Category Archives: leadership

Diplomatic Dialogues

Last night had the Safaricom Power Hour Series, a talk session that featured the British High Commissioner, Dr Christian Turner. In a forum similar to Mindspeak, and other leadership series, he spoke freely on many subjects of his time as a political advisor (as an aide to prime ministers) and as a diplomat in the Middle  East, Washington and Africa.

He also answered questions on issues such as the Mau Mau settlement, the UK Miraa ban, the Scottish referendum (later this year), and Britain’s acquiescence in the weapons of mass destruction /Iraq War (they knew what would happen in Iraq after the war but didn’t seem to have cautioned the US)

Some points:

  • An aide has to be able to break down complex issues for his/her boss and present them in rapid short sessions (such as corridor walks, or car rides) and get them to make important decisions in those few minutes. To get to this position the aide has to first earn the trust of the boss.
  • A lot of what happens goes wrong in government are the result of mistakes (cock-ups), but the public likes to believe that these are due to conspiracies .. the reality is much harder to fathom (Westgate)
  • The importance of a leader surrounding himself/herself with/and enabling people with diverse views (avoid group think – or you end up with the WMD war)
  • Even in the age of twitter in which rapid opinions are formed and the added on pressure to look decisive, a leader should resist the temptation to look like they’re taking action – and sometime the best way is to go slow.
  • Also, avoid sweeping generalizations like the Arab Spring, and Africa Rising. He said each country in the Middle East had turbulence experienced that due to very different reasons.
  • There’s no East vs. West anymore. Britain did not lose ground to China in Kenya. He said China is investing in things that Britain does not like roads and some manufacturing – and that the balance of trade between Kenya and Britain is still almost even, while that with China is very skewed.

Funny anecdotes

  • Meeting with eccentric leaders like Gaddafi who thought he was irresistible to women and Saleh (of Yemen) who boldly asked for guns (instead of capacity building assistance) from Britain.
  • Some people diss Britain as they drink Scotch whiskey, drive Land Rovers and watch Arsenal football.

John Gakuo: Restoring Nairobi’s Glory

Like former Mayor (and now Presidential Candidate) Rudy Giuliani did for New York in the mid-1990’s, John Gakuo, the town clerk of the City Council of Nairobi, is credited with the clean up of the city, making it a cleaner, safer, and a more beautiful place to visit.

So how did he do it? He gave a Leadership Forum talk on October 17 on his time at City Hall

Who: John Gakuo is a University of Nairobi Graduate and had been an administrator (provincial administration) for over 20 years. He was appointed Town Clerk (effectively CEO) of the Nairobi City Council in 2004. He is inspired by history – France’s recovery since WWI, the Arusha Declaration (Tanzania) – and believes that Nairobi can be restored to its glory, which last shone in the 1970’s.

He gave his talk on the challenge of effective resource management and began by saying that resources were not the key to change, noting that some countries with abundant mineral resources have their citizens living in extreme poverty, while others with fewer resources, have prudently managed what they have to achieve great things. And that was the theme of his talk – use what you have to get what you want

The success he has had at city hall has been through effective resource management and he decried leaders who use the ‘we have no money’ excuse for not doing things, noting that they should solve problems in other ways

Beginning: He was transferred there from the Ministry of Health and initially believed someone wanted him fired (from the Government) by having him posted to the ‘chaotic’ office – one that attracts insults in the media every day, for the poor conditions in the city. He found the city dirty because they had no brooms, and was told there was no money to buy brooms. He thought about it and decided that the staff could not be idle, so he asked them to cut tree branches to sweep up the city. In no time, this led to money becoming available, and soon brooms were procured and work continued.

And from that point on he decided to set out priority areas that he could tackle with his limited resource base, and which produced visible results, since he did not have money to do what people wanted most.

