Progress Driven Leadership

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By Joseph Nyanchama

The Past Should be a Point of Reference and Not a Place of Residence

Henry David Thoreau said, “I have learned this: If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.” When I discern this quote, I note that it has three verbs- advances, endeavors and meet. First, you advance, which means you progress. On further search, I have found out the word progress comes from the Latin word progredi, which means “to step forward.” You do not need to jump off a cliff; you simply need to take one step at a time. If you do this and move in the direction of your vision which you have envisioned, you will achieve your goals unknowingly.

Consistent progress through step by step in this day and age is an indispensable life skill for every leader. Leo Tolstoy in his eleventh book, writes about an ancient sophism consisting of Achilles that could never catch up with a tortoise he was pursuing in spite the fact that he was running at ten times as fast as the tortoise. By the time the Achilles had covered the distance that separated him from the tortoise, the tortoise had covered one tenth of that distance ahead of him. When Achilles had covered that tenth, the tortoise had covered another one hundredth and so on forever.

The reasoning behind the Achilles inability to overtake the tortoise is deduced from the fact that motion was arbitrarily divided into discontinuous elements, whereas the motion of both the Achilles and the tortoise was continuous. The lesson here is progress slowly if you must but make sure you do not stop.

Most of the leadership in the developing world has been waiting in futility for a change for the better for centuries without any result. I believe it is because most of them have not mastered the art of a progressive society. The biblical story of the ant (prov. 6:6-9) is a graphical illustration of the situation of leaders in the developing world today. Ants have no overseer or ruler, yet they are able to secure their future. Try to observe the movement of an ant, when it meets an obstacle, it never stops and can go under it or over it and the progress continues.

In one of ICPAK’s annual seminar which I attended, one presenter caught my attention. His presentation was entitled, “Kenya vision 2030 flagship projects: are we on track?” He started his presentation by showing how Valley Road area in Nairobi and Nairobi River looked like at independence and how the two areas looked at present. He went further to state that the two countries of Malaysia and Kenya had many things in common. Malaysia vision 2020 is comparable to Kenya’s vision 2030 and at independence Malaysia’s GDP was at par with Kenya’s GDP. The two nations had also similar ethnic relations challenges.

Arising from his presentation, I went out to find out how Malaysia was managing their vision 2020 and how it managed to progress faster than Kenya. I noted that Malaysia had a clear progress path and its vision 2020 under the stewardship of Dr. Mahathir Mohamed caught the imagination and excitement of the whole nation. His pragmatic approach to leading a multi-ethnic nation brought peace, stability, progress and prosperity.

I was struck when I read that any meeting that Dr. Mohamed chaired, whether cabinet or not, every participant had to carry with him or her a raw egg at all times. Those who thought it was ridiculous to carry an egg with them and decided to leave it behind had to go back for it. It was at the end of the meeting that the participants were told the significance of carrying the egg. Dr. Mahathir would tell them that living in a multi ethnic society is like carrying an egg, “if we don’t handle it well, it will crack and it won’t be easy putting it back”.

Dr. Mahanthir believed that for Malaysia to achieve progress, he needed to build a cohesive and coherent nation which was physically united and not easily destabilized by divisive forces such as ethnic, tribal, language, religion, class or regional differences. He understood that acquisition of both attributes of cohesion and coherence was important for progress because cohesion without coherence would be like a body without a soul.

I further found that in Malaysia, they had initiated multimedia super corridor (MSC) equivalent of our Konza city which occupied a central place in the government of Malaysia and was the engine behind her progress. In fact, the Prime Minister said one time that he could not allow the MSC to fail, “the Deputy Prime Minister and I will personally oversee the activities of the Multimedia development corporation and will resolve issues brought to our attention.” This means he was personally driving the nation’s progress.

I have used Malaysia as an example to demonstrate that progress requires commitment. You may notice for instance that before Malaysia started their great journey of progress, they had to come together as a nation. One may now ask how fast we are moving with vision 2030 or any other project in your institution as a leader. If not progressing well enough, please trace the tracks of Malaysia.

I may ask now, how is progress in your institution driven? If you were to look up the word drive in a dictionary, you would find this definition, “to guide, control or direct.” When you drive a car, it means you guide, control and direct it down the street or road. When you drive a nail, you guide, control and direct it into the wood. When you drive a golf ball, you hope to guide, control and direct it down the fairway.

Every institution is driven by something; there is a guiding force, a controlling, assumption, a directing conviction behind everything that happens. It may be may be unknown to many. Most likely it has never been officially communicated. But it is there, influencing every aspect of the institution’s life. So, what is the driving force behind the progress of your institution? If your institution is driven by tradition, you will hear the favorite phrase, “we have always done it this way.” The goal of a tradition driven institution is simply to perpetuate the past. But remember the past should be a point of reference and not a place of residence.

If your institution is driven by personality, you will hear, “what does the leader want?” if the leader has served the institution for a long time, he or she is most likely the driving personality. One obvious problem with this is that the institutions agenda is determined more by the background, needs and insecurities of the leader than by a genuine progress. In other words, the agenda of the institution rotates around a personality.

John Henry Fabre placed caterpillars in a circle. For twenty-four hours the caterpillars dutifully followed one another around and around. Then he placed the caterpillars around a saucer full of pine needles (their favorite food) for six days, the mindless creatures moved around and around the saucer, dying from starvation even though the abundance of choice of food was located less than two inches away. They were not progressing; they had stagnated, that is why they had to die.

Jean Giraudoux said, ‘Only the mediocre die always at their best. Real leaders are always improving and raising their bar on how superbly they can perform and how quickly they can move.” Leaders should strive to get better today than yesterday if they have to overcome the challenges of yesterday. They need to go beyond the call of duty in the realm of personal pride. They need to see the work they do as their signature and make excellence a lifestyle.

It does not matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle, when the sun rises up, you had better be running. Remember too that the past is a point of reference and not a place of residence!

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