Life is lived forwards but understood backwards. That sounds very much like one of those witty sayings from my bank of African proverbs but the person I read that from first was the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. In his own mother tongue “Livet skal forstaas baglaens, men leves forlaens,” translates into “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
In a recent conversation with my brother and friend of nearly two decades, Rev. Albert Ocran, he prophetically said to me without butting an eyelid that when he looks at my entire life it can be distilled into one word: leadership, to which I replied with my head bopping like an agama lizard, “That is true, you are right!” (By the way I have given him the title, “Thought Distiller.” He’s doing a wonderful job distilling the life lessons of several leaders in society for the general public on his Springboard Road Show.) Albert is one of the few who ‘gets’ my life, probably because he is an ardent believer in something he himself calls “convergence.”
I have been accused by some of living a scattered life (“all over the place”) while others have expressed concern I might not make much of a dent in the universe (impact) because of how spread my life has been (and continues to be?). I have been a medical doctor, award-winning speaker, punching preacher, best-selling author, publisher, military officer, U.N. peacekeeper, cross-cultural pastor, serial entrepreneur from media to real estate to education, president & CEO, television presenter, financial advisor, investment consultant, founder of many things, corporate trainer, life and executive coach, inspirational teacher, lived in three countries over the last dozen years and served in 45 … So who are you, what are you? people wonder. Although I owe no one an explanation except the One who gave me life, permit me to share two pivotal paradigms, nay convictions, with you.
(1) META-PERFORMANCE–Milking Your Full Potential
First of all, there is the notion of meta-performance. Many of us never explore or exploit our full potential because we get stuck in being the best at something in comparison with others, rather than constantly exploring the question, “What am I capable of?” There is no reason to be stuck in a hospital because I was trained as a medic when I have the ability to author books as well, something the majority of my med school mates may not have the aptitude for. Shall I therefore not write because other doctors cannot? I resolved when I was but a youth, as entrenched it in my personal mission statement, to “die empty.” To die having utilized and exhausted every gift in me, but now I add, “within my God-given limits.” After all, like you I have only one life to live and have only 24 hours in each day. Besides, with a wife and seven children, family is a blessing which comes with its own limits as well.
Suffice it to say I encourage the youth in particular to spend their first 30-35 years at least, exploring and exploring and exploring until they finally hit oil. Don’t forget the parable of the talents: one was given five, another three, and a third servant, one, each according to their ability. Why should the chap with five compare himself with the person with one and underperform? As has been wisely said, the talents we have are God’s gift to us; what we do with them is our gift back to God. Meta-perform!
(2) CONVERGENCE–Connecting the Dots
But I digress, which is funny because the point I want to make next is about (a word that Albert loves): CONVERGENCE. We all must get to a point in our lives when we can look back and connect the dots, and see that all these seemingly scattered and unrelated aspects of our lives, including the lows and the pains, can all really come together to make one huge statement and result in an integrated life. The reason Kierkegaard’s words speak profoundly to me is that when I reflect on my seeming scatteredness, when I look backwards, I see that the many different-coloured strands have a common thread: leadership. That is why I doff my hat to Albert for being so spot on. I have not been called to be a medical doctor or military officer or media man or investment guru per se but a leader in every sphere I’ve been given talent and opportunity in. Is leadership a career? If it is then, then that’s mine. If it isn’t then I do not have a career.
The late Apple founder Steve Jobs put this Kierkegaard philosophy of looking backwards and Albert Ocran’s love of convergence into a very powerful statement: “Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
BACK TO THE FUTURE
This issue speaks to a powerful leadership practice we must all have: reflection. Reflection, really, is the rhythm of leadership. There is no understanding without reflection. Unless we lead from a place of pause, we will not be able to distill the lessons in life. Not only will we miss out on ourselves, others and even life itself but also our lives and leadership will be shallow. Take it from a guy who is almost always busy running around and has been described by my nonagenarian mentor in Britain as peripatetic. I’m learning more and more to be in solitude and silence, otherwise there is no understanding of the life lived or the thrill of the act of connecting the dots. I would wish that we all, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, can say after our own backwards reflection, “later the true significance of what happened would inevitably become clear to me, and I would be numb with surprise.”
The fuller philosophy of Kierkegaard is this: “It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forwards. A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood; exactly because there is no single moment where time stops completely in order for me to take position [to do this]: going backwards.” Don’t keep looking only in the rearview mirror, that’s not where you’re going. But surely do look into it momentarily from time to time for the wherewithal to live and lead forwards with meaning. Life is lived forwards but understood backwards.
“Can you go beyond high performance?” That’s a penetrating question Jason Jaggard, founder and CEO of the executive coaching firm Novus Global, asks in his powerful and popular article that bears that title. My good friend and StrengthsFinder coach, Dan Leffelaar, who is COO and partner at Novus Global, had exposed me to the company after he joined. Later he would introduce me to one of their very competent coaches, Joseph Thompson. It was Joseph who then drew my attention to this article even before we would have our first formal coaching session. By the way, I’ve said it before and it’s worth repeating, never hire a coach who doesn’t have a coach!
DIFFERENTIATION–OR WHATEVER YOU CALL IT
It is not uncommon for managers to categorize workers in the marketplace into three: low performers, performers and high performers. Over a decade ago, I remember reading about this idea from long time General Electric CEO Jack Welch’s book Winning. He called it differentiation, separating the sheep from the goats. According to Jack, differentiation is a process that requires managers to assess their employees and separate them into three categories in terms of top performance: top 20 percent, middle 70, and bottom 10. Then—and this is key—it requires managers to act on that distinction.
Whatever different percentages one uses to divide the three levels (and some just use the Pareto principle to divide the top 20% from the remaining 80%), the questions the people in each band ask themselves that result in their kind of performance are intriguing:
- Low Performers–“What is the least we can do to get by–and not get caught?”
- Performers–“How can we be good at our job?”
- High Performers–“How can we be the best?”
