Truly, we aren’t all equal

Guest Columnist:: Kenneth Amaeshi

Kenneth Amaeshi

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

  • obinnna77

    Welcome, new voice. Here’s to hoping that you are not overly politically correct, and not overtly pandering to the powers that be.

  • RumuPHC

    Leadership in public service is the most serious of all challenges bedeviling Nigeria today. Political leaders are in government for just 4 years meanwhile civil servants are there for eternity. It is therefore difficult to hold politicians responsible for the glaring failures in public service across the country.

    Invariably the culpability of political leadership in the mess that is public service is largely that it is elected leaders that can bring about changes and reforms in the public . However it takes a competent leader to know what good leadership is all about. Unfortunately the crop of political leaders available appear not to understand leadership talk less of good leadership.

    Seniority as qualification for leadership is archaic and a device of colonialism. It is competence and competition that can engender good leadership. Nigeria is is great need of good leaders public and political.

  • MDG2020

    This editorial at best can be described as an academic rigmarole in futility. Nigerians are tired of all these academicians with verbose alien language that has failed to directly situate the root of our common problem where they should be, thereby further confusing the uninformed on both side of the spectrum.
    Simply ask, what is the broblem with our government ministries, agencies and parastatals?
    Simple answer, the penchant of foolani/hausa’s to consistently deployed illiterates and semi-literate foolani/hausa vasals to man critical sectors that are germane to the general development of the country, Nigeria.
    Name the ministry or agency or parastatal! Who is the head?
    Nigerian Police! Who heads it? Permanent Secretary! and IG!
    Nigerians Customs! Whois the head? Permanent Secretary! and CG!
    Nigerian Ports Authority! Who is the Head? Permanent Secretary! and MD!
    National Hospital! Who is the head? Permanent Secretary! and CMD!
    Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources! Who is the head? Permanent Secretary! and minister!
    EFCC! Who is the head? Permanent Secretary! and Chairman!
    Supreme Court! Who has been heading it? CJ
    Appeal Court! Who has been heading it? CJ
    Federal High Court! Who has been heading it? CJ
    Petroleum Ministry! Who has been heading it? CJ
    NNPC! Who owns it? CJ
    Aviation Ministry! Permanent Secretary! and minister!
    Nigerian Army! CoaS? who has been heading?
    Nigerian Navy! CNS? Who has been heading?
    Airforce! Who has been heading?
    Defense Ministry that was once selling salt (UnionDicon)! Remember?
    Solid Minerals! Permanent Secretary! Who has been heading it?
    Education! Permanent Secretary! Who has been heading?
    I can go on and on and on. We are where we are today because the Foolani / Hausa have refused to concentrate on their core area of competence (Farming), improve on it and develop it for their good and common good of Nigeria, while governance and resource management is left in the hands of others that are competent and well groomed educationally for such role.
    Less I forget, Ministry of Presidency! who is the Executive there? and who has always been there?
    Please Southern Elites, should leave Verbose grammar and look for a native way to engage these our brothers from the Sahel, to understand that their continuous lust for power and position is not doing them and the entire country any good, or better still look for ways to do away with them and the center and device/evolve strategies that can enhance development in the South from local to state and regions. Maybe, maybe then and only then can real competition that can stimulate the needed competition and competence needed to develop our blighted nation.

  • danladi

    Good write-up. But i beg to differ. Seniority is just a tip of the iceberg hampering the civil service. The greatest challenge is lack of performance contracts which stipulates clear cut performance targets within stipulated timelines. For example, The President has not set performance targets for his Ministers and the Permanent Secretaries (even if there are, there are no consequences for not achieving those targets within specified timelines). These are not clearly outlined in the Civil Service rules and regulations. Secondly, the concept of lifetime employment with the civil service is horrible (despite being redundant and unproductive, the system can keep a civil servant for 35 years or age 60, 65, 70 as the case may be for civil servants, academics or judiciary workers). What are the options? The simple reform is to first do away with the “generation long” appointment tenure system and replace with fixed term 5-year contract appointments. These can be renewed based on clearly defined performance targets and clear job descriptions (another Achilles heel of the civil service, as there is complete blurring of job descriptions that makes shifting of responsibilities very rampant). Secondly, introduce Pro Rota payments using bio-metrics time sheets (once advocated by Mr Danladi Kifasi, a retired HOS). This will take care of redundancy, truancy and absenteeism. shallom!

  • Muyiwa Adeboye

    Thank you for a very in depth write up on Nigeria’s very sick public service. It is very interesting to state that Nigeria’s public service was initially modelled after the British public service BUT thanks to the 1975 coup which brought in “the immediate effect” syndrome. A lot of brilliant civil servants were sacked unceremoniously. This sounded the death knell of our country’s civil service. As a result, a lot of quality manpower from the Universities chose the way of the private sector. However, most importantly, Nigeria’s civil service has remained without any form of strategic (long term) reforms. Some of the Civil Service rules in place (chief amongst these rules is the “seniority” trump card you dwelt upon in your write up) have been in existence since the fledgling years (late 50s to early 60s) of the civil service. While other nations have moved on, our dear country is still stuck in a time warp. The very best way to reform the service, even beyond the seniority succession issue is to completely rewrite the civil service rules and this should not be done by the civil servants themselves but by total outsiders who have sound knowledge about other countries’ public services and their efficiency levels. As long as our public service remains in this very pathetic state, any government should not even mutter about the slogan “Ease of doing Business”. That will remain a total fallacy.