Great by Choice: Lessons from LBS and Singapore

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Okechukwu Enelamah

We live in very interesting and challenging times! This is not just true for Nigeria but across the globe. Many of the established traditions and ways we have come to expect things to work are being challenged. Today, however, I have chosen to challenge us to reflect on certain principles and practices that are time tested and work as well today as they did in the ages past, and I know will continue to work. For it is on such time-tested principles and practices that great lives, institutions and nations are built.

Today, I will like us to focus on important lessons we can learn from the founders and visionaries who built Lagos Business School (and Pan Atlantic University) and the small city State of Singapore. The reason I have chosen to reflect on LBS and Singapore is not just because they both beat the odds to succeed under very challenging circumstances, but I believe there is a common thread that runs across these success stories that we can learn some important lessons from.

In fact, it was on a recent trip to Singapore, that I read Not By Chance memories of Lagos Business School written by Professor Albert Alos – the story of how Lagos Business School was founded and how it came to be rated by the Financial Times as one of the top business schools in the world.

Singapore, itself, is a fascinating case study of how a small city
state beat the odds to become a truly great nation – the story of
Singapore is well told in Lee Kuan Yew’s book From Third World to
First.

On a previous trip to Singapore in 2011, I picked up at the airport and read a book which had just been released at the time, Great By Choice by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen (Great By Choice is another way of saying Not By Chance). What do these three examples have in common? The success of Singapore; the emerging success of LBS/PAU; and the findings of Jim Collins (author of such great Business Books like Great By Choice, Good To Great and Built To Last).

My own observations and experience with top performing organizations like Arthur Andersen, Harvard Business School, Goldman Sachs and African Capital Alliance show clearly that there is a consistent thread (what you might even call a success formula) that runs through the evolving success story of LBS/PAU (as captured in Not By Chance by Professor Alos), the phenomenal success of Singapore and the research findings of Jim Collins – who probably more than any contemporary business writer has focused his work on what it takes to build great organizations and institutions.

Success Formulas on Which We Can Build Our Lives, Organisations and Nation: (1) Visions of Greatness – It was another great business writer, Stephen Covey who said “All things are created twice; first mentally; then physically.” Lee Kuan Yew had a vision of a world class Singapore and under his able leadership they built the Singapore of their dreams.

Professor Alos, Professor Elegido and the other founders of LBS beat the odds to build a world class business school rated by FT as one of the top business schools right here in Nigeria (at a time when the overall higher education environment in Nigeria was declining). Arthur Andersen & Co., where I trained as an accountant believed in “one firm concept” globally and against the odds, under the leadership of Dick Kramer and Nigerian partners he trained, they built Andersen into a world class institution right here in Nigeria.

The Bible says “without vision the people perish.” In other words, without vision and purpose, people’s careers and lives would flounder and institutions would lose their way. Part of the reason we are propelled by vision is that there is great power in Desire. If we envision something and truly desire it, we have a real shot at such a thing becoming a reality.

As human beings, we are propelled by vision and we are propelled by what we truly desire. We are driven by what we see! This is the realm of faith. Great institutions and great lives are built by visionaries who defy the odds and embrace their dreams. In my own experience, every time I have mental clarity on a matter or project, I know that it is just a matter of time before the physical result or manifestation will follow. This is why it pays to spend quality time to envision, to plan, to dream: because all successful things are created twice, first the mental creation then the physical creation.

By way of illustration, my number one priority in government (what you
might call my vision and mission in government) is for us to work
together to create the right enabling environment for our people and
businesses to thrive and reach their full potential.

Professor Alos, in the book “Not By Chance” repeatedly said they implemented with rigor and discipline what they had agreed with their supporters and donors – I believe the quality of planning and visioning that went into the various projects must have been superior! Take time to plan your life, plan for your family and plan for your organization. Please do not believe the naysayers and doubters that say it is impossible to plan in Nigeria or in a world as uncertain as the one we live in!

The leaders and founders of great institutions like LBS/PAU and countries like Singapore, were not just dreamers, in fact they, in a counterintuitive way as we look back, actually benefited from and were propelled by adversity! This leads me to the next pillar on which great lives and organisations are built: Propelled By Adversity.

II. Propelled By Adversity “Uncertainty, chaos and luck – why some thrive despite them all” The above quote is from the book, Great By Choice. In the book, the authors posed the question: “why do some companies thrive and become great in the midst of uncertainty (and all the ups and downs of life), even chaos, while others do not?” We are told that eagles ride the storm to soar higher. Singapore faced great adversity and beat the odds; and with purposeful determined leadership emerged stronger.

Professor Alos in his book recounted many great challenges LBS/PAU faced, some existential but here we are today celebrating a university that is waxing stronger and stronger. There is a growing body of work that shows our attitude to adversity, what we do with adversity, may well be the most important determinant of success in life! You probably have heard the expression: a crisis is too great an opportunity to waste! We are currently going through a difficult time as a country – I pray we will not squander this opportunity. Character is formed in the midst of adversity. The bad times do more for our character than the so called good times! Whether as a nation, school, company or as individuals.

Here is how the Bible confirms what adversity can do for character. “Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete.” As a student at HBS, I took a class on Business, Government and International Economies (which would be comparable to the LBS class on Business Policy). One of the most important takeaways from that course, is that every great nation we studied benefited greatly from and was propelled by adversity. We studied nations like Germany, Japan and Singapore.