Often the morale of the story is “be the best,” be a high performer. Or, in the precious words of my dad’s alma mater (in Latin), Vel primus vel cum primis. To wit: either the first or with the first. But that is precisely the problem. High performers typically stop growing because they feel (or are made to feel) they are the best, or among the best, and have hit their peak when that is far from the truth! That’s the challenge of comparing ourselves to others instead of to our own potential. Don’t forget the saying that “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” What is high performance about one eye just because everyone else you’re compared with is blind?
In fact, not only does Jason point out two common mistakes of high performers here but Novus Global as a practice firmly believes “attracting and retaining high-performers is a mistake and doing so creates a predictable set of problems.” You probably have met a lot of high performers who are still unhappy. Barring greed and envy, could Abraham Maslow’s observation be the cause? “If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.”
So “can one go beyond high performance?” remains the question. “What comes after high performance?” I’m glad you asked. “If your team doesn’t have a clear and compelling answer to the question “What comes after high performance?” then you absolutely have an unnecessary cap on the possibilities of your leadership and the impact of your organization,” says Jason. The answer lies in a word he’s coined: meta-performance. And this is “meta” is not like “meta-data” but “meta” as in “metamorphosis,” like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. A meta-performer isn’t committed to being the best (“how dull,” Jason says)… a meta-performer is committed to constantly exploring capabilities.
Unlike “What is the least we can do to get by–and not get caught?” (Low Performers), “How can we be good at our job?” (Performers) or “How can we be the best?” (High Performers), Meta-Performers ask themselves, “What are we capable of?” That is a potent question in and of itself, but to process that with a competent and caring coach is even more powerful!
I often say to people, I may not have been the best of medical students (I was a low performer) but I was a very good doctor (high performer). But as good a doctor as I was, the question of what I was capable of sent me on a totally different trajectory from my peers, from authoring books and motivational speaking through military experience and peacekeeping with the United Nations, to pastoring, restarting life as a Canadian immigrant and becoming CEO of a number of non-medicine related ventures, some with a budget of a few million dollars.
Meta-performance is akin to what my mentor John C. Maxwell calls The Law of the Rubber Band: Growth Stops When You Lose the Tension Between Where You are and Where You Could Be. The meta-performance life happens somewhere between feeling ‘just right,’ taut enough to be best at tying things up, to tearing up because we fail to embrace our God-given limits. Often times, we are poor judgers of thse book ends, and having a discerning coach to assist on this journey is vital.
“IMPOSSIBLE” ACCORDING TO WHO?
In what area(s) of your life have you lost your stretch and settled? Create some specific means for stretching in these areas of your life. Go back to your 2021 goals and ensure they’re not only S.M.A.R.T. but that they also STRETCH. Remember, “Only a mediocre person is always at his best,” saysW. Somerset Maugham, putting things in a way that hits home, hard. “Ouch,” says the best performers.
Walt Disney used to say, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” I know the feeling, a little bit. Nelson Mandela was right: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” I find it not only a powerful meta-performance question to ask “What am I capable of?” but also in line with that to inquire, “What sort of person must I become to be capable of that?” Then with Almighty God’s help, “just do it,” do the “impossible.”
The story is told of an anthropologist who introduced a game to the children of an African tribe. He placed a basket of delicious fruits near a tree trunk and told them: “The first child to reach the tree will get the basket.”
When he gave them the start signal, to his astonishment they were walking together, holding hands, until they all reached the tree. They simply shared the fruits and happily ate them! So baffled, with a furrowed brow he asked them, “Why did you do that when any one of you could get the basket only for yourself?”
They answered with glee, and to his amazement, “Ubuntu!”
“How can one of us be happy if all the rest are miserable?”
“Ubuntu” in their civilization means “I am because we are.” It is Xhosa from the African continent. The venerable Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains: “Africans have a thing called ubuntu. It is about the essence of being human, it is part of the gift that Africa will give the world. It embraces hospitality, caring about others, being willing to go the extra mile for the sake of another. We believe that a person is a person through other persons, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours. When I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms. Therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in community, in belonging.”
TEAMS THEME LIKE A BROKEN RECORD
Together Everyone Achieves Most Success. The theme of teamwork just won’t go away! To those around me, I must’ve sounded like a broken record over the period. Ah! But broken record will soon take on another important meaning. Read on. It began a couple of weeks ago as I was finishing a write-up for our 4D assessment (image above) at YAW PERBI. The TEAMS portion of the assessment posits that TEAMS should consist of at least one each of a Theorizer, Executor, Analyzer, Manager and Strategist, that idea itself also forming another acronym for TEAMS. No one has all six. Even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to function optimally when all are needed simultaneously. Whatever you don’t have, the Creator has put in someone next to you in your ecosystem. A network is about nextwork, basically a net of next workers.
This became very apparent to me when over these same couple of weeks I happened to be reading the old jewish book of Nehemiah, the guy in diaspora who returned to Jerusalem to lead a rebuilding campaign. The dominant word in the text about the rebuilding is “next.” An array of people, from priests to perfume-makers, male and female, built the next session of the broken walls of the city, some right in front of their house, until walls that had been down for over a century were rebuilt in only fifty-two days! Indeed, teamwork makes the dream work!
Former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson put it another way, “There are no problems we cannot solve together, and very few that we can solve by ourselves.” Going east, the Chinese have a proverb too that says, “Behind an able man there are always other able men.”
BETTER TOGETHER, FOR SURE!
Again over these same couple of weeks, my mother-in-law forwarded a video to me, featuring a passionate speaker who was emphasizing the power of building together. Incidentally, I happened to know the man–pastor Forbes of The Gambia, whose church in Banjul I had the privilege of speaking at about a decade ago. I quickly sent him word that he was trending. And he was. Forbes made a terrific point about how the fastest man in the world remains Usain Bolt of Jamaica, with a 2009 world record he set at 9.58 seconds remaining unbroken by any other human being for a dozen years now. Yet the 4 x 100m relay record by Bolt and three others stands at 36.84s, meaning an average of 9.21 seconds per runner. Get that? That’s a whole 37 seconds better than the best man in the world! That’s the power of team work, of synergy. All of us together, are better than any one of us, even the best of us, any day!
