Organisations come in different shapes and sizes. They are driven by different ethos and ideologies. They are, also, confronted by different issues and challenges.
As a business school professor, I have always been intrigued by these organisational differences and their manifestations. Having spent significant amount of time researching private sector firms, I have recently turned my attention to public sector organisations, especially in Africa.
From my encounter, so far, the public sector and public service can be esoteric and eccentric in many ways to an outsider. One of the quintessential characteristics of this sector is its bureaucracy, which has an unmatchable ability to replicate and reproduce itself in the strangest of places and spaces. Perhaps this strangeness harbours its uniqueness, which is rarely missed when encountered.
In every encounter, I often wonder what makes public sector organisations tick and what sustains the enthusiasm of their employees in their everyday work life. In my view, good public servants in Nigeria are usually D.E.A.D in the sense that they: 1) are Driven by purpose and principles, 2) Expect nothing from anyone, 3) Allow others to be and 4) are Detached. Although they are in the minority, these are apt survival strategies in a system where it is very hard to be different.
Despite these supposedly good but rare attributes, one of the issues I find very intriguing in my encounter with the Nigerian public sector is the aversion towards competition and meritocracy, and the subtle acceptance of the assumption that seniority is sacrosanct. This is surprisingly very common, engrained in organisational routines, and goes unquestioned.
Seniority here does not necessarily imply better competence, nor does it imply suitability. It doesn’t even mean age, although they are often highly correlated. Seniority can be determined by such flimsy factors as the date and time one resumed duty at an organisation.
Imagine two people who received their employment letters to resume on the same day for the same job and on the same level. The first to have his or her name recorded automatically becomes senior to the other. This is horizontal seniority. From day one, the future and career progress of these two people in this organisation are firmly determined.
There is also vertical seniority, which is a function of one’s level/cadre in a public sector organisation. Either way, seniority confers position power and authority. And the fear of authority in public sector organisations is the beginning of wisdom.
There is no place where this seniority consciousness is better expressed than in leadership succession. In both instances of horizontal and vertical seniority, where there is a leadership vacuum in a public sector organisation, the most senior steps into leadership. No ifs, no buts! There is no competition.
Correspondingly, seniority and other things that undermine both competition and merit are often emphasised, promoted, and encouraged. It may sound bizarre to an outsider, but that’s how the system works. The savvy ones understand it and try to take advantage of it. But is this system of leadership succession necessarily effective?
The importance of organisational leadership cannot be overemphasised. Organisational survival and performance are both functions of leadership. Leadership sets the tone and direction of travel. Leadership mobilises, aligns, and orchestrates resources to achieve organisational goals and vision.
On face value, therefore, it is fair to say that this system of leadership by seniority is not a good way to run an organisation. Research evidence shows that competition brings out the best in people. Competition affords people the opportunity to demonstrate how best they can contribute to the growth of an organisation, and offers an organisation an opportunity to choose from a pool of competent people.
In that regard, competition, arguably, often leads to optimal and efficient outcomes. Even though this may not always be the case – especially in weak institutional contexts – in most instances, it delivers. Competition, in turn, presupposes meritocracy – i.e. the best man or woman for the job.
Obviously, competence matters. Suitability matters, as well. Sacrificing these two on the altar of seniority will definitely spell doom for any organisation. There are instances where some people have ended up in roles and positions way beyond their competence, interests, and aspirations. A cursory assessment of the Nigerian public service will more than convince anyone who cares to know.
Furthermore, dependency on the practice and cult of seniority for organisational leadership can only induce complacency and a turn-by-turn mentality, which appears not to be in short supply in the Nigerian public service, unfortunately. In such instances, the organisation suffers and the leaders suffer as well – i.e. a classic case of a lose-lose scenario.
It is, thus, not surprising that the Nigerian public service often continues to wobble, struggle, and stumble under inefficient and arcane management practices. But why does leadership by seniority persist?
One way to account for the persistence of this practice is to look towards works on cross-cultural management. A classic example is the work of Hofstede – a Dutch social psychologist, management scholar, and practitioner. He argued that organisational and management practices in many societies can be understood based on some key factors – one of which is what he called “power distance”.
Power distance is the belief that we are not all equal and, therefore, we should be happy with our stations in life and not aspire beyond them. Some cultures and societies strongly imbibe and enact this worldview. However, empirical evidence suggests that societies with such beliefs and philosophies tend to, amongst other things, prioritise seniority over some other salient factors such as competence and merit. These societies, unfortunately, also, tend to perform poorly and sub-optimally.
Nigeria scores high on power distance and it manifests in the public sector’s emphasis on leadership by seniority, in particular. Perhaps, this is an area the public sector can learn from the private sector, which appears to have relatively found a way to minimise the risks of this problem. At least, many top leadership positions in the private sector are open to competition.
This brings in some elements of market discipline. It, also, strongly promotes meritocracy – one of the hallmarks of new public management. This is a good practice, which many successful economies and societies have embraced. Such economies and societies recognise that leadership is critical and can’t be left to the whims and caprices of questionable seniority criteria.
However, where there is an urgent and pressing need for immediate leadership succession in a public sector organisation, which is understandable, and where seniority becomes the fairest and easiest way to go in the interim, such appointments should be on an acting basis for a clearly specified period of time to allow for proper enactment of a competitive and meritocratic leadership succession. The current open-ended approach to such situations in the Nigerian public service is backwards and not fit for purpose. It could, also, be dysfunctional and terribly unhelpful.
The Nigerian public service should look for creative ways to redress this anomaly. Local and international actors involved in public sector reform in Nigeria may, also, wish to prioritise the threats of leadership by seniority in their interventions. There is need for more awareness and mental shift to tackle this menace before it completely wrecks the public sector.
Competence and suitability are definitely more important than seniority! The credibility and legitimacy of a leader of an organisation matters a lot to the leader, the followers and other stakeholders. This shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Finally, we must not be victims of the worldview that says we are not all equal! It’s outdated. It can be challenged. Let’s do something about it. Let’s rise above the ineffectiveness and mediocrity of leadership by seniority and embrace the ethos of new public management. It’s the future!
Amaeshi is a Policy Analyst and Professor of Business and Sustainable Development at the University of Edinburgh Business School, United Kingdom.
He tweets @kenamaeshi