Leadership and Relevance

The hand of the diligent will rule… (Proverbs 12:24a)

“I stopped by our local Honey Baked Ham store to pick up some smoked turkey for sandwiches. When I arrived, I noticed three employees and no customers. I made a comment about the long line the last time I visited. The man behind the counter said, “It must have been during the holidays.” Then he went on to say, “However the holidays weren’t really that busy either.” When I asked why, he said, “Our customers are dying, and young people don’t eat with us.” Wow! Within 10 minutes, I was on the phone with my wife talking about what I might pick up for lunch. She suggested a fantastic local restaurant; I thought it was a great idea. However, I couldn’t go there – they don’t take credit cards — bizarre behaviour in 2014. Since I had neither cash nor check, I went somewhere else.”

Miller’s encounter raises the question of relevance. Any leader or organization that will not embrace change will become irrelevant. Technology continues to change the way we communicate, work, do business, and organize our lives. Workers who were once valued for their ability to handle mundane repetitive tasks are now valued for the possession and application of specialized knowledge. Businesses that only had to bother with local context and competition now have to grapple with the realities of an interconnected world, where global trends define local consumption patterns and allow for global competition. The truth is, change is upon us, and it won’t abate. This has startling implications for leadership at all levels of life.

It was Nancy Garberson of Marketing and Communications Strategies that said, “New products, new regulations, new market configurations, new customers and new technology in almost every industry are changing at such a rate that a project lasting more than 35 days is obsolete before it can be finished.” And so leaders who intend to remain relevant; meeting the needs and satisfying the aspirations of their constituencies, must be forward-looking and willing to embrace change. They must consistently evaluate their organizational capacities and strategies vis-à-vis new technology and global trends. To insist on yesterday’s tools and strategies in the face of today’s realities is to be left behind. To gain and sustain competitive advantage, therefore, leaders must not only be prepared to adapt to change, but they must also be innovative, anticipating the evolving needs of their followers and creating products and services to meet them.

The truth is, whatever you leave unattended to will diminish. Life does not tolerate redundancy; it only breeds retrogression and decay. No matter how high up you are, you must recognize that the skills that took you up the ladder, will no longer be sufficient to sustain you there. The only justification for the existence of any leadership, therefore, is continuous improvement, a constant drive to serve the needs of its constituency in better ways. Any leader that hopes to stand the test of time must of a necessity pass the test of relevance. Leaders who often fail to improve themselves and their processes in the face of changing realities and new challenges often have an exaggerated opinion of themselves and offices. Unaware of how irrelevant they have become, they set themselves up for a forceful eviction, usually a mass rejection or negative consequences.

A cursory inspection of key infrastructures across Nigeria, from airports and roads to the railway system (which is still at the level the British bequeathed it to us half a century ago) will readily reveal how unamenable to change our successive governments have been. Only a few government parastatals have fully functional websites that give up to the minute information on their functions and activities. Our public schools, from the primary to the tertiary, have slipped into a state of rot and mediocrity, thus robbing the next generation of the knowledge and tools they need to stay relevant in a fast-changing world. “Nigeria has no maintenance culture,” is a phrase we have come to accept as normal. And this is because successive leaderships, over the years, have been rather delusional and parochial in their pursuits and this has always been detrimental to the changing trend of an ever-evolving world. We must reverse this trend.

The first place to start is for leadership to come to terms with the responsibility entrusted to them. Irrelevance cannot be avoided except as we embrace, as a matter of urgency, a sincere and genuine obligation toward the people we lead. It is this sense of obligation that drives leaders, at every sphere, to become innovative, embracing change to improve a lot of the people.

Today the world talks of Big Data and how information and metrics can be used to increase efficiency in the areas of healthcare, security, and intellectual property, amongst others. These technologies are very much available to us. We cannot continue to deploy a civil service steeped in 19th-century methodologies to meet 21st-century demands. The strategies and bureaucracies that worked in the colonial era will just not work today.

Come to think of it, nothing is constant except change. And to remain relevant in a world on the move we must embrace change through continuous learning and innovation. Nigeria has all the potential to be a world-class nation. We have a robust and resilient population, we have the resources, both human and material. We must not allow a penchant for mediocrity keep us behind. We must pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and head to the front of the pack.

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