OUTSIDE THE BOX
BY ALEX OTTI
I was privileged to speak at the annual conference of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators of Nigeria, (ICSAN), Port Harcourt on October 19, 2018. I have taken liberty to share excerpts of my presentation with readers today.
Leadership is arguably the most popular subject of discuss at various conferences and seminars around the world. It is generally agreed that everything falls or prospers on leadership. The usually fully subscribed events on leadership around the world and especially in Nigeria show that as a people, we are in search of leadership given the outcomes of our national life. The pain for me often lies in this consideration: that citizens of nations that are clearly far ahead of us in all development indices seek leadership. The question therefore is: do we seek the same leadership they seek? What kind of leadership do we really seek, relative to them when we jointly attend such conferences? I remember a particular challenging comment from a speaker in one of the seminars I attended, where the speaker tried to explain why the West paid little attention to Africa in their foreign policies. He said on an economic and productivity basis, if Africa (and by the way that includes the “giant” of Africa) is taken out of the global economic map, the world will lose nothing materially. As leaders in Nigeria, we are poor by our own making and for lack of leadership we have impoverished ourselves.
One of the challenges this subject faces in Nigeria is its immediate association with “titles and positions” like the President of the Federal Republic or the Governor of a state. Indeed, we will not be wrong to think this way, after all, they take decisions that tend to rob off on us either for good or for bad. In our case, it would appear that a lot of cluelessness does exist among us when it comes to our form of leadership. We set out to improve the ease of doing business in Nigeria, after several years of independence. We have managed to achieve No.145 out of 190 countries, a drop from the last report card. The idea that we supply other countries more stable electricity than we can give ourselves, or how we allow our ports in Port Harcourt, Calabar, Warri and the like to run aground and Lagos is congested, or how we fail to plan out our infrastructure like the roads in Apapa or the National rail network just shows the quality of our stuff. How difficult can it be to build the Second Niger Bridge or set out to dredge the Niger River. We tend to set goals, which we are clearly unable to meet, or never intend to achieve. How do we explain Ajaokuta steel, Aladja Steel, The Aluminum Smelter Company, Nigerian Airways, the perpetual gas flare in the midst of insufficient gas supply, the deceitful argument around petroleum product subsidy versus cost under-recovery? One could go on and on.
One must confess that putting the blame successfully on others is psychologically comforting, but it is meaningless in its contribution to progress. One of the lessons we learnt quickly as children is to exclude ourselves from blame. When our mothers say, who broke the glass we quickly say “not me” as if your lack of blame shields you from the impact of the loss of the broken glass. That is okay as a child but certainly not characteristic of leadership. Our Lord did advise us that there is a pathway to leadership, which we often miss; and it is our evaluation of the role and responsibility we have in the outcomes and burden we bear. He said, figure out the log in your eyes first before you are able to help others deal with the speck in theirs. In other words, the fact that you can see the speck in your brother’s eyes is evident that you are not busy dealing with the log in yours. The implication is that our own personal leadership challenges represents a bigger (log) challenge than those we seem to see in others. If we are able to provide leadership in our own spaces, Nigeria will be a better place.
The idea that the responsibility for your circumstance is external to you only makes you fail by removing from you the power and responsibility to do something about it. Leadership is responsibility, in this case, irresponsibility should be defined as a person giving up his right to influence his circumstance by putting the blame completely outside himself. This is the story of Nigeria and its leaders. Even though as a nation we have failed so much, some other leaders of the past or even the colonial governments or some other person but us is to blame. When things go right, we take the glory without acknowledging all those that made it possible—winners take all.
Leadership is the process of influencing people to achieve an objective, which should be common to both the led and the leader. Actions that do not forge common objective choke the leadership ecosystem and do not encourage accountability and transparency. The objective so set is achieved through the commitment and willingness of both the leader and the led. Willingness is a very important part of being legitimately led, as without a collective commitment and willingness, no objective can be met. The challenge with leadership, however, is that both followers and leaders are not homogenous or naturally aligned, alignment is crucial and must be cultivated. It is not a natural occurrence. Any field left uncultivated yields an undesirable outcome (weeds), therefore leaders must learn to cultivate a common objective, passion, mutual respect and develop the systems that strengthen a focus on common objectives. Being more conscious of our differences than our similarities has never been so strong in our nation and unless we cultivate the value of our togetherness, our decision-making processes will be laced with divisive biases that slow down progress or promote inertia.
How does a young man who has been refused admission from a higher institution as a result of his ethnicity forge a common ground with another who got the admission with lower scores. The way we implement the federal character punishes legitimate aspiration rather than encourage integration. Let only performance discriminate among citizens because it holds within her the window of aspiration and endeavor. Of what use is trying to achieve what only a state of origin, religion or ethnicity can give if I am excluded on that basis seeing I cannot aspire to change my ethnicity, or state of origin.