These included;

Recreation Areas: Nairobi city was planned for ½ million people, but now had 3 ½ million, and even up to 4 million during the daytime – and there were no places for recreation. Two parks – Central Park and Uhuru Park were very dirty, un-maintained, and controlled by gangs of urchins who molested anyone who dared go near the parks. So he fixed the one tractor and grass cutter and began a long attempt to mow the grass and clean the parks of trash. They also set up lighting for the park and security so that couples and families could begin using the park. He is gratified by the numbers of people (couples, families) who now visit and rest in the park, in relative safety. Later he extended his campaign to Uhuru Gardens (Langata Road) even though it is not under the Council’s jurisdiction – and it is now a popular weekend rest point for people.

Statutory (Legal) Powers as a Resource for Service Delivery: He said, even when you have no money, you still have to be seen to be at work, and that people always want to see new things from leaders. So he undertook measures which were visible and which he could maintain, but which did not require money. He took advantage of very powerful, but dormant, by-laws in the city council code, which he combined with the abundant staff resource at his disposal. These efforts included curbing down on garbage dumping at Kangemi (though it took over 2,000 arrests for the message to sink in), and requiring buildings owners in Nairobi to fix & paint their buildings prior to license renewal. Also littering, public urination, and zebra crossing, and numerous other (unfortunate ‘violations’ were punished by the council’s various inspectorate teams.

Lighting & Beautification: Lighting is an essential feature of beautification and security in the city. He set out to put lights that would give visitors a positive impression of the city, right from Jomo Kenyatta airport and into the city, as well as on Langata Road and Waiyaki Way up to the city boundaries – and plans to light up Thika Road up to Kenyatta University. Within the city, lighting, combined with other inspectorate crews were used to rid the streets of urchins who used to snatch women’s purses and who made several parts of the city no-go zones after sunset. They plan to light up the other side of Tom Mboya Street up to Nairobi River and Khoja Mosque as well.

In addition to urchins, he also cut down on the women who’d beg with children on their back all day, believing that few of them were genuine cases. He does not know where they went, but they are not on the streets anymore as they can be charged with ‘idling’. He joked that when you see him coming up with a new by-law to enforce, you know the City is broke again

Trees are relatively cheap to plant; they make the city beautiful and filter the exhaust fumes from vehicles. So the council has planted thousands of evergreen trees in the city and along the major highways.

Roundabouts and fountains are being resorted in parks and at strategic points in the city after years of disuse.

Roundabouts are archaic and they will all be ripped up along Uhuru Highway.

Kiosks often harbour undesirables, some can do, but they are a very sensitive political matter and he gets a lot of pressure when he cracks down. However, with the ones outside Nairobi Hospital, he was able to accommodate them by asking that they rebuild them in a manner that they were not an eyesore

Matatu’s: He described the transport minibuses as a menace. Some measures he has taken to rein them in include stationing 2 tow trucks at the Westlands roundabout to intercept any matatu dropping of picking up passengers on the road, instead of using the bus-stop, while on Thika Road, they are digging trenches to prevent matatu’s from driving down the side of the road.

Garbage Disposal The Dandora dumpsite been around for 50 years to the detriment of their residents’ health. The City Council is seeking an international company to tackle solid waste disposal soon.

Partnerships:  He said Business & Residents Associations have not provided meaningful assistance – all they do is have endless meetings and resolutions with no action thereafter, while most who have pledged to restore/beautify some roundabouts have not done more than put up their own advertising. He welcomes anyone or business that has a plan/action to beautify/restore any project in the City to contact his office, noting that majority of city residents have been impatient but not helpful.

Media relations: He has engaged the public through the media by responding/replying to each accusation or report he read about in the news about the City Council. This has helped the media come around to understand the challenges he faces.

Numbers: He was questioned later about revenue and staff numbers. On staff, he said that they have about 13,000 staff and ideally should have 7,000. He said when he has enough money, he will retrench some of them, but for now he’ll continue to use them as effectively as he can so they earn their keep. On revenue he said when he joined 2 ½ years ago, the city was collecting 3 billion, now they are up to 11 billion and growing. Earlier on he took over aspects of the Finance Department, since Treasury was receiving very little of what was being collected.

Succession: One questioner dropped a Tom Peters quote on him challenging that ‘leaders are not judged by how many followers they have, but by how many leaders they create’ – to which he replied that all he can do is let others see his strategies and actions and see if they are worth emulating.