Take the game of soccer too. It doesn’t matter what a great goalkeeper one is, no one wins the game without good strikers who score goals (not to talk of the rest the complimentary forwards and midfielders). In the same way, one may be the best goalscorer in the world but without a strong defence, including goalkeeping, you will be outscored and lose the game. Great leadership assembles a great team of diverse people in gender, ethnicity, age etc. but especially in thinking styles and task orientation.
Every team member has a place where they add the most value. You don’t want to put the best goalscorer as a goalkeeper or vice-versa. You’ve got to know yourself and where you have most value, in order to know where you lack and who to bring on board. Likewise, everyone else on the team should know their niche. In The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork, John Maxwell puts this essential need to have the right people in the right places well on TEAMS as follows:
- The Wrong Person in the Wrong place = Regression
- The Wrong Person in the Right Place = Frustration
- The Right Person in the Wrong Place = Confusion
- The Right Person in the Right Place = Progression
- The Right People in the Right Places = Multiplication
IN THE END…
All of us together are better than the best of us, any day, every time! Even better than a Usain Bolt! Ubuntu! I am because we are. What is the Theorist without an Executor? What would an Analyzer do without a Manager or Strategist? TEAMS is the way to go. The children of Africa know it. Do we? Together Everyone Achieves Most Success!
One of my goals at the beginning of the year was to record a short video each week to pep people up in LIFE–Leadership, Integrity, Family, Entrepreneurship. Although speaking-wise I am an award-winning Toastmaster and have been on various media, including hosting television programmes even way back in my medical school days and early professional life, somehow I couldn’t bring myself to starting a YouTube channel and recording something ‘short and sweet’ regularly for my colleagues and coachees.
If today the January goal can now be marked as “done,” having recorded something every single week between then and now (June), it is because I had accountability to close a certain growth gap. The accountability I got was first from my Growth Mastermind group where I shared by goal at the beginning of the year. Exactly on January 15, one of the members, a U.S.-based consultant with Accenture, sent a group WhatsApp message reminding me of my action point to start recording that day. Did I feel ready? No. But to keep my word, I did it anyway! Apparently, we hardly ever ‘feel ready’ for anything. At some point we’ve got to “just do it!” It was Bruce Springsteen the musician who once said, “A time comes when you need to stop waiting for the man [male or female] you want to become and start being the man you want to be.”
MY GROWTH GAPS
In the very opening chapter of his masterpiece on personal growth (Maxwell 2012, 3-9), Dr. John C. Maxwell lists eight growth gaps people get trapped by:
- The Assumption Gap–“I assume that I will automatically grow”
- The Knowledge Gap–“I don’t know how to grow”
- The Timing Gap–“It’s not the right time to begin”
- The Mistake Gap–“I’m afraid of making mistakes”
- The Perfection Gap–“I have to find the best way”
- The Inspiration Gap–“I don’t feel like doing it”
- The Comparison Gap–“Others are better than I am”
- The Expectation Gap–“I thought it would be easier than this”
What had been keeping me from shooting my video snippets and starting my own YouTube channel were the Mistake and Perfection gaps. Those two, I find, are actually two sides of the same coin. There was a ton of information online about how to/not to shoot videos. Now, having 10,000 friends and followers on FaceBook and being well-known and respected in certain circles I didn’t want to come across as a jerk! I was being paralyzed by lighting issues, how my little home office should be arranged, which background would be the best, whether my phone camera was good enough etc. etc.
In fact, I look back with a bit of embarrassment at my first YouTube video which I shot in my decade-old comfy sweater with a Covid-19 bushy hair look, yet I’m so proud that I took the dive. Mistakes and failures are the price ticket to improvement and innovation. No price, no prize. My parents’ generation used to ridicule ‘Made in Japan’ products. My generation has high respect for everything Japanese, from Toyota and Honda through Yamaha to Sony. The Japanese were ridiculed as copycats with poor quality products but the kaizen principle of continuous improvement has brought them this far. Today’s generation has no paradigm of a bad Japanese product. They’ve constantly closed their mistake and perfection gaps. Now, some laugh at China the same way. China would laugh last if they too continually close their growth gaps because guess what? “A mistake is simply another way of doing things,” according to author and professor Warren Bennis. After 10,000 hours of practice, you and I can become geniuses at anything, as my fellow black Canadian, Malcolm Gladwell, asserts in Outliers, largely based on his interpretation of Anders Ericsson’s research.
TO MY FELLOW MISTAKE-AVOIDERS
The desire to find the best way and to be the best is good but I learnt from my mentor John Maxwell looking for the best way can actually be getting things backward. We rather have to get started if we want to find the best way. He says, “it’s similar to driving on an unfamiliar road at night. Ideally, you’d like to be able to see your whole route before you begin. But you see it progressively. As you move forward, a little more of the road is revealed to you. If you want to see more of the way, then get moving“ (Maxwell 2012, 7, emphasis mine).
I once met the American Christian televangelist, pastor, author and motivational speaker Dr. Robert H. Schuller (picture above) in the mid 1990s. As a World Vision Youth Ambassador, my cohort had the privilege of visiting his ‘all glass’ Crystal Cathedral, singing there (oh the acoustics!) and appearing live on his weekly Hour of Power television programme which be began hosting in 1970 until his retirement in 2010. He is noted for many famous quotes but one that has most gingered me to overcome my mistake and perfection gaps has actually been this poignant question of his: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you wouldn’t fail?”
So! Half of the year has gone. If you find there’s a gulf between your year-start goals and your mid-year achievements, it’s a growth gap. Ask yourself: “how do I need to grow to close this gap?” If we would resolve to grow and close the assumption, knowledge, timing, mistake, perfection, inspiration, comparison and expectation gaps, we will end the year smiling. Focus on your growth, not so much on your goals. Then you will grow to hit them. I have, in my video-shooting goal. Now off to the rest!