It is our view that leadership is a paradigm that exists in a maturity continuum that begins with a state or mentality of dependence progressing to a state of interdependence. When people are dependent in their mindset, they exhibit traits similar to that of children, being a child in this case has nothing to do with age or the “not too young to run” movement. Nigerian structures largely run on this paradigm. Dependence paradigm speaks in the following way: “You should take care of me, you did not come through for me, I blame you for my problem. Give me my share of the national cake, (without playing any role in baking it). This road is a federal road, I cannot fix it; (even though your people suffer the most from its lack of repair). Increase our revenue allocation so we can pay salaries (without taking any meaningful step to increase IGR).” In this state, people hold on to things and are governed by fear of the possible outcomes of losing their object of dependence, making it difficult to even pass the Petroleum Industry Bill. They will never support true federalism or state policing as they believe centralization and control is the source of their relevance and power. They hold themselves responsible for producing nothing. Even if they drive the entire people from their state away through bad policies, they suffer nothing as their federal allocation is unconnected to what they do or do not do. They mostly complain about the problems created by others or the problem of the country. The fact is, if you cannot live above the problem of a people, you cannot lift them out of it.
The next stage is that of independence. This is characterized by a can-do spirit. While it is progress in the leadership maturity continuum, it nevertheless has disadvantages that frustrates cooperation. They have shown some success though. Here, you are your own man and see no need to negotiate or cooperate. You are proactive and are driven by your purpose and objective only. You have no room for others who hold a different view from yours. Leaders in this space often encounter a leadership bubble as they only hear what they want to hear. Their view of the world is fed by what the cabal around them say and contrary views must be coming from their opponents. Any channel of communication unsupportive of their actions is screened out. Their voice says listen to me, “understand my view because I understand what is going on”. They always want to win and do not recognize the concept of a wider stakeholder group needing consideration. They usually lead through intimidating others and because they hold the view that they are only accountable to themselves, the rule of law is only valid as long as it supports their course. When they fall, it is usually lonely as they have no support structure, they feel betrayed and most time end up as bitter. Given their disposition, they will seek leadership opportunity not to serve but to prove a point or sometimes settle old scores.
The true place of leadership in the continuum is the state of interdependence. Where the concept of leadership recognizes that other relationships and stakeholders are required for success. The language of interdependence will therefore be, “we can do it”, “we can cooperate and combine our talent for greater good”, “we can create something greater together”. This state is not afraid of employing the best possible talent, anywhere they can be found. This state, because it acknowledges other stakeholders knows it must be accountable and transparent. Leadership requires trust, and commitment to the objective, both of which are unviable ideas in an atmosphere lacking in transparency and accountability. Without trust, effective communication is difficult as conspiracy theories are built around every happenstance. This is why the freedom of information bill will prove one of the most useful tools in unlocking the capacity of our people in the coming years. Opaqueness are the tools of dictators, who think to lead they must keep the led in the dark. They are incapable of standing up to be challenged or giving account to the public of their stewardship. Interdependent leaders think win-win and seek to be sure they understand the perspective of different stakeholders making them keen listeners. Businesses in the private sector invest a whole lot into being transparent and are naturally accountable due to international standards of reporting. It is the reason the biggest corporations in the world are usually publicly quoted forcing leadership with accountability and transparency. This is the same also with the biggest economies in the world.
The point is that every nation has leaders impacting their communities, some of them in the private sector leading through enterprise and some others in non-governmental and non-profit organizations and we need to acknowledge them as people who have risen above the challenges of the country to lead people out of despair. People like Abisoye Ajayi Akinfolarin, one of the top ten CNN Heroes, who helps disadvantaged girls change their communities by teaching them coding. We celebrate her and hope she gets enough votes from Nigeria especially and around the world to make her win and do more. Irrespective of the votes, she remains a winner by my evaluation. This is an opportunity to use our massive population for a good cause. We seek to have a critical mass of leaders that can bring real change in Nigeria.
Leadership with accountability and transparency has also changed cities. Consider the case of Bogota, Columbia when in 1998 Enrique Penalosa took over. Bogota as a city faced similar challenges like Nigeria. They were experiencing economic recession, low citizen engagement, deep crisis in infrastructure and so on. They were able to transform through a frame work of transparency and accountability with a leader like Penalosa. They doubled their income, improved materially on their infrastructure deficit and grew their capex spend from 30% of total budget to 75%. Truly, amazing results can be achieved if all we did as a people and a government was to courageously pursue leadership with responsibility, accountability and transparency. Unfortunately, not all who are leaders have the characteristics or maturity required for the leadership state of interdependence. Just like Brian Tracy would say, “Leaders Think And Talk About The Solutions. Followers Think And Talk About The Problems.”