A week or two ago, I was chosen to represent administrators at our university’s council. Initially, I hadn’t been thinking about the council but about how honored I was to continue the legacy of two colleagues, Prof Peter Ngure and Prof. Peter Mageto, whom I greatly admire for being rigorous scholars and leaders who take care of the “least of these.”
I would have remained blissful if I didn’t start receiving congratulations. Every now and then, people could not resist mentioning that I was on the council. And my phone started ringing a little more than usual. It now mattered whether I had received documents in good time, whether I had found somewhere to park my car, and whether I had eaten lunch. I then remembered how I felt when I was appointed head of department 5 years ago. All around, people were congratulating me, but my heart sank, because as my advisor told me, the appointment would kill my academic career. And my advisor has been proved right. I had planned to have a book hot off the press by now. I haven’t even started writing. I had a target of presenting papers at two academic conferences a year. I’m lucky when I present at even one a year. I badly, badly would like to supervise creative graduate work that is socially conscious, in the style of scholars like WEB Dubois, Lewis R. Gordon and Tiyambe Zeleza who write knowing how much the thinking by African peoples actually matters. Instead, I “examine” theses that have limited social consciousness, and seem more about passing and getting a certificate and probably becoming prestigious, or getting a ticket to teach university classes part-time.
So I became equally ambivalent about this council nomination, and shared my feelings on facebook, expecting some consolation my friends, and especially given that I had ended with the words: I don’t want congratulations.
The congratulations still came in.
The reason why I’m bothered about the celebration is because I still haven’t accomplished my goal, which was to establish a respect for the arts, receive more students in the languages and music so as to pull the programs out of the shadow of being called unviable, and to increase the number of students and faculty who attend our public lectures from our current average of 10. Also, what I value most is not the administrative positions but being part of the great things accomplished by my colleagues, students and friends. I am so proud of my Ajenda Afrika family, of Muoki Mbunga, whom I met as an undergraduate student, and who has become one of the sharpest scholars I know. I am excited to see Brenda Wambua take charge of our Writing and Speech Center where students get help with their public speaking and writing, and who is now developing great insights into how social media works as a teaching tool. Larry Ndivo’s rise as our youngest PhD holder, a writer and literary critic with a blog serialized in The People Newspaper is a dream come true. I am thrilled by Laka Nyaga’s growth as a musician and an artist, and by Ras Mengesha’s blossoming as a creative writer. My smile is very wide whenever I read David Karani’s blog posts, or Margaret Muthee’s poems published in the Amka collection when she was an undergraduate student. These and many other stars that have lit my path are what I am proud of, not of my administrative positions.
Why? Because true leadership is about people and creativity, while administration is about playing safe, doing things right, following the tried and tested path, protecting the institution and the general order of things. So while I do try to follow the designated path (I’m a Presbyterian – we’re the people of “mutaratara” for God’s sake), I care more for leadership than for administration. And I can be a leader without being an administrator.
I found this great article on the difference between leadership and administration, and why public education needs more of the former than the latter. Leadership is about vision, conviction, relationships, people, taking risks and seeing how actions fit in the bigger picture, while administration is about playing safe and protecting interests.
But for me, the most important difference between leadership and administration is freedom. As this article explains, leaders emerge. Administrators are appointed. That means leaders are free because they are driven by conscience and conviction, while administrators are driven by loyalty to whoever appointed them.
So to all my friends who said this could be an opportunity to make a difference (cliché notwithstanding), I say God bless you, but I still beg to disagree. You may be forgetting how many Kenyans have championed freedoms outside government, only to join government and become hate mongers and greedy people who believe they deserve to be paid handsomely by taxpayers. We know too well how government positions have changed heroes into monsters overnight. Yet we continue to encourage social heroes to join politics because we think that elective politics is the epitome of leadership.
Elective politics is not the epitome of leadership; it is the epitome of administration. That's why the top people in Obama's government are called the Obama Administration, not the Obama Leadership. And we Kenyans must recognize the difference, and celebrate our leaders while calling our public administrators the pigs that they are. And that starts at the local level by celebrating each other more when we lead, and less when we’re promoted.