Maxwell, John C. 2012. The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth. New York: Center Street.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is exciting and scary at the same time! Here’s a satirical example (there are many variations online) about what should’ve been an ordinary exercise ordering ordinary pizza on an ordinary day.
Hello! Is this Gordon’s Pizza?
No sir, it’s Google’s Pizza.
Did I dial the wrong number?
No sir, Google bought the pizza store.
Oh, alright – then I’d like to place an order please.
Okay sir, do you want the usual?
The usual? You know what my usual is?
According to the caller ID, the last 15 times you’ve ordered a 12-slice with double-cheese, sausage, and thick crust.
Okay – that’s what I want this time too.
May I suggest that this time you order an 8-slice with ricotta, arugula, and tomato instead?
No, I hate vegetables.
But your cholesterol is not good.
How do you know?
Through the subscribers guide. We have the results of your blood tests for the last seven years.
Maybe so, but I don’t want the pizza you suggest – I already take medicine for high cholesterol.
But you haven’t taken the medicine regularly. Four months ago you purchased from Drugsale Network a box of only 30 tablets.
I bought more from another drugstore.
It’s not showing on your credit card, sir.
I paid in cash.
But according to your bank statement you did not withdraw that much cash.
I have another source of cash.
This is not showing on your last tax form, unless you got it from an undeclared income source.
Enough already! I’m sick to death of Google – Facebook – Twitter – WhatsApp and all the others!! I’m going to an island without internet, where there’s no cellphone and no one to spy on me …
I understand sir, but you’ll need to renew your passport … it expired six weeks ago!
Even as a boy, I felt there was something not quite right about hardly knowing my dad’s fellow partners and their families at the ‘big four’ accounting firm he worked at. Of course I knew a couple of the names and faces but that was about it. I felt they could organize some social events and such to intentionally bring their families together but hey, what did I know?
In fact, even now I wouldn’t be able to make out the wife of the senior partner when dad was deputy senior partner. The very kind, burly man’s children currently live barely five hours away from my family in the same country (Canada) but we don’t know each other well enough to even give the other an occasional ring. Oh wait, I got to talk to one of them once, when their dad was seriously ill and had been hospitalized in their town, but that’s been about it.
I think what I longed for, even as a boy, was a bit more of work-life integration, without even knowing that was actually ‘a thing’ or that such a term even existed. A feeble attempt at it has become largely known in the corporate space in recent times as “work/life balance” but what I speak of is more profound than that. How can anyone not see that there is a problem pitting “work” against “life” as if life doesn’t encompass work itself as well as one’s personal life, family and community? And it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game, work or die, inasmuch as there tends to be many tradeoffs.
BUY ONE, GET THREE FREE!
It’s a no brainer that having a bad home situation can adversely affect your professional performance and vice versa. Also, despite how stringent your personal health routines might be, your community relationships are a significant determinant of your mental and physical health, a 75-year study proves. Life is not as separate as we would like (or like to think). Somehow we know this when it comes to how something negative in one aspect of our life can spill over to botch another aspect but what if I told you that being a great dad can make you a better CEO or that the skills you use in your community can be a life-saver in some work project? Yeah, work/life balance isn’t the way to go; work-life integration is. I’ll tell you why.
Author Stewart Friedman concurs: “From years of studying people in many different settings, I have found that the most successful people are those who can harness the passions and powers of the various parts of their lives, bringing them together to achieve what I call “four-way wins — actions that result in life being better in all four domains.” These four domains Stewart speaks of are illustrated in ‘The Integrated Life’ diagram below. He continues, “My research has shown that there are ways for everyone — from the managers of sales teams, to executives in government agencies, to computer engineers, to florists, to coaches — to achieve professional success without always having to sacrifice the things that matter in their personal lives.”
COVID-19 BLESSING IN DISGUISE
One of the gifts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to not only highlight how important the place we call “home” is, but how it is central to our children’s formal education and our own professional lives. Heck, we’ve even done community, like church, from home! Online. This is perhaps the most physically integrated most people have been in their entire work lives. And those of us who like to keep everything prim and proper with no drama have had a really hard time.
I do a fair bit of social media. I find FaceBook much more integrated in terms of all four aspects of life than say, LinkedIn. Several times, I have seen people literally apologize and “make an excuse” or “make an exception” to post something faith or family-related on LinkedIn. I’ve tried to push those boundaries myself sometimes but it’s a weird, I must say. When I recently shared on LinkedIn that I daily run the daycare at home for the youngest ones of our seven children, I was really honoured to have one of my mentors, Bill George (Harvard business school professor and former CEO of Medtronic), affirm me as follows: “Thank you, Yaw, for being the authentic leader you are.” This must be why: Bill really believes, “For authentic leaders, being true to themselves by being the same person at work that they are at home is a constant test, yet personal fulfillment is their ultimate reward. Doing so will make you a more effective leader in all aspects of life“ (George 2015, 16).
WHERE THE RUBBER HITS THE ROAD
At a just-ended eight-week Family Foundations Mastermind I hosted, the prime place of family was underscored over and over again but by the penultimate session we needed to ‘get real.’ How do we do family well while keeping a demanding job, juggling community roles and trying to stay sane? This is where the rubber hits the road.
As I’ve stated before, integrity comes from the Latin root integritas which means whole, entire, undivided. On the other extreme are those who completely separate their professional life from other aspects of their lives. Then there are those who in the name of work/life balance, hop from one of the four parts to the other, trying to “fulfill all righteousness” and tick every box with as little guilt as possible. What I subscribe to and strive for is integration. Bill is blunt: “To lead an integrated life, you need to bring together the major elements of your personal life and professional life, family and friends so you can be the same person in each environment” (159-160).
We’re striving for the word integrated rather than balance. Subtle difference, apparently, but HUGE. Stewart gets it: “The idea I think to replace work/life balance, which treats these categories as independent, is work/life integration. You’re treating yourself whether you’re at work or at play in basically the same way.”
