How to lead (and succeed) Tanzanian-style
I've just returned from my second trip -- safari, that is -- to Tanzania. It was a memorable experience on all fronts, including close encounters with lions and other 'big five' species: elephants, giraffe, zebra, and hippos (OK, not so close with the hippos). We -- 10 men -- trekked through the bush, often silently, accompanied by Maasai warriors carrying bows and arrows and spears -- our security detail. When we weren't hiking, we were jostling around in Land Rovers, crossing through herds of Wildebeest and Impala, and caking up with African savannah dust, which only brought us closer to the land, in all its gritty beauty, power and mystery.
For all the power and beauty I experienced on this trip, what has stuck with me most is something I didn't expect at all -- learning how Tanzania came to be, and how its first president, Julius Nyerere, led the country in innovative ways that helped establish a self-sufficient nation; this, despite many political, economic and social challenges. The most interesting idea Nyerere invoked was something called people-centered leadership. It's an idea that holds intriguing possibilities for business leaders; in fact, for leaders of all organizations.
In short, people-centered leadership calls for inviting those you lead to tell you, collectively, where they want to go and, by extension, how that direction will benefit everyone.
In the book, Africa's Liberation: The Legacy of Julius Nyerere, the authors write that "People-centered leaders are nourished within group structures, and are mentored, supported and corrected when they begin to lose their way." They continue, "Everyone has an interest in ensuring that openness, transparency and accountability prevail because the organization is 'owned' by its members. They identify with the organization and the organization identifies with them, and not with one individual."
If you think this is just some idealistic or socialist vision of leadership, read a recent New York Times article about what's happening in Egypt, today Egypt News - Revolution and Aftermath.
From Egypt to Yemen, Bahrain, Iran and Libya, protesters -- young and old -- are calling for changes in leadership, for a voice in how their nations are governed and, by extension, where they're going. These uprisings underscore the enormous sea change in where the power really lies these days: As counter-intuitive as this may sound in conventional, corporate terms, it lies increasingly with the many, not the few.
We have technology to thank (or blame) for this sea change. From the web and texting, to ever-expanding social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, change is being fomented overnight. This dynamic isn't limited to nations. It is permeating the world of business.
Liberate don't just lead
As a management practice, people-centered leadership is an idea whose time may be now. I'm working with one organization on a leadership strategy that includes some unusual research -- asking their several-thousand-person workforce three simple questions: Where can we go? What, if anything, is holding us back? And, what talents set us apart?
The aim isn't to abdicate leadership at the top; it's to liberate the extraordinary knowledge, deep experience and diverse ideas that reside across the company. The aim is to engage people in answering a vital, strategic question: What's possible? Is people-centered leadership the key to 21st century innovation, writ large?
The logic of conducting this research isn't just strategic; it's also relational. By reaching out to all employees, the management team is creating a new level of connection that trades hierarchy for unity; that concretely demonstrates respect for the fact that we really are all in this together.
Julius Nyerere was a visionary, a populist leader who understood that people-centered leadership was the key to establishing a viable, new nation: Tanzania. Today's forward-looking leaders might borrow a page from Nyerere's book as they strive to establish organizations capable of thriving in an economy where the notion of power to the people is the unstoppable new reality.
Have a view on people-centered leadership and what it means for managing organizations?
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