These are the remarks I made at the Leading Dadas conference, held by Akili Dada on October 3, 2017. The ideas contained in the address are entirely my own.
Thank you very much for honouring me with this invitation.
As a teacher, I know that students usually expect two things from talks like this; a) a definition of leadership and b) notes on how to be a leader. I would then add some bullet points to the slides and put some nice pictures.
Unfortunately for my students, and maybe even for you, I’m not that kind of teacher. I’m going to make my remarks difficult, not easy, and it’s up to you to simplify them into take-away bullet points.
Leadership or administration?
So what’s the difference leadership and administration?
Leadership is about vision, conviction, relationships, people, taking risks and seeing how actions fit in the bigger picture. Administration, on the other hand, is about playing safe and protecting interests. As Annick Bremen, an educator, explains, leaders emerge. Administrators are appointed.
To emerge as a leader requires a sense of character. I encourage you to be a person who is confident in their own self-worth, and in the legacy of others. Remember that you are here today because others cleared the path for you, and always act out of respect for them. The great poet Maya Angelou put it well in her poem “Our grandmothers,” when she said: “We go forth as alone, but stand as ten thousand.” That means that even if you make decisions and act alone, you do so within a legacy. You must know what that legacy is.
So you may see what I’m driving at. I’m saying that if getting into student government requires asking students for their vote, in a certain sense, you may become more of an administrator than a leader, because you will be appointed by the people. Your concern will be on getting things done, and in balancing different loyalties to the students who voted for you, to your university administrations, and even to yourself and your studies. You may have to make compromises, sometimes compromises which go against your conscience. You will have to please the people, so that if the people want to all throw themselves off a cliff, your choice is between being an administrator and guiding them off the cliff because you want to be loyal, and being a leader and persuading them not to go, because you want the right thing for them.
What makes the difference between the two? I think it is one key ingredient: freedom.
Leaders are free because they are driven by conviction, while administrators are driven by loyalty to whoever appointed them. That means that for you to really be a leader, you will need conviction.
What is conviction?
Conviction is a firmly held belief that has driven world events that have brought healing and social change. Conviction is deeply personal, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. It makes human beings resist torture and oppression, even when the world is urging them to cave in. Conviction makes people believe that what they are fighting for will eventually come to pass, even though they may not live to see that day come. It was conviction that inspired Martin Luther King Junior to say a day before his death, “I've been to the mountain top…and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
And how do we get conviction? Conviction is built on faith, knowledge and love.
Leadership and Conviction
Our conviction is founded on our faith, which is built on our love for God. Remember that faith is the belief not only in God, but also that whatever you are doing is part of God’s larger plan. By faith, I don’t mean that God will become the rubber stamp for your leadership; I mean that you are aware that God doesn’t need you to accomplish God’s plan, and God can actually proceed with that plan, whether you are part of it or not. That means that for a brief moment, you must forget yourself as an individual and ask: what does God require to be done?
The other pillar of conviction is knowledge. You must keep in mind the history and achievements of Africans worldwide since antiquity, and also the histories represented by the people you lead. History is important, especially in this age when you will hear statements like “it has always been done this way.” Never accept the word “always,” because that word is telling you there’s nothing to change, and I’m assuming that you’re all aspiring to change something.
Knowledge is also important because you need a theory of change. As Amilcal Cabral reminded us, not every theory leads to change, but you cannot change anything without a theory of change. That means that you have to read widely. Read not just about Kenya, but also about Africa and the world. I see that your programme this week includes learning about historical figures, especially women leaders. Take that knowledge seriously. Take notes if you must, and google the names you hear when you go back home.
The most important pillar of conviction is love. You must love the community you serve. Whatever you do must be driven by your belief in the humanity of everyone in your community, and your desire to see the best of them. When they don’t perform to expectation, first ask yourself what they need so that they do right, before asking how they can be prevented from doing wrong. Remember that rules and institutions are supposed to serve people; it’s not people who must serve the demands of the institution.
But even as you love everyone equally, you must treat the vulnerable with more care than you treat everyone else. Vulnerability is decided on age – therefore your students get preference to staff and workers. Vulnerability is also decided by gender – you must take greater care of female students and make no apology for it, even if the insincere boy child advocates scream at you. Vulnerability is decided by class – you must remember that sometimes the unskilled workers may need more consideration than students who have more education, and you must also consider students from poorer backgrounds first. Vulnerability may also be decided by ethnicity – take care of members of the community who come from underrepresented ethnic groups, due to historical inequalities, or take care of students from foreign countries. Vulnerability may also be decided by limits to physical ability. Pay attention to the physically challenged more than the able members of the community.
Leadership balances all these issues to make a decision, and your decision as a leader will give priority to the vulnerable. Administration, on the other hand, doesn’t care about people’s vulnerabilities because it tries to create a standard human being, and yet no such human being exists.
I have just complicated life, and complicated leadership for you. I have just indicated that leadership is not easy, because you will always be trying to get the balance right. And many times, you will get the balance wrong and you will make mistakes. And when you make mistakes, your constituents will point fingers at you, while others will say “see, we knew women can’t lead.”
But at the end of the day, the only thing you can never be wrong at, is at being yourself. As you go through the waves and the storms of leadership, never forget who you are. Surround yourself with people who know you and who remind you when you’re drifting away from yourself and your integrity. But most of all, remain in touch with who you are in terms of your identity, your personality, and your history. Be honest with yourself and those who love you. Do not hide your story by pretending that someone else’s words, or somebody else’s thoughts, or somebody else’s ideas, are yours. Frantz Fanon, the great revolutionary, said that every generation confronts different challenges, and each must discover its challenges respond to them. You cannot respond to the challenges of another generation. You cannot be someone else.
Own your own story. Speak from who you are, not from what you imagine others want you to be. Even when you seek the vote, do not try to be someone else. Speak in confidence. Act in love. Think with conviction. And stay rooted in the legacy of our elders, and in the strength of God.
May God bless you all.