that what determines effectiveness and efficiency of an enterprise is not its ownership structure but how it is managed. Once government has invested in the sectors that have been earmarked, it must ensure that the right leadership is put in place. The government may choose to outsource management to experts who would be given clear targets and deliverables with consequence management procedure clearly spelt out. It is also the prerogative of government to decide to privatise or commercialise such investments all in the hope that competent leadership would be installed.

From the foregoing, it is clear that what is at issue is not who owns organisations but who leads them and the kind of skills such leaders have. An incompetent leadership will produce mediocre results. It is also true of political structures and organisations. These days, you hear a lot of politicians call others “leaders”. Next time, before you call someone your leader, pause a moment and ask yourself if the person has the right attributes to be so addressed. And to those who people call leaders, confirm that you are not being humoured by attempting to answer the question posed in the 2006 book written by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones thus “Why Should Anyone Be Led By You”?