By Cdon Adinuba
Just before the Enugu State University of Technology conferred last December 16 an honorary doctorate of engineering on Emeka Okwuosa, the highly accomplished but little known founder of the Oilserv Group, I published an article highlighting his virtues and accomplishments which stunned most readers because they were knowing about him for the first time. They were touched by his humility, a rare virtue in a society known for showmanship and pomposity.
The University of Nigeria at Nsukka will on Saturday, January 28, 2017, award an honorary doctorate to Okwuosa. Okwuosa is an engineer, but the university is rewarding him for excellence in business administration rather than engineering. The university’s decision is sound. Management is a grave challenge in Africa, whether in the private or public sector, and this reality is a major cause of Africa’s economic underdevelopment, in spite of the tremendous natural resources on the continent. Those who have excelled in management should be recognized, so as to serve as role models.
Unknown to most people, a critical success factor in business growth is humility. Businesses run by humble and easily accessible people like Bill Gates, Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, Pascal Dozie, Oba Otudeko, Tony Elumelu and, of course, Emeka Okwuosa are likely to prosper and endure than those run by arrogant and contemptuous persons. Hence, humility is not considered by management scholars as a mere personal virtue but the basis of organizational growth and national economic prosperity. The world’s leading theorists in organizational knowledge and learning like Ikujiro Nonaka of Japan have in recent years been calling more appropriate attention to the critical role of humility in management. No person who has ever followed the story of the growth of Vanguard newspapers in Nigeria, which started with a shoe-string budget, can fail to appreciate how the humility of its chairman and publisher, Sam Amuka, has been driving its success.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s when new newspapers, like new banks, were springing up all over Nigeria, Vanguard employees were the most difficult to poach even with promises of better pay, bigger positions and higher responsibilities, as well as superior conditions of service. “I will not like to hurt Uncle Sam”, almost each of them approached to join a new organization would say. “Our chairman is a very nice, courteous and humble person. He eats with us in the staff canteen everyday and even buys those around food when he comes”.
In Nigeria, which is a hierarchical society, it is a big deal for the chairman of an organization to eat in a staff canteen, let alone sit side by side with his employees and joke with them as though they are equal. Nigeria is a good example of what the great Dutch social anthropologist, Geert Hofstede, calls in his seminal work on the global dimensions of cultural values a society with a high index on power distance. A culture with high power index is one in which there is a huge gap between those with power, on the one hand, and those without power, on the other, and those without power do not regard the big gap as an abnormality which should be reduced. In Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South America, people in both the private and public sectors are too deferential to those in power or have wealth or status or fame.
This situation perpetuates the “big man” syndrome in Africa or what Nigerians may call the “oga” phenomenon. In other words, these regions are marked by what social scientists refer to as tall hierarchy. Hierarchy has come under excoriating criticism in management schools across the world because it is a serious impediment to organizational growth. It makes information and knowledge exchange difficult. Therefore, modern management scholars advocate flat structures or egalitarianism which is well practised in places like Finland where a company chief executive and a clerk, for instance, can park their vehicles in any space they find; there are no special spaces for top executives. Egalitarian companies and societies are far more innovative than hierarchical ones. Egalitarianism explains to a considerable the extent the success of Nordic countries despite their limited natural resources and poor climate.
The “big man” syndrome makes such modern concepts as servant leadership difficult to take root in Africa, hence our perennial underdevelopment. Africans, in both the private and public sectors, do not generally expect humility and simplicity, the hallmark of servant leadership, from their leaders; they do not regard their leaders as servants who should minister to the needs of their followers, as required of servant leaders everywhere. The truth is that every African believes that he or she will someday be in a leadership position entitling him or her to humungous perks of office. In the famous 10-year study of the effects of cultural values on leadership styles across the world which was published in 2004, Project GLOBE identified a leadership style notorious in Africa: self protective leadership which is marked by acute personal interest, ostentation, class consciousness and elaborate protocol. Political science researchers describe the dominant leadership style in Africa as predatory.
Frankly, there are a lot of African cultural values which must change for Africa to leapfrog in economic terms. We need to inject a good dose of humility in leadership in both organizations and the larger society. Okwuosa has emerged Africa’s foremost developer of gas pipelines and metering facilities, and his firm is handling the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation’s (NNPC’s) OB3-48inch gas pipeline measuring 138 kilometres, the biggest on the continent, essentially because of his humility. He has since ventured into power generation. He is also building a $150m agric project in Anambra State to produce and process tomatoes. His firms are active in not just Nigeria but also Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Sierra Leone and other countries. In other words, he runs multinationals. Still, he is conscious of his roots. Okwuosa is on the verge of completing a one billion naira hospital in his hometown of Oraifite in Anambra State where he has built a long road for the community, awarded several scholarships, treated hundreds free in hospitals in Nigeria and overseas, and established businesses for many.
All this rapid and humungous growth has been facilitated by Okwuosa’s humility. It says something about this personality trait that though we have been friends for years, it is only recently that I got to know that Okwuosa has a private jet, let alone one which is one of the biggest and most sophisticated in Africa.
As the University of Nigeria at Nsukka bestows on my good friend a Doctor of Business Administration degree which he eminently deserves, we know this is merely one of the great honours on the way. He is worth everything in gold.
–Adinuba is head of Discovery Public Affairs Consulting.