BIG ROCKS FIRST
All the buckets don’t have the same weight. I believe we ought to carry the more important yet not always more urgent buckets of personal and family first, putting the big rocks in first as Stephen Covey would put it, and all the other things will be added to us as well. Easier said than done, but it must be done nonetheless.
My favourite corporate example of this is Nike CEO John Donahoe (former eBay CEO), when he was a consultant with Bain decades ago with a young family. I was most impressed about how he told his client, ”It is important to me to be doing this. I’m committed to working hard, but I can’t be there before 10am.” This is because he insisted on taking his children to school before heading to the client site. The result? Donahoe was amazed that his clients appreciated the choices he was making. “The client responded positively as he appreciated my commitment and contributions even more” he says. “I didn’t have the courage to think about it that way before. There’s an inclination in business to put on a tough exterior to give the impression that you have everything under control” (162).
Bill George reports that “Donahoe learned that the more he integrated his life and embraced his humanity, the more effective he became as a leader … by showing his team and clients his [priorities and] vulnerabilities, he discovered his teams performed better and his client relationships strengthened.” (162)
This is not to say it’s all easy; but it’s worth it–just like med school or doing an MBA. Hear Donahoe: “The struggle is constant, as the trade-offs and choices don’t get any easier as you get older. My personal and professional lives are not a zero-sum trade-off. I have no doubt today that my children have made me a far more effective leader in the workplace. A strong personal life has made the difference” (160).
To be whole (integritas), we need to integrate our personal , family, community and professional lives, not pit one against the other like ‘work/life balance’ suggests. Real life happens were all four meet and they can enhance each other. Indeed, they should. It isn’t easy. How do I know? I’m still trying. So should you. It’s worth it.
In my next blog, I will share a number of practical examples and ideas of how people have made life-work integration happen, and how my family and I have tried to, also.
Friedman, Stewart D. 2014. “What Successful Work and Life Integration Looks Like.” Harvard Business Review. October 07, 2014.
George, Bill. 2015. Discover your True North. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
In my last blog we discussed when to leave the dance floor as an executive leader. Today, let’s talk about how to leave the dance floor. I agree with those who prefer ‘succession management’ to the term ‘succession planning’ because planning, come to think of it, really is only a third of the management cycle which comprises planning, implementation and evaluation.
I have several succession management experiences in my leadership career spanning over two decades. These have been in multiple C-level roles and contexts, even in different countries and continents.
SUCCESSION SUCCESS STORIES
After pioneering The HuD Group in Ghana in 2003 and leading it for five years, I successfully passed it on to the next national CEO and left for Cote d’Ivoire to pioneer the same work of holistic leadership development there while serving with the United Nations peacekeeping operation. The Cote d’Ivoire transition, when it was time to leave after a year, was one of the trickiest. The very week I was to leave, the one person who had hitherto faithfully served alongside me and was the ‘heir apparent’ suddenly and strangely broke my trust in a significant way. The ‘next best’ I eventually handed over to, ended up being truly the best. Timothée led the organization for a decade and has now also successfully passed the baton to an amazing lady, Ann. Timothée is now the CEO of Francophone Africa for the same organization. We have been working together for over a dozen years. We do not only have a mentoring relationship but are really friends, having spent great times together in several African countries as well as in the U.S. and Indonesia. I have done the same kind of succession management in Canada, handing over The HuD Group I pioneered there in 2010 to a very capable young man who at the time was working for Shell in the oil sands of Alberta.
In a different scenario, although I was initially hired to be interim pastor of the English congregation of a Chinese church in Montreal, when it was time to get serious about handing over to a successor after about three years, several people did not want us to go that route. They liked me and had gotten comfortable with the progress we were making in several areas but I knew it was the right thing to do. As a leader, I had figured out that the church needed to find someone who could give their full attention to the work and not my part-time investment, albeit fairly substantial. That too was an interesting succession management process as it involved interviewing candidates from Canada, the US, Taiwan and the Philippines. It’s been about five years since we eventually hired a young trilingual Chinese-Canadian, Rev. Joseph Cherng, and the church has been thriving since he took over over from me. Again, he consults me from time to time and we are good friends, even visiting our home to share fellowship together with our spouses.
As I shared in the previous blog, I have just made my way off the dance floor after an eight-year tenure as president of ISMCanada and still in the midst of succession management even as I write this blog. I like the fact that in their statement to the organization, the board mentioned that I gave them a whole year’s notice of my stepping aside. That is how to do it–give ample time (unless, of course, it is an emergency). A recent meeting at ISMCanada had two former presidents (myself and Paul Workentine, who handed over to me in 2013) and the new president of ISMCanada (Jakob Koch) all in the same Zoom breakout room (picture below). All three of us still have roles in the organization concurrently. A blessed rarity!
Apart from leaving the dance floor when people are still enjoying your dance, there are two other mindsets that have helped me succeed with regards to succession management in the several leadership transitions in my leadership career in multiple roles and contexts First, “leadership success is measured by succession” and then, “always be closing.”
MINDSET #1: LEADERSHIP SUCCESS IS MEASURED BY SUCCESSION
One of the things that has helped me to be largely successful in all the above stories, even amidst challenges, has been a leadership jewel I picked from John Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership about 20 years ago. According to John’s Law of Legacy, a leader’s lasting value is measured by succession. So unlike other leaders, and I’ve seen many such in Africa, who even want their successor to fail so that they look good, I have always viewed by success as a leader by how well my successor does. You don’t want your successor to look bad just so that you look good. That is bad leadership.
In all the above successful succession stories, my pride is in the fact that these subsequent leaders are doing well, even better than I did in me era. If really leadership is about the people we serve and the noble purpose we share, then any true leader would want to measure their success by a successful succession!