I believe Nigeria is on the threshold of greatness – I believe we can be propelled by the adversity we are currently going through to embrace our destiny of greatness. In order for this to happen, we have to seize the opportunities created by the current challenging environment with both hands!

III. The Power of Compound Interest- It was Albert Einstein that said
“compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who
understands it, earns it … he who doesn’t … pays it.”
Lee Kuan Yew led Singapore to become great over a generation applying
a consistent success formula that works.
Dick Kramer used to tell us that if you apply a success formula long
enough in Nigeria you will succeed. Rome was not built in a day, the
saying goes.

It takes time to build anything worthwhile. The story of the success of LBS and PAU as told by Professor Alos in Not By Chance dates back to the sixties and seventies when the foundation was laid. Dick Kramer came to Nigeria in 1978 to start the Lagos office of Arthur Andersen & Co. He retired in 1994 and the firms that came out of his work, KPMG Professional Services and Accenture, have grown exponentially and become great success stories. What is the lesson in this for us? Take time to build things the right way so they would endure.

Oasis of Sanity: The pioneer class of the LBS Chief Executives program coined a term “oasis of sanity” to capture their commitment to individually go and build their companies using the values they espoused and shared in common (I might add this was also at a very difficult time). The idea being that these oases can and will eventually come together to become an ocean! Life is a marathon, not a 100 metre dash! In his book, Outliers, the story of success, Malcolm Gladwell, points out that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to become world class in anything – this is roughly 10 years of effort and practice. We have to make the right investments and build the right habits over time and success will necessarily follow.

The Power of Compound Interest means if you do the right thing day in day out, year in year out, greatness will be the result. You have probably heard the expression: “First we form habits, and then they form us. Conquer your bad habits or they will conquer you.” Build your life on habits of success.

IV. The Joys of Service – Great institutions and organisations are built by those described by Jim Collins as “Level 5 Leaders” who choose public service and making contributions to society over self-interest. (They also combine competence and character, humility and toughness etc.).

Lee Kuan Yew gave his life and service to Singapore. The builders of
LBS and PAU are men and women who are deeply committed to public
service and frequently gave up thriving and promising careers in
business in order to give back to society.
Nigeria needs a critical mass of people who are genuinely committed to
public service and building a great nation.
The great Apostle Paul said “his life had been poured out as a drink
offering” and we are told he died empty! Here is the interesting
thing: life teaches us that there is much joy and fulfilment in
genuine service.

This is the higher life, this is the greater honor!
A little over a year ago, I was invited to join the Nigerian Federal
Government as a minister. I must say I feel highly honored and rather
fortunate to be given such an opportunity to serve our country
especially at such a time as this. And I intend to make the most of
it! I am excited about public service, it is a great honour to serve
one’s nation, to serve one’s people. My purpose is to build a few
lasting reforms and initiatives which, like LBS/PAU, give lasting
value to Nigeria.

We must rediscover the joys of service! The pleasures of giving. The Bible says “it is more blessed to give than to receive”. I believe the likes of Apostle Paul, Lee Kuan Yew, Professor Alos, Professor Elegido, Dr. Christopher Kolade, Professor Pat Utomi, Dr. Enase Okonedo (to name just a few) have discovered the joys of service! The Joys Of Giving! Make serving and giving a key part of your life and you will live the good life!

V. The Challenge of Stewardship and Custodianship – I recently visited our mentor, who until recently was the Pro Chancellor of PAU, Dr. Christopher Kolade. As we discussed, he threw a challenge to me and to our generation, including those of us at LBS/PAU. Here is the challenge – where are those who are ready to accept the responsibility of custodianship to continue the pioneering work done by people like Professor Alos? Are we ready to build on the work of those who came before us and take these great institutions higher and forward?

Lee Kuan Yew before his death threw the same challenge to the present and future leaders of Singapore. In his last book, “Hard Truths to keep Singapore going”, he emphasized the importance of continuing to produce and choose good able leadership to keep Singapore competitive, relevant and viable.

The same is true for Lagos Business School (LBS) and Pan Atlantic
University (PAU). We need Level 5 competent custodians who share the
values of the pioneers to keep LBS and PAU going. As a nation, we are in desperate need of visionary leaders and custodians to steward and shepherd our nation to greatness and build on the work of those who came before us.

Dr. Kolade shared the Athenian Oath with me. Here is a modern translation – “we will ever strive for the ideals and sacred things of the City, both alone and with many; we will increasingly seek to quicken the sense of public duty; we will revere and obey the city’s laws; we will transmit this city not only not less, but greater,
better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”

Ladies and gentlemen, our dear graduands, this is the challenge of our time: How to be custodians and stewards of what has been bequeathed to us with a view to making it better: “not only not less, but greater, better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.” Let me close with two very specific challenges to u: Make a commitment today to become an oasis of sanity by building your life, family and
organisation on these time-tested principles and practices we have
reflected on today.

Secondly, let us all commit and accept the responsibility of continuing the great work started by the founders and visionaries of LBS/PAU and build it into a truly world class university and institution of higher learning.

––Being an abridged speech originally titled: Great by Choice, delivered by the Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Dr. Okechukwu Enelamah, b delivered as Guest Speaker at the Lagos Business  School Convocation