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Why our transformational change effort may fail (1)

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Buhari and Jonathan

Buhari and Jonathan

IN his seminal work on transformational change, Harvard Business School’s Professor Emeritus –John Kotter identifies eight reasons why organisations including governments fail to create and sustain transformational change.

As a fervent disciple of transformation and change – two words that actually go together but have been pulled apart by the politics of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and All Progressives Congress (APC) in Nigeria, I have reflected on Kotter’s widely accepted theory and tried to apply it to some of the lessons from the on-going transformation of President Goodluck Jonathan and the proposed change of President-elect, Muhammadu Buhari.

My sincere hope is that as a country we can learn from the lessons and failures of the out-going transformation effort and apply same to the in-coming change effort.

The first reason why our transformation effort failed was the failure of the out-going government to create a sense of urgency. When we teach leadership and change to corporates, we encourage leaders to “set fire” on the bum-bum of people, if you want them to change. The cavalier “business-as-usual” approach of the out-going administration allowed too much complacency – allowing people to do what they had hitherto done – like nothing was really changing.

For example, when we faced deep economic problems on the back of a global recession in 2009-10, we should have switched to “business unusual” by cutting down government expenditure and waste – there was no need to buy more official jets, use long convoys of vehicles, allow ministers to hire private jets or buy more bullet proof cars.

When Buhari was our military ruler, the whipping of undisciplined motor-park touts and frog-jumping of tardy civil servants as well as rationing of essential commodities was a clear indication of business-unusual. We appreciate, though, that under a democratic government flogging and frog-jumping may not be generally acceptable; we look forward to some clear signals of a sense of urgency if his change agenda will work, a la Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.

According to Kotter – failing to build a guiding coalition is a second reason why the transformation effort of the out-going government failed.

Even allies of the government have said severally that the President’s greatest failing was allowing himself to be surrounded by the wrong advisers. Without the dream team, your dream will fail, and if the President did have a dream of a transformed Nigeria, he definitely did not have the right team.

A case in point was clearly demonstrated when he finally went into coalition with our neighbours – Chad, Cameroun and Niger Republic. The guiding coalition of military leaders from our four countries helped to make significant progress against Boko Haram. If only we had a better guiding coalition of leaders around our President – people who are truthful, sincere, and ready to speak the truth and drive the vision.

The lesson for Buhari’s proposed change is that he should be careful with not just the members of his cabinet, but also the people to whom he gives his precious ears. I too am the leader of an organisation, and I am circumspect about my closest aides and confidants – careful that I am not lost in the world of deceit and half-truths spun by close associates and so-called friends, just so that they can get their way.

If there is one thing the Yar’Adua government did well which Buhari can learn from and which Jonathan could have done better was in crafting an effective vision. While many thought the seven-point agenda was too long, Yar’Adua’s vision was even more clearly articulated in a few words – “Rule of law.”

He used those words at every FEC meeting, NCS meeting, and in interactions with his cabinet and with Nigerians.

Those words had a deep meaning; they represented the short-code or pay-off line of his vision, just like in our organisation it is – Be Better.

We encourage corporate leaders to write their vision in the hearts and minds of their people, but more importantly to live out their vision and their creeds – Martin Luther King style! Transformation is a powerful word – the vision of transformation was flawed because it did not really represent the vision of what Nigerians wanted.

The disparity between the transformation that seems to have happened to a few privileged elite in the country and the transformation of hearts and attitude that we really need reminds me of the hope of Jews for a “military” messiah and the “spiritual” Messiah that Jesus Christ represented.

According to Kotter, under-estimating the power of vision can destroy a transformation agenda, and Buhari must be careful that his definition of “change” aligns with the type of change Nigerians are yearning for – not just a change in the material well-being of a few, but a deep-rooted change in our values-system and ethos – that will eventually transform the fortunes of even the most lowly in the society.

A young girl called Morenike gave me the answer of my life while I was teaching a Summer School Leadership session for teenagers in Abuja about three years ago. In response to my question on what leadership is, this 13-year-old was blunt: Leadership is example.

She could not have been more correct! Under-communicating the Vision is Kotter’s fourth reason.

One thing we teach corporate leaders is that the most powerful form of communication is personal example.

So, rather than waste billions of naira on elaborate branding campaigns that speak about the achievements of a government, our leaders should communicate more impactfully through personal example – I sincerely hope that in times of austerity our new leaders will be austere with themselves – that they will truly be the change that they want to see.

When Jonathan led by example by conceding defeat in the election even before the formal announcement from INEC was made, his political and leadership capital skyrocketed.

Imagine if similar acts of exemplary leadership were made earlier in his Administration by firing corrupt public officials, sanctioning undisciplined advisers, and rolling up his sleeves and getting his hands dirty in the war against Boko Haram and the release of the Chibok girls.

• To be continued.
• Barro is a Chartered Accountant and leadership trainer. He wrote from Abuja.


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