MINDSET #2: ALWAYS BE CLOSING
When I was a financial consultant with Investors Group Canada, I had a fascinating Italian gentleman called Carlo in charge of my unit. He was quite the mentor figure, doing some rounds with me and even taking me to his home on the east end of Montreal once. Carlo was a straight-shooter and his large clientele was evidence that he was doing something right. He is the guy who first taught me to ‘motivate and disturb’ in the sales process. But the most important thing he taught me about sales, I find applies to succession management as well. He called it ABC–Always Be Closing. That must’ve been his short version of Stephen Covey’s second habit of successful people: begin with the end in mind.
To Carlo, what was the point of all the prospecting, phone calling, presentation preparation, sales conversations etc. if it all these activities in the sales process don’t end up in a sale? But in order to close the sale in the end, one has to have that mindset and talk and behave as a closer right from the beginning of the conversation–even before the beginning–and throughout the conversation. ABC–Always Be Closing.
When it comes to succession management, I feel the same way. Always Be Closing. Right from taking a position or role, one needs to begin with the end in mind and start succession management. Always Be Closing. What if the day after you become VP or CEO you’re hit by a bus? What happens to your organization? Even barring any such tragedy, the reality is, every leader, no matter how good and gifted, will have to leave one day. No one and nothing lasts forever. From the very day I took on the CEO role at ISMCanada, I identified a possible successor and hinted him. Always be closing.
So succession management should be as basic a mindset and requirement as ABC for every would-be-successful leader. Beginning with the end in mind, Always Be Closing. And if one truly believes their leadership success is measured by successful succession, it will make all the difference in how they leave the dance floor. Leadership success is good, but significance because succession was successful, is even better!
This month I clocked eight years as president and CEO of a strategic Canadian charity in the international education space. I was headhunted for the role and felt privileged to be the first ever black president of our almost 40 years old organization. We provide hospitality, faith exploration opportunities and leadership development for the over half a million international students in Canada to be empowered to impact the world. I’ve had the privilege of leading about 90 incredible staff across 23 cities from coast to coast–Canada is the second widest country on earth after Russia–and oh yes, we have a staff family serving in Australia too.
SO WHY ARE YOU LEAVING?
In the first couple of years under my leadership, we grew by about 70% (short of my 100% goal) in new staff and new fields, expanding into about a dozen new cities, extending coast to coast for the first time in the organization’s history. There’ve been many more exciting things that have happened, including seeing such a rich diversification of our staff to about 15 nationalities. One of my greatest joys has been to see former international students becoming leaders of our work in cities, regionally and even in senior leadership. Every quarter we chronicle story upon story of incredible impact on students/scholars by staff and volunteers and impact of our students and alumni around the world, from Australia to Zimbabwe! We’ve seen an organization little known organization gain significant recognition in the international education space in Canada and abroad. Together with the leaders and staff, we worked to move organizational health from OK to healthy to flourishing (as independently adjudged by a third party firm). When I hear of CEO versus board tussles I cringe and thank God that this has been far from my experience. I’ve had such a congenial and synergistic relationship with the board, which has rotated through four chairpersons over the period I’ve been president.
If everything is going as well as I claim, then why am I leaving? My work is done! I believe every leader has a particular purpose to a particular people in a particular place for a particular period and when your work is done, you pack up and go, leaving the place and people better than you found them. I had initially been approached for this role in late 2012 and had laughed it off, especially since I was not only running The HuD Group, which had just received charitable status in Canada, but was also doubling as interim pastor for the Montreal Chinese Alliance Grace Church. Eventually I did take the five-hour flight from Montreal to Calgary to interview with the board. When Anyele and I prayerfully decided to make some adjustments and finally accept the board’s offer, I specifically stated that I planned to do this presidency for three to five years. In fact, I ensured it was clearly spelt out in the documentation. Well, guess what? It’s been three plus five years. It’s time to go!
MUSIC AND DANCING WITH GRAPHS
It is time to leave because my particular purpose to a particular people in this particular place for this particular period is done. As a wise saying in Africa goes, you leave the dance floor while people are still enjoying your dance. What Africans say so well idiomatically, Westerners tend to express graphically. So below is a pictorial illustration of what I’m saying.
While the above graph refers to the life cycle of any organization per se, it is similar to the organizational leader’s cycle too. Don’t wait to peak, let alone to get into decline and eventual death. That is not great for your leadership but even worse, not good for an organization you supposedly believe in (and even love). Just before the peak is when you collaborate with the ‘DJ’ (stakeholders) to start another song i.e. launch another initiative, start a new programme, launch a new organization etc. Just before the peak is when your dance is still being enjoyed so you either start another song or gracefully leave the dance floor!
By the time one hits the peak itself, you are stretching it. Folks are beginning to get tired of your moves. After the peak, it’s all downhill, babe! And no matter how hard you dance (in spite of how very tired you might be) no one’s excited anymore. Not only have eyes started rolling all the way into the head, some may even have begun yawning by now. Bored. Yet, some leaders still don’t get it! Whether it’s because of the adrenaline rush on the dash floor or the perks of the position, they keep dancing and dancing and dancing, while they keep losing the audience until the music is over! Some even keep dancing after the music is over, dancing to the music in their heads. It’s a fight together them off the dance floor! If you don’t leave the dance floor while people are still enjoying your dance, at least leave while the music is still playing! Worst case scenario, far from ideal, leave when the music is done.
A POLITICAL CONCLUSION
Knowing when to leave the dance floor is more of an art than a science; it’s a soft thing akin to discernment and intuition. The greatest leaders like Nelson Mandela have it; they just know. When everyone was urging Madiba to do a bonafide and very welcome second term in office as South Africa’s first black president who had had a good run, he declined. “No, please.” Nelson Mandela left the dance floor while we were all not only still enjoying his dance, we were urging him on for more moves!
Knowing very well that some leaders wouldn’t have what it takes to leave the dance floor even when it’s obvious, many spheres of society have term limits on executive roles. Most political jurisdictions have a maximum of two four-year terms. As an African, I’ve been embarrassed by how many of our leaders haven’t had what it takes to gracefully leave the dance floor while we were still enjoying their dance. Mandela, unfortunately, is more of an exception than the rule. As a former United Nations peacekeeping soldier, I’ve tasted first hand the horror of the ravages of civil strife and war when leaders don’t want to leave the dance floor even after the music is over. I hate it!
