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Ignoring experts in running of key sectors a recipe for disaster

OPINION
By Wilfred Oginga | September 15th 2021
A section of Karemeno Dam, Kiambu County. [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

Legendary benga musician, Dr Osito Kalle, of the "Uhuru in e kiongosi" fame once produced a song titled "ng'ato gi hape", loosely translated as "everyone with his/her luck". He introduces the song by stating that the only thing he understands is music. He goes further to say that he is not an expert in all the other professions, and advises people to consult experts in various areas of their interest. The most hilarious part is the last line where advises his audience that should they come across a difficult situation that seems to have no solution, they should consult Amolo Tinga.

This is interesting coming from a musician in a country where HR and procurement practitioners now believe they can build roads, railways, ports, tunnels, viaducts and water reticulation works better than engineers. It becomes a bad joke when the National Assembly boards the same train. 

In the roads sector, it is absurd that the National Assembly, egged on by nefarious interests, are currently entertaining the thought of ignoring technical competence in sector leadership. They argue that all a leader requires in this critical sector is a strategic mindset and behavioural skills. It is the high time we enacted laws to regulate motivational speakers!

Granted, strategic thinking and behavioural skills are crucial ingredients of leadership in any industry. It is, however, hare-brained to imagine that the attributes are all that is required to be successful leaders in any domain; that technical competence in a domain-specific industry isn’t critical.

To lead successfully, one needs to understand every part and function of the organisation. How much the leader needs to know about each section of the organisation will vary depending on the industry. In organisations where the predominant function is technical, research has shown that the best leaders are those who know a lot about the domain in which they are leading, and part of what makes them successful is technical competence.

Examples abound of public institutions which made the mistake of ignoring technical competence in leadership, and they either went under or are no longer going concerns due to mismanagement. Kenya must not make this mistake with the roads sector where tremendous progress has been witnessed owing to the reforms that were ushered in by the Roads Act 2007.

Theorists aver that a leader's role comprises decision-making, motivating teams, effective communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, and delegating tasks. This sounds romantic in theory. In practice, however, and with reference to organisations whose core mandate is technical services, critical thinking and decision-making will require taking in large volumes of technical information, distilling the same into technical solutions, hence strategies, programmes and projects.

How can one purport to be capable of thinking critically in a domain outside his/her expertise? How would a leader incapable of critical thinking formulate strategies and programmes for the organisation? Where does such a leader draw his capacity to give strategic direction and decision-making from?

Such an organisation risks lapsing into autopilot mode without the capacity for changing direction when required. Even effective communication differs from one industry to another. We have seen prescriptions by doctors, and I'm sure most people don’t even make an attempt at reading them. Who is better able to communicate to a predominantly technical staff effectively?

Take the example of conflict resolution as an attribute of leadership, wouldn't it be better to have a leader with an understanding of conflicts that arise within the industry rather than one who only understands generic ones. The point is, when looked at from the perspective of practice rather than theory, it is clear that technical competence is intrinsically embedded into the leadership skills in any industry.

The argument that to cure lack of technical competence, a leader will succeed by surrounding themselves with the requisite technical expertise is wrong. The question is, how will a leader without expertise even know that he or she has the right staff? How will such leaders evaluate the information from the heads of the technical departments? If a leader cannot evaluate the information they are receiving, he or she cannot be an effective leader.

Taken into context, the roads authorities were incorporated as body corporates that can sue or be sued, and are represented by the respective boards. The Director-General is the secretary and technical advisor to the board. Without a technical presence on the board, these authorities cannot then be held accountable on technical matters. Also, since these are purely technical service organisations whose core mandate are civil engineering in nature, will non-technical executives keep dragging their technical staff to board meetings all the time? Who will be the leader under those circumstances; the executive or the subordinate?

Lastly, society should be careful what it plants because for sure, we shall reap what we sow. Every year, we watch with glee celebrations that follow the release of national exam results. The students tell us the courses they would wish to pursue, more often revolving around medicine, surgery, engineering, actuarial science, computer science, and so on. What lessons will we bequeath these future generations by flushing professionalism down the water closet?  

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