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Leading Nigeria in treacherous times



Leading a country in this age of the internet demands you find ways to adapt more quickly to change. The old systems of command and control don’t work anymore. It hasn’t worked well for decades now. Which is why Nigeria is where we are. What is the alternative? Traditional management has been about improving control using best practices, standardization, measurement and reports. Focus has been on improving administrative practices, rather than psychological and cultural improvement. The industrialization of business processes through centralization, standardization and measurement has resulted in the improvement of efficiency at the expense of human freedom and creativity.

What then has been the result of this centralized control and statistical reporting? National prosperity and success is measured against the question, “How well do you follow standards, execute tasks and adhere to process?” It has caused people to focus on adhering to tasks and processes, rather than focusing on the achievement of customer satisfaction. This management approach has killed creativity and innovation. Project execution based on standards, templates, processes and checklists, causes people to lose the ability to think holistically, leaving us unable to take initiative.

The challenge of leading in a fast changing environment isn’t new. Military commanders have for decades wrestled with this exact problem. More than 200 years ago, military thinker Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) described war as chaotic, uncertain, full of friction and unpredictable. Clausewitz found that systems and rules don’t work in environments of uncertainty and rapid change. Instead, for organizations to perform well, they need to adapt to fast changing environments. Learning from Napoleon’s style of command.

On the 14th October, 1806, Napoleon’s French force faced a much larger Prussian Army at the Battle of Jena, yet despite the odds against the French, Napoleon’s army defeated the larger Prussian forces. After their defeat, the Prussian army reviewed their battlefield performance. Seeking to understand why they were so easily beaten. The lesson they learned was that the primary reason for Napoleon’s victory was his style of command. Napoleon did not lead by command and control.

Instead he gave his officers the authority to make decisions as the battle changed. Rather than waiting for approval from senior officers, Napoleon’s commanders were able to adapt and take independent action. In contrast, Prussian commanders dared not act on their own, they had to wait for orders from superior commanders. This led to wasted time and lost opportunities, as command and control required troops to blindly follow orders, even when those orders no longer made sense.

After World War 1, the Germans drawing inspiration from the Prussians where tight control over the troops led to poor decision making, created an alternative style of command. This new style required commanders to provide soldiers clear direction as to what needs to be done, while allowing soldiers the freedom to determine how to achieve it. Thus, soldiers were able to act independently. German commanders would never discipline a subordinate for showing initiative.

“In general, one does well to order no more than is absolutely necessary and to avoid planning beyond the situation one can foresee. These change very rapidly in war. Seldom will orders which anticipate far in advance succeed completely to execution. The higher the authority, the shorter and more general will the orders be. The face to face commander adds what further precision appears necessary. The detail of execution is left to the verbal order, to the command. Each thereby retains freedom of action and decision within his authority”-Helmut von Moltke, 1869 Chief of the German General Staff (1858-1888).

Creative leadership required the development of leaders who were willing to take responsibility for initiative and independent action. Fast changing situations in battle prevents you from doing advanced planning in any meaningful detail. This is made worse by the poor quality of information received during battle, which is often incomplete. What’s required is rapid decision making on the battle field. In Nigeria’s present situation of treachery and economic recession, speed matters more than precision. To trump a perfect solution, Nigeria needs leadership at all levels, not just in Aso Villa alone.

Which is why the acrimony surrounding the suspension of Usman Yusuf, the Executive Secretary of the National Health Insurance Scheme should not be repeated again. For the second time Yusuf was suspended by the board of his organization. Allegations of corruption was levelled against him. He has been accused of illegally executing N30 billion investments, inflating the cost of biometric capturing machines and unlawfully posting staff. Earlier in 2017, the supervising minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole suspended him over an alleged N919 million fraud. It has since become clear that Yusuf’s defiance has the complicity of Aso Villa.

Now that Yusuf has finally been suspended by the president, it shows a lack of creative leadership and respect for delegation of authority as cardinal principles of democracy. Creative leadership enables strong mutual trust to reign between leaders and followers making for good governance in the face of uncertain and ambitious situations. In the aftermath of upcoming 2019 elections, Nigeria demands good leadership. Traditional management approaches such as federal character, best practices which have been bastardized by the present administration must be restored in the days to come.

The roots of successful leadership in a treacherous terrain like Nigeria is cultural rather than technical. Cogent leadership lessons have been learnt again, over the centuries. But in Nigeria, it seems political leaders aren’t ready to absorb them. They prefer power politics to ideological and effective leadership. For the future, we prefer leaders with clear purpose and outcomes. For our unemployment woes, don’t plan far beyond what you can foresee. Making a mistake through immediate initiative is preferred to delayed decision making. Good enough now is better than a perfect solution later.

Mutual trust lies at the foundation of effective leadership; creative leaders are required to adapt to change. Leaders at all levels must be willing to take responsibility for initiative, independent decision making and action.

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