I join those concerned about the “pandemic of ‘third terminism‘” in Africa, including in the West African country I served in as a U.N. Peacekeeper from June 2008 for a year and lost two of my medical colleagues to death. Oxford defines ‘third terminism’ as the phenomenon of leaders seeking to break constitutional term limits—usually set at two terms in office—to secure a third term in office. The phrase has also been used more broadly to refer to leaders who refuse to leave power. This isn’t uniquely African; it is simply human. Recently, Putin has done it in the east and in the west, Trump did not want to leave the floor when his music was over. In fact, it was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘third terminism’ (he won, even a fourth!) and the popular fallout about the concept of a long-term president that led to the ratification of the 22nd amendment in 1951 that “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice…”
According to the National Constitution Centre, “Franklin Roosevelt wasn’t even the first Roosevelt to seek a third term in the White House. His distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, ran unsuccessfully as a third-party candidate in 1912, after declining to run in 1908. President Ulysses S. Grant also sought a third term in 1880, but he lacked enough party support to get a nomination.”
George Washington, the first U.S. president, had set the two four-year terms maximum precedent in 1796 when he declined a third term. In 1799, a friend urged Washington to come out of retirement to run for a third term. But as I earlier asserted, the greatest leaders know when to leave the dance floor–and stay off! Washington’s voluntary decision to decline a third term, like Mandela’s voluntary decision to decline a second, was apparently seen by many people as a safeguard against the type of tyrannical power yielded by the British crown during the Colonial era.
In my next article, I shall share about how to leave the dance floor in grand style (some call it ‘succession management’). In the mean time, you, my friend, now know when to leave the dance floor–at best when people are still enjoying your dance; or at least, while the music is still playing!
One of the most sold yet least bought commodities in the leadersphere is integrity. There’s hardly a set of corporate core values one comes across without it showing up somehow. What’s even more intriguing is how mystical people make it sound and look. In fact, I’ve heard politicians throw it about in a way that’s made me wonder whether even I understood what the heck it is. But hear me good: integrity is not that complicated.
Although there are so many definitions of it, I’ll share with you one that is as simple as primary school math and then show you a simple litmus test of integrity. Integrity comes from the Latin root integritas, which means whole, complete, entire, unbroken. It’s the same word from which we get the word integer. See, I told you it’s as simple as grade school math! What are integers? Positive and negative whole numbers.
Integrity then basically means you’re whole, not divided. The opposite of that would be fractions; not whole. You’re fractionated, broken up.
What’s the litmus test I speak of? Integrity is not that complicated. How can you tell I’ve got it? How do I know you have integrity too? I don’t need a KYC (know your client) form or a testimonial from a referee or even your long list of impressive achievements. Integrity is keeping your word–not letting your word fall to the ground, not breaking your word. Integrity is being what you say you are and doing what you say you’ll do.
BEING WHAT YOU SAY YOU ARE
Let’s consider two guys, Kofi and Yaw. If Kofi says, “I lie, I deceive, I steal.” Kofi has low morality, by that particular society’s general standards of acceptable behaviour in that era. When Yaw says, “I abhor lying, I don’t deceive, I never steal,” he has high morality.
BUT, if Yaw goes on lying, deceiving and stealing then Yaw is not a person of integrity. He doesn’t keep his word. However, if Kofi goes ahead to lie, deceive and steal, although he has low morality he actually is a person of integrity (albeit in a very twisted way) because he keeps his word. He said he will do these things and he does. Integrity is being what you say you are, being what you say you will.
DOING WHAT YOU SAY YOU’LL DO
Again integrity is keeping your word, this time, by doing what you say you’ll do. I still remember the shock of a new friend I made when I showed up at her place exactly when I promised I would. She was brutally honest with me that she wasn’t expecting me to keep my word. I was hurt that he would think so lowly of the human race, more specifically the XY chromosomic Homo sapiens, and even more specifically a Christian gentleman. But you couldn’t blame here–she had experienced too many people promising and failing to deliver all too often.
Integrity is keeping your word. Of course, sometimes we give our word and due to extenuating circumstances we’re not able to keep it (we can’t control everything, especially the elements and emergencies). If you are a person of integrity, however, although you are not able to keep your word you still honour your word by reaching out in advance (preferably in advance), apologizing for not being able to and renegotiating to make things right.
My editing team for the weekly PEP Talks I do expect my videos to get to them by Sunday night each week. I had such a long day last Sunday that I realized there was no way I was going to be able to make a good video to send at the end of the day. To keep my integrity, however, I sent a note to the team saying, “Hey, it’s been a very tiring day and I wouldn’t be able to give this video my best shot. I’ll work on it tomorrow instead and send it to you.” I was unable to keep my longstanding word, but I did well to still honour it. I wish that were always true. Sometimes I’ve failed to keep my word and gone on with life as if I never gave my word in the first place. That is not integrity–not matter how much I claim to have it!
I get amazed how many people give their word with no intention whatsoever to keep it! And then there is the category of people who give their word intending to keep it but when they are unable to don’t see the big deal in still honouring their word–apologizing and redressing it. I’ve had to correct several people I work with to the point that now they not only keep their word, but if for some reason they are not able to, they now honour it by apologizing, letting me know and re-negotiating.
By the way, when we make plans and don’t keep it (even if they don’t involve anybody else), we violate our integrity. Many of us do not take our own word seriously; we don’t take ourselves seriously. I insist on 100% integrity with my coaching clients when they give their word about what they commit to doing in between our sessions.
Inasmuch as I want to keep this article to the personal level, I cannot help but take a swipe at politicians who are notorious for giving their word during political campaigns only to take office and not only fail to keep their word but sometimes even pretend they have no clue what the citizenry and civil society organizations are reminding them about and trying to hold them to account for! There is a joke about how before elections they call us “the masses.” When they win and we make our demands of them we become “them asses!” In my short lifetime, on both sides of the Atlantic, I have met very few politicians worth their salt. Politicians with integrity are almost extinct.
