Uhuru’s hands-on leadership style hurting Jubilee fortunes

When he ascended to power, following 2013 general election, President Uhuru Kenyatta gave a palpable impression that his leadership style would be different from those of his predecessors. From the outset, Uhuru seemed to prefer a hands-on cum semi-autonomous style, giving some latitude to his cabinet secretaries to run their ministries.

Having been derided as a former President Moi’s project during his last shot at the presidency, Mr. Kenyatta wanted to principally draw a line between his person and that of his political mentor. Apparently, neither would he have wished to be Mr. Kibaki’s replica. It would be remembered that during his term as the official leader of opposition, Mr. Kenyatta scoffed at President Kibaki’s totally hands-off style, referring to the then NARC boss as a “see no evil, hear no evil” president.

The UhuRuto swag that enthralled the nation shortly after the duo had won elections, and subsequently taken office was a herald, a figurative pronouncement that it was time for a fresh and unprecedented leadership style.

Indeed, many Kenyans were awestruck by the careful approach that the president and his deputy took during the selection process of cabinet secretaries. From personally conducting interviews to subjecting the candidates to National Intelligence Service (NIS) background search, and finally unveiling each of them with their esteemed resumes through a live television address. It was manifest that Jubilee was just what the doctor had ordered for Kenya’s age-long ailments. Initially, appointees to the cabinet would be surprised to hear their names being announced on TV or radio. 

Following the first few months of induction, Uhuru’s cabinet secretaries, most of who got schooled at some of the world’s most prestigious institutions, including Harvard, would be expected to steer their ministries to the levels never seen in this country before. However, what followed was sheer embarrassment, as some of them became subject of comedy and disdain on social media. To date, most ministers are still fumbling when it comes to articulating government’s agenda or responding to queries raised on the management of their dockets.

This lame duck and helpless semblance of Uhuru’s government has become an early Christmas gift for the opposition. Despite suffering what many saw as the blow of death, during President Obama’s visit last July, the opposition is once again firm on its feet and is now setting the country’s agenda, while the government is continually put to defense. Take for instance the recent Kenya-Uganda sugar issue, where the government could not give a real-time or even a coordinated response. Exit sugar, enter Eurobond debate. Since the auditor general tabled the initial report in parliament, there have been trends and counter trends on social media, with some reports even suggesting that the Government is hiding Eurobond fortunes in secretly operated offshore accounts.

One would have expected the office of the cabinet secretary in-charge of National Treasury to have addressed these propositions the first day they emerged or shortly after they were publicized by the mainstream media. Why would a government that is only serving its first term, and is bound to appraisal before re-election be so indifferent about sensitive financial accusations, especially when there’s intense ballyhoo about re-emergence of corruption? Why would government departments, such as those tasked with budgeting for El Niño wait for days of TV, radio and newspaper commentaries before refuting or even clarifying how a bar soap could cost KES 37000?

There are two strong premises informing the level of lethargy seen in some of President Kenyatta’s cabinet secretaries. One is that unlike in previous regimes, when ministers would be appointed from amongst members of parliament, and would have to put themselves out there, to prove worthiness for re-election, the current CSs do not have such concerns. The second and most feasible rationale is that Uhuru’s hands-on leadership style has impeded their abilities to spread out, grow and be fully in control of their ministries. It’s true that eagles were born to fly. But it takes the audacity of mother eagle, who must at one point thrust the naïve eaglets from the cozy nest so as to train them how to begin flying on their own.

I’m not saying that a hands-on leadership style is bad for the country. No, far from that – indeed it’s been termed as one of the best approaches that many successful people have relied on to get the work done. According to Swetha Venkataramani, a content strategist in PR industry, some of the most influential personalities, such as Margaret Thatcher, the once powerful UK prime minister as well as Sir Alex Ferguson, former Manchester United manager used this style. Swetha also cites Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric in this category.

While some leaders stick to only one style, others are quite versatile and can easily shift to a new approach or make adjustments as situations may from time to time demand. Leadership and management experts have identified various leadership styles, all of which have their weaknesses and strengths. Some of the pros of hands-on leadership style include speedily getting the work done, better management affairs, especially in times of crisis and during inflection points, ideally when an institution is undertaking or undergoing significant changes.

On the flipside, this style has a number of weaknesses, some of which are dire and can lead to devastating effects in governance. Since a hands-on style is usually authoritative – kind of “follow my directions” approach, those under the leader’s authority tend to operate under constant fear as opposed to respect. They also end up losing creativity, since they no longer function out of their own dynamic thinking, but by mechanically following the leader’s directives. So do not blame your age, memory or math teacher, if you have lost the count at how many times President Uhuru Kenyatta has said “I’ve directed this or that to be done…”  Hands-on styled leaders usually issue directives.

The strong, authoritative hands-on style also elevates a leader above everybody else, but equally exposes him or her to criticism when things go wrong in sections of an organization, even when the leader is not directly the one to blame. This could be one of the reasons why Uhuru’s approval ratings have been going through the roof when things seem to be working, yet he equally attracts a great deal of bashing when a state department or agency fails on its mandate. Nobody would have pointed a finger to former President Kibaki in case of a failure in Security or Transport dockets, when the late John Michuki was at the helm. Neither would the buck have stopped with Kibaki in case of challenges at Local Government docket, when the late Karissa Maitha was in charge.

What Mr. Kenyatta needs is not necessarily different cabinet secretaries but adjustments in his leadership style. He needs to be more kingly, a bit prophetic and less priestly. A Kingly styled person is similar to that guy you ask for direction to an apartment and he assigns someone to take you there – he delegates. A prophetic type will draw you a map to the apartment and encourage you to go by yourself – he imparts. This is the type who’ll even tell you that you can’t get lost or miss your way in broad daylight. Lastly, the priestly type will put off whatever they were doing and offer to personally take you there. They don’t delegate, entrust or encourage others to take charge. This is one problem that Uhuru has been struggling with – trying to be overly involved, consequently denying his foot soldiers – the CSs, adequate space to grow, spread out and be in control.

The president should move his ministers from the bay and bring them to the fore. They must be the first ones to get muddy or hurt by stones aimed at the president or his administration. If he had such persons in education sector, Kenyans would not have had to spend their hard earned bundles, replying to the presidential speech experts, (thinking they’re) telling the president to pay teachers. Neither would that Nairobi businessman recently have to pay for a full page advertisement in the dailies, asking the president to intervene in a dispute between himself and his landlord.

The president should begin to entrust, delegate and allow more liberty to those he’s charged with responsibilities so that he concentrates more on supervisory roles. This is the lesson that the Biblical Moses learned from his father-in-law, Jethro, who cautioned him not to wear himself out by solely adjudicating on all the disputes of Israelites. Moses would sit in the tent the whole day, listening to all manner of disputes, from who killed his fellow tribesman to who stole his neighbour’s sheep. Jethro advised the young Moses to choose from among the people, able men of integrity to serve as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens, and only have them refer extremely difficult cases to him.

President Uhuru Kenyatta too, like Moses, can restore Jubilee’s lost fortunes, by introducing moderation in his authoritative, hands-on leadership style. He should delegate more so that he puts aside quality time to follow through and see to it that tasks are done to his satisfaction. He will have more time to draw lines on the sand and to come back and see whether they were crossed or not. This will make the top leadership, especially those directly answerable to the president to be more accountable. It will also prompt them to push even harder, and demand results from their subordinates down to the smallest unit of governance hierarchy.