Kipkoech Tanui: Kenya is in the grip of highly ‘toxic’ leadership

Leadership scholars must be fascinated by Kenya’s political melodrama. Two political giants meet, first under coercion, and agree to a prescription that would heal the nation. Later there are so many versions of what was agreed upon, no one is sure which was the original, even as symptoms of a life-threatening situation snowball.

The citizenry soon listens with shock as politicians accord the National Accord, meanings and interpretations that were not with us when we passed and signed it into law at lightning speed.

The wave of suspicion and hostility rises as our top leaders consult top allies on the upcoming restructuring of Cabinet, a matter over which they have vested interest. It will either affect them, or knock off from the citadel of power those from their ethnic or old-boys’ club.

We are at a standstill because of bad leadership — not just at the presidency. It is the kind of leadership that listens to a cabal, always courting self-immolation and bad memories of itself. In the end it will just be about President Kibaki and Mr Raila Odinga.

We have the dysfunctional style Prof Marcia Lynn Whicker defined in 1996 as ‘toxic leadership’.

The only missing trait is that our top managers are, on the surface, not overbearing. But behind the mask they are, so stealthily.

It is the mastery of carrot and stick, as well as gunboat diplomacy. Meanwhile, the harrowing memories of killings, destruction and displacements are forgotten until the scary gale blows in our faces again.

We have always had a leadership crisis: It just worsened in the last four months. It may not loosen its grip on us soon — we are the cheer squad. Not when political brinkmanship tears into smithereens the ethos of statesmanship.

Not when external pressure is what gets us talking in time of catharsis. Not when the future looks bleak because our leaders are behaving as if the Government is being split into two. Even for President Kibaki, it is as if he won’t be in charge of half of Government.

The writing is on the wall: The road ahead is turbulent. These are the leaders we are looking upon to give us a new constitution that will among other things, reform that mongrel called the Electoral Commission of Kenya, which ran a flawed and comical process.

Seven traits to executive failure

These are the leaders who should heal and reconcile us through a justice, truth and restitution system. They should also reverse the economic and social losses, and help restore the name of our nation on international roll of honour.

Two great feminine scholars have researched widely on ‘toxic leadership’. Prof Jean Lipman-Blumen in her book, The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians – and How We Can Survive, and Prof Barbara Kellerman in the bestseller Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters.

Dr Karen Y Wilson-Starks explains: "It is a leadership approach that harms people through the poisoning of enthusiasm, creativity, autonomy and innovative expression. Toxic leaders disseminate their poison through over-control. They define leadership as being in control."

Prof Kellerman wrote of seven traits on the roadmap to executive failure:

Incompetence – the leader and some followers lack the will or skill (or both) to sustain effective action. With regard to at least one important leadership challenge, they do not create positive change.

Rigidity – the leader and some followers are stiff and unyielding. Though they may be competent, they are unable or unwilling to adapt to new ideas or changing times.

Intemperance – the leader lacks self-control and is aided and abetted by followers who are unwilling or unable to effectively intervene.

Callousness – the leader and some followers are uncaring or unkind. The needs, wants, and wishes of subjects, especially subordinates, are ignored and discounted.

Corruption – the leader and at least some followers lie, cheat, or steal. To a degree that exceeds the norm, they put self-interest ahead of the public interest.

Insularity – the leader and at least some followers minimise or disregard the health and welfare of those outside the group or organisation for which they are directly responsible.

Evil – the leader and some followers commit atrocities, using pain as an instrument of power. The harm can be physical, psychological or both.

Seven leadership traits but with same tragic result — a nation, club or business conglomerate on the cliff! But as Prof Kellerman’s counselled, the problem is not just about those who lead us. Leaders and followers are perpetually in a complicated supplementary dance.

The writer is The Standard’s Managing Editor, Weekend Editions

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