Pause for thought

Msafiri’s business columnist Nkem Ifejika believes that good leaders, whether they are politicians or business people, understand the importance of taking time to think things through

BusinessThe recent death of Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, is a reminder of what is possible. At the time that Singapore split from Malaysia in 1959, their socio-economic indices were the same as many African states on the cusp of independence. Fast forward to 2015, and the two regions might as well be on different planets, let alone continents. Singapore is consistently ranked high in global educational attainment among schoolchildren, and people who work there are among the highest earners in the world.

Many African leaders are obsessed with Lee Kuan Yew. Lagos is the closest thing Nigeria has to a city state. The outgoing and well-regarded governor, Babatunde Fashola has spoken in the past of his admiration for Mr Lee’s transformation of Singapore from backwater to economic powerhouse. Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs sell in traffic in Lagos and Nairobi.

This sort of curiosity is among one of the most encouraging developments of modern Africa. There are people actively thinking about governance, and how their place as government officials fits into the greater national good. The plotting and scheming of how to hold on to power is no longer as pre-eminent in the minds of politicians as it once was. That’s not to say that power for its own sake is a thing of the past – it isn’t.

It could be something as simple as perception. Uhuru Kenyatta, as president of Kenya, cannot physically put out fires himself, or stand guard outside every Kenyan home, but he can give the impression that he’s in charge. It is the bane of a media-saturated world, but presidents have to be seen to be presidential, leading from the front, rather than from behind the scenes. The historians may write about what’s happened behind closed doors, but the nightly news bulletins will talk about the speech the president gave that afternoon.

I know for a fact that many countries that have recently discovered oil and gas have given considerable thought to what it means for their countries. Natural gas reserves in Mozambique are among the highest in the world. A regulator I spoke to gave me the impression his country had thought deeply about the potential benefits and dangers of such a windfall – from local content laws to the risk of rising household prices.

Many successful CEOs talk about making time for thinking. Leaders, in effect, are people who make decisions that haven’t been taken at a lower level. The reason the issue is in their inbox is because someone of a lower pay grade didn’t feel empowered to make that decision. And leaders run the risk of being consumed with constantly catching the buck as it’s passed upwards. Which is why CEOs cherish the time spent thinking about the company: What’s the next big thing? Are we on the right path? Why are we the way we are? The same should, and does, apply to governance.

Lee Kuan Yew proved that it’s possible to think about what kind of country you want, and then work towards it.