The campaign slogan run by Sprite a few years ago always holds true to me in life: “Image is nothing, thirst is everything, obey your thirst!” In political and business leadership, however, the slogan should be paraphrased thus: “Image is everything, thirst for power even more so: obey your thirst.” Two things will always hold true, in political and business leadership image is everything and power is absolutely everything. I was inspired to this line of thought as I read the spellbinding book titled “A Thousand Hills” by Stephen Kinzer, who writes about Rwanda’s rebirth and the man who dreamed it. The book is a well balanced historical analysis of President Paul Kagame’s life before, during and after the genocide that shot his leadership prowess into the limelight based on the writer’s research and hundreds of hours of interviews with President Kagame and other notable actors in the drama that became notoriously known as 100 days of genocide from April to June 1994. A key player was the Canadian military commander Romèo Dallaire who, in 1993 was appointed as the Commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Rwanda that came to be known as UNAMIR. Dallaire’s boss was none other than Kofi Annan, who was the head of the department of peacekeeping operations within the United Nations. Kinzer writes of Dallaire: “Friends had warned him…. that Annan and his colleagues were ‘incompetent boobs who kept bankers’ hours and disappeared when situations in the field came to a head’ “. Within the course of a year, Dallaire came to understand why Kofi Annan’s image was so tainted. At the height of the genocide, ten Belgian peacekeepers were killed and Dallaire immediately called Kofi Annan with a view to request for a bigger and better armed contingent which had a tougher mandate to intervene and provide security to the victims of the bloodthirsty killers. Annan’s response was simply no. Dallaire was asked not to take sides and told further that it was up to the Rwandans to sort things out for themselves.
Image is really a two-way mirror. One the one side of the mirror is the Kenyan. If you ask the average Kenyan who Kofi Annan is, she will tell you that he is the man who came to rescue Kenya from the brink of civil war after the December 2007 elections. The stylish, salt-and-pepper haired Ghanaian who would brook no nonsense until the two Principals came to an agreement. On the other side of the mirror is the Rwandan. Kofi Annan is the man who failed to let the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda convert its mandate from a paper pushing bureaucracy to saving lives of victims of genocide. It is arguable that the two sides of this Ghanaian coin are a reflection of lessons learnt, a commitment that never again would he watch while a country went to flames. Brokering – or being seen to broker – peace talks in a country that has significant regional importance for the United States and the United Kingdom provided a great opportunity to redeem a fairly tarnished image.
Closer home, the recent appointment of the pioneering, no-nonsense former CEO of Safaricom, Michael Joseph as the chairman of Kenya Airways was met with some fairly robust debate on social media. Social media is the platform where the uninformed as well as the informed continuously churn out both facts and opinion in equal measure and it takes a discerning observer a while to white out the noise, the “retweets” and the multiple “shares” in order to curate the truth. To the external observer, Michael Joseph has always cut the image of being tough, being focused and having ‘zero chills’ with regards to public perception of what he says. His track record at Safaricom, taking it from a start-up to being one of the top ten tax generators in an astonishing ten years, placed him in the Kenyan corporate hall of fame as a turnaround CEO. Thus it was with much fervor that many social media commentators erroneously referred to him as the “executive chairman”, and went ahead to explain why he was there to run the troubled organization on behalf of the shareholders.
The term “executive chairman” simply means a chairman who takes an active role in the day-to-day management of the organization, as opposed to a non-executive chairman whose role is confined to leading the board and its activities. The potential for significant clashes between an executive chairman and a CEO is fairly high, as two centers of power are created within an organization thus creating room for exploitation by stakeholders. It also prevents the chairman from providing the critical management oversight role that is required via his leadership of the board. Happily, the global slant of corporate governance to which Kenya subscribes to effectively separates the role of chairman and CEO. This has been further codified in the Capital Markets Authority Code of Corporate Governance for Issuers of Securities 2015 that specifically requires the separation of the two roles.
Joseph’s lasting image is one of a man in charge, running a ship single handedly and both the formal and social media are driving the narrative that he will now lead the organization to the land of milk and honey. However, his role is limited by law, and by Kenya Airways’ own constitutive documents, to leading the board which body provides the strategic direction that the organization should follow. There is a substantive CEO in place who is still responsible for executing that strategic direction provided by the board and on whose desk the buck still stops. Joseph’s legacy will be sealed as a turnaround champion if he leads the board in determining the correct strategy to help the airline shift its course and ensures that the board keeps the Kenya Airways management on a tight and focused leash in its strategic execution mandate.