So integrity isn’t this highfalutin, mystical, metaphysical thing. It’s not that complicated. It is as simple as primary school math: integers. What shows you have it or not is as simple as keeping your word. Period. Nothing more, nothing less.
Recently I received an email (partly screenshot above) announcing my nomination to receive an honorary doctorate degree. It is is possible that I would have felt more flattered and been more tempted to go after this fake degree from these fictitious institutions had I not already been a “Dr.” (medical). Coming from a family in which my grandfather was an emeritus professor and where my mother and father-in-law are PhDs in history and economics respectively, these titles don’t exactly faze us. Yet those who offer them know they are toying with very powerful human emotions, motivations and identity issues at the core of our being and have made a good business of it. As my best friend said when I forwarded the said email to him, “this has nothing to do with you; it has everything to do with business.”
Some however, including many Christian leaders, have taken the bait and gotten decorated with very dubious degrees and titles. Recently, there was a huge brouhaha over a popular Ghanaian musician based in London who was alleged to have amassed three degrees, including a PhD, within four months! Perhaps if he had even shut up, none of this would’ve become an issue of investigation and castigation setting social media abuzz but he was flaunting it and ‘praising God’ for the fake feat. The desire to flaunt it itself reveals the very identity and emotional challenges he might have that perhaps led to him to go for those inauthentic accolades in the first place.
The above picture of Sonnie, whose giftedness is unquestionable but his academic credentials are, was uploaded by himself on social media touting his feat. I have met Sonnie. He is a fine young man and anointed. But I can also tell you he is far from perfect; just like you and me. Speaking of Sonnie and musicology, incidentally, my grandfather was a celebrated ethnomusicologist. His work earned him many accolades including several honorary doctorates but he never used the title “Dr.” because although he had done enough original research work to deserve ten doctorates he never really formally pursued a PhD per se. Interestingly, he shot straight from ‘mister’ to ‘professor’ and was ’emeritus professor’ for the last three decades or so of his life.
This degree brouhaha touches on at least three issues: identity, purpose and authenticity.
There was once a programme organized by a friend of mine. The MC got on stage and introduced a certain pastor to come up and offer a prayer. He inadvertently introduced him, with no malice, as Mr. XYZ. XYZ comes up, grabs the mic and makes a correction, “I’m not Mister, I’m Pastor.” That wasn’t all; it gets worse. Later he clears his throat and amends his correction saying something like, “In fact, I’m not Pastor, I am Reverend.” Ahem. Wow! What a shock, what a shame.
But lest I come across as holier than thou, remember I told you that the people offering fake degrees know exactly what they are massaging in us: the ego. I can tell you that as a medical doctor myself there are many times when people address me in speech or in writing as ‘Mr.’ and I have a natural gut reaction to get offended, said in my head something like “do you know who you’re talking to?” and yearned to correct them. There’s a part of me that even justifies it thus: “mehn, but you earned it.” That, my friend, is not the authentic self.
We need not, and indeed should not, root our identity in external things like what we wear, how much we earn, what degrees or title(s) we have acquired. Anything that man can give you, man can take away. Let’s not root our identity in any such thing. And you would think that supposed men and women of God would know better and root their identity in nothing less than Christ himself.
You may have ‘more degrees than a thermometer’ and still not accomplish your God-given purpose. There are some without degrees at all and yet have made much more impact in the world than those with many letters behind their names. Your purpose in life determines the vehicles and tools you need to use. It’s strange to make the acquisition of vehicles and tools our primary objective when one hasn’t first sat down to evaluate if that is what they need to get done the job they came on earth to accomplish. It’s about dreams, not diplomas and degrees.
Did you read about the recent brouhaha over the apparent insistence of Jill Biden, wife of the current U.S. president, to be called “Dr” ? It’s really been going on for at least a decade now: “Hi, I’m Jill. Jill Biden. But please, call me Dr. Biden.” The December 2020 op-ed by Joseph Epstein in the Wall Street Journal implored Jill Biden to “think about dropping the honorific, which feels fraudulent, even comic.” Personally, I think the essence of what Epstein was trying to say became lost in what became an embroilment in sexism. The real question should be: does being ‘Dr.’ make Jill a better educator (that she’s been for decades) or not? Everything else is secondary; even tertiary.
This degree saga leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to authentic leadership. It speaks to the core of authenticity. Authentic leaders have:
- nothing to prove–a matter of humility (not try to project self worth)
- nothing to hide–a question of integrity (no playing of games but totally transparent)
- nothing to lose–a matter of simplicity (not strive for social image or popularity).
As you might have noticed, humility, integrity and simplicity as an acronym spell HIS. This is particularly instructive to Christian leaders. Those of us at the Third Lausanne Congress on world Evangelization in Cape Town in 2010 were passionately exhorted by theologian Chris Wright to be God’s saints, Christ’s people, HIS people of humility, integrity and simplicity.
NOT SO WITH YOU
Again, especially for Christian leaders, the primary power base of an authentic (wo)man of God is spiritual power—not positional or personal power. Others may go that route but Jesus was very clear to his followers who would be leaders: “not so with you.” In May 2020, I wrote quite extensively on that here. We need to lead different. This issue just won’t go away until Christians really chose to be H.I.S. people.
In light of the recent brouhaha about fake degrees, Friends, BE WARNED. Don’t allow your ego to be stroked and stoked, making your false self acquiesce to receiving fake degrees from fictitious institutions. If you want a degree, go to school and study for one! In any case, one doesn’t necessarily need a degree to succeed in life! Hopefully your going for a diploma or degree would only be because you have observed It will a good vehicle or tool towards your dream. Again, the thing is: You can have ‘more degrees than a thermometer’ and still not fulfill your God-given purpose in life.
I have a mentor who likes to say, “the thing about titles is that if you’re good you don’t need them; if you’re not they won’t help you.” Heaven help us!