Summary: The Town Clerk is a man who believes in action, not talk. And with his style and achievements, you can expect him to probably, like Rudy Giuliani (minus the personal baggage), step into politics in a few years.



May 2018: John Gakuo was jailed for three years and fined Kshs 1 million for abuse of office stemming from the irregular purchase of cemetery land for Nairobi.

October 2018: John Gakuo died while receiving treatment at a Nairobi Hospital.

Achieving a work- life balance

Rob Parsons, the renowned author, lawyer, and motivational speaker gave talk on work-life balance that people must achieve in order to be happy, productive, workers i.e. by balancing time between their families and their careers. Some of his pointers:

– There are no slow days. Don’t ever say when you achieve you will sow done and devote time to your family once you achieve or attain A, B, or C. You will never slow down
– Don’t work so hard to give your children what you never had, that you forget to give them what you had
– Hire smart people (ala Richard Branson) – to give yourself time to think and remain creative
– No phone call is so important that it can’t wait for ten minutes for you to finish attending to your family first.
– You’re not irreplaceable at work even if you think you are. Your company can and will likely go on and do very well without you.
– Do something meaningful that you’ve always wanted to do today – as you never know if it could be your last day or breath.
– More leading companies are acknowledging the importance of giving their employees sufficient time to attend to family matters i.e. achieve a work-life balance

Work ethic & sucession

Work ethic is something I’ll have to work on in 2007. In vying to start the aforementioned kiosk, I still have the idea that I can sit in an office all day and only visit the shop in the evening to collect the day’s income, pay bills, and reconcile accounts & inventory. That may be a recipe for mediocrity.

Just before Christmas, I went to buy some wine from a famous small town shop. The proprietor, let’s call him Mr. Shah, has been at his storefront for the last 20 years. He is supported by his grown children and their spouses to run the shop and despite millions of shillings in annual turnover, they still have modest and humble lifestyles. He’s there from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. – 6 days a week and drives a 20-year-old Mercedes.

This management style of Asian businessmen where they commit themselves, family, and their time to running the shop is admirable – and you see it in hardware, auto part shops, pharmacies, supermarkets etc. – i.e. owners being on the ground [not far away in someone else’s office, trying to run the shop via remote control – over the phone to avoid relatives looking for jobs, creditors, and others seeking favours]

Some business run by remote control may succeed, but rarely. As an owner, I’ll have to get down & dirty with customers and suppliers every day and know the business in & out and ring the cash register myself – and that will come by being in the shop full-time. I have already promised a distant an uncle that his currently unemployed son could run the shop once it’s ready – but I may have to rescind that offer. Am I ready for that? I don’t know.

There are limits at succession time – as a parent has to convince his kids that their future is in the shop and not being a CPA working at a multi-national firm. This is a dilemma Indian shopowners and African landowners/farmers face – with many of them running large businesses but which their kids have no interest in taking over. What happens to the business after many years? Sell out – move abroad/travel the world for the rest of their lives? I hope that will be a dilemma I’ll be facing in 20 years time (i.e. How do I give away my money/estate?).

Uh oh

It seems like the NSHIS Bill may not be dead after all, maybe in ICU with a chance of making recovery, and a life with some permanent disability requiring hefty medical bills.

I rarely like to see foreigners lecture Kenyan’s (I prefer Museveni’s way i.e. Africans deal with African problems which has succeeded e.g. Sudan, Somalia), but please read an article by Bo Goransson, the Swedish Ambassador to Kenya. He shows that systematic corruption in Kenya is mainly out of a warped expectation wananchi have about their MP’s ability to bring development to them. These same MP’s are likely to pass Ngilu’s monstrous Health Bill, which they will of course not pay a shilling for themselves, or be responsible for implementing – but will tell their constituents that they brought them free healthcare. I hope that the NSHIS Bill becomes the second instance in modern times where the public can judge an MP’s vote on an issue – the first was the aborted 2003 constitution. In the past leaders have been judged by their person, tribe, preferred candidates, godfather, party, spouse, or family etc.