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From the top down

Leaders can make or break institutions. Values like courage, honesty, tenacity, truth, justice, belief in others and teamwork all play a part in driving excellent leadership


The popular series CLAWS, is a story about women from different backgrounds running a nail salon. They get mixed up with the wrong crowd and get involved in drugs, money laundering and other activities run by the mob. The boss lady Desna, is always concerned about her girls, she looks out for them, defends them and takes care of them. As the series progresses, the audience sees Desna as this strong character who tells people what to do and is always taking care of business.  In series 2, she finds love and starts pleasing her new love and his family. In the process, she forgets her girls and things start falling apart.

As the common African saying goes, it is true fish rots from the head. Many times, this saying is used to explain why things have gone wrong due to leadership, alluding to the fact that when a leader does not live up to expectations, he drags everyone down with him.

Professor Charles O’Reilly, an expert in Organisational Behaviour, noted in his article for the Leadership Quarterly that “leader behavior influences group and organisational behavior.” He notes that leaders are found throughout different levels of the organization. Is there a trickledown effect?

Effects of poor leadership

A lot has been written about poor leadership. “Poor leadership has an impact on the bottom line,” says Tasos Vossos, a communications and leadership expert. Now, great business leaders take note of all things that impact the bottom line, as it directly impacts on the performance of the leader, his reputation and credibility.

Unlike the external environment, which is sometimes difficult to deal with, an internal challenge like poor leadership has many options and solutions.

Vossos goes on to say that poor leadership impacts team morale. Members slow down in their thinking and execution of work. It can also lead to a lack of motivation particularly if the leader favours one person. In such situations, other team members would feel less important and not give their best. Vossos notes that poor leadership has been shown to impact resources management and this can be interpreted to be poor or careless use of resources to misuse and abuse of resources.

The title of an opinion piece written by Whitlaw T Mugwiji in 2016 says “Poor leadership is at the centre of Africa’s underdevelopment.” The author talks about common problems found in many countries on the African continent and blames poor leadership by those running the countries.

He starts by highlighting the problem of corruption and poor governance. Mugwiji argues that massive sums of money benefit very few individuals and the matter is compounded by poor governance structures, all leading to lack of development for a country. He calls it the ‘personal rule paradigm’ where individuals are more concerned with their pockets than anything else. What then does this say about the values that our leaders hold? And if the previous argument about leaders following the top leaders is true, this could be the reason why we have a crisis in so many countries in the continent.

Mugwiji goes on to argue that for the continent to grow, there must be peace and security. Yet every day we hear of stories of wars and conflicts, election processes and results gone wrong. Could it be that leaders use these ‘tools’ as opportunities to continue the personal rule paradigm that Mugwiji has pointed out – the one thing that has severely impacted growth and prosperity?

Role of leaders

Politics plays a role in running both corporations and countries.  What about leadership in a family? Today’s family structure is diverse. The traditional definition of a two-parent family with the father being the head of the household is not as common as before. That does not stop one person from being the leader in any family. Even in a group of siblings, there is usually the one who comes out to lead, often times the first born but this isn’t a pre-requisite for leadership.

From personal life experiences, we know that lack of leadership within a family setting can have an impact on the discipline of the children, the lack of a role model can mean that children grow up without ever knowing what it means to have good values and leadership skills. It can mean the family itself does not progress because there is no plan for the future. Families struggle from hand to mouth and inability to improve the quality of life.  Someone has to take up the vacant role, and lead the family members. Without that, there will be a vacuum and potential for a lot to go wrong.

Leadership starts at the top with the senior most person setting the pace. In a country, that would be the President, in an organisation, the MD or CEO and in a family traditionally the Father, but whoever fills into that role. Without strong value-based leadership, challenges become the order of the day. Values like courage, honesty, tenacity, truth, justice, belief in others and teamwork all play a part in driving excellent leadership.

Jack Zenger in an article in says that both excellent leadership and bad leadership can cascade downwards like a virus. Best practice in leadership not only needs to be encouraged but it should also be nurtured and proactively developed.

The Bible has great teachings on leadership. One verse in Proverbs says, “A good leader motivates; doesn’t mislead, doesn’t exploit.” Leadership starts from the top! Be a great leader today and start the journey to changing lives.

Thrity Engineer-Mbuthia is a freelance writer. Email:

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