Leadership qualities to fix the development industry – My Six (6)!

In an increasingly fast-moving world, where digital technological advances enable extremely fast communication from any place on earth, success as well as failure come and go at the same speed. Cut-throat competition, facilitated by a fluid and fast-moving business environment, is the order of business, and something considered routine.

Depending on the development industry sector you engage, development is at times insular and naive. ‘’We do things our way, and as long as our ‘heart’ is in the right place, we shall be ok.’’ Unlike private sector corporates ‘’we tend to dislike intra-industry competition and do not protect intellectual property rights’’. The number one agenda of the development industry is to eradicate poverty on earth.  Mandated to end the scourge of poverty, development organisations cannot be seen investing effort in protecting poverty-eradication models (equivalent to assets deserving of copyright/trademark in the private sector) and prevent others from using them.  For example, a development entity may design and successfully test a unique poverty eradication model, and have it ready for scale-up or ‘market-launch’ if it were the private sector. However, the same development entity cannot prevent a peer (equivalent to a competitor in the private sector) from using that model or even use it to acquire funding at the expense of the model ‘owner’.

Picture: image.slidesharecdn.com

Pix credit: image.slidesharecdn.com

Please, allow me and yourself if you feel like, call the above naivety! This industry exhibits a level of naivety that leaves me asking if this is not a potential cause of its death. How can development entities survive in this free-for-all eco-system? The concepts of risk-taking, creating and protecting intellectual property and value, are considered an anathema. The problem, however, is that, while keeping the industry modus-operandi intact, the operating environment is becoming ever harder to survive in. This reminds me of the parable of the boiling frog in my business strategy class. Perhaps, it is time for the development industry to consider the equivalent of a regulatory mechanism like the copyright and trademark authority.

All of the above is sign of a leadership and industry culture, which needs changing. We simply need to think different, don’t we? Some years back, I worked for a small but respectable UK-based International charity, mostly working in East Africa. Its board chair told me something that many would consider eccentric, but in hindsight, deserves some deep reflection and analysis. The board chair believed that people working in development like myself, are ‘failed business people’. Apparently, we simply do not have what it takes to make it in business, and we seek refuge in a ’soft’ sector. Were this board chair to be correct, and I want to think not 100%, do current international development leaders have what it takes to change this industry?

There are things those from the private sector relate development industry practitioners with and I suppose makes them refer to us as ‘failed business people’. I have recently been pushing to recruit and select new staff from the private sector and government. The private sector bred colleagues are amazed at the way development works. Apparently, we talk a lot and act less, we work from the known to the unknown – ‘in effect painting in the dark’ at certain points of our work, we hold deep and rich discourse plus turn that into a culture and function, we create unnecessary process and work, we over-consult, etc. My natural temptation whenever I hear such sentiments is to deny and quickly fall back to the mantra, IT IS OUR DONORS TO BLAME!  May be time to look at myself in front of a mirror!

It appears this blog is selling us the hypothesis, ‘think private sector and you are good’, is it that simple?

Well, it cannot be that simple or else, me and you would have had much more success at changing the development industry. In discussing change success factors for the development industry, we need to differentiate industry level structural/systemic, organisational, and individual leader bottlenecks. The typical development entity has full control over the organisational and individual leader, but not the industry level bottlenecks. Those watching from afar, eagerly want to understand how development entities and leaders can address the industry bottlenecks below:

  • The development industry lacks bottom-line clarity and focus of the private sector. Private sector leaders are judged on shareholder value gain, while in development you are judged by impact attained, but measured long after ‘development-transactions’ have happened.
  • The development industry lacks the market-clarity of the private sector. What is the development industry market? Is it the donor or the poor people it serves? Who of the two defines market direction for the development industry?
  • The development industry and its actors have worked so hard and done a lot of good, but many still judge the industry as failing. If it were a private business, it would have gone under. Yet the development industry still has suitors and with a future to boast of. What is in this ’thing’ development, that makes it survive even when declared failing? Perhaps, our private sector friends may have something to learn from us, we just shall survive! Of course, one may be forced to ask: ‘survival but under what terms and values?
  • The development industry is a jack of all trades and master of none. A typical development entity has multiple competencies amongst its staff and value-chain. Focusing on core competences is mantra in private sector
  • The development industry works to take itself out of business while the private sector works towards brand-perpetuity. Now, come the entrepreneurial leader to ‘kill’ the business – can sound confusing, not so?
  • The development industry runs an egalitarian performance related pay (PRP) system while the private sector mostly rewards performance of the individual. Without proper bottom-line clarity, PRP in development becomes a tricky subject, after all, you can’t even be seen to enjoy private sector like remuneration as that is in itself, luxury, causes inequity and, therefore, a taboo in development

With all the above industry bottlenecks, what can change the status quo? Is this stuff simply bigger than any giant organisation and leader-brain, however, good they are? Is development simply too development to change? I would rather hope not, and believe the development industry can change for the better and augment some of its successes over years past

Who are the key players in this game plan to address development industry bottlenecks?

  • The development-gods if they did wake up one day wanting the ‘right’ kind of change
  • The poor people that the industry serves, if empowered
  • The electorate in the North that give development-gods the mandate for poverty-governance
  • The Southern Civil Society Entity like the East African Civil Society Organisation (EACSO)
  • New leadership from the North/South development industry, private sector, or government

I have lately blogged a lot about leadership and its role in changing the development industry. Of the five industry game-changers above, i believe and firmly, that LEADERSHIP is top and a cross-cutting factor at the apex of the change game plan. The future of the development industry, like many before it, depends not on having strong leaders, but strong leaders with the right ‘INGREDIENTS’.

A lot is written about leadership, and I at times worry about the oversupply and confusion that may result. Borrowing from McKinsey & Company’s work on top leadership qualities (ingredients), you can choose for yourself ‘INGREDIENTS’ new leadership in development requires to address the enigma of development industry bottlenecks. I have my six leadership ingredients below:

  1. Champion desired change
  2. Offer a critical perspective
  3. Operating with a strong results orientation
  4. Seeking different perspective
  5. Develop others
  6. Remain composed and confident in uncertainty

What are your top six qualities for the ’NEW’ leader that can change the development industry and get it moving in another direction?

Categories: You, the Leader!


2 replies

  1. Well the analysis is an eye opener worth mulling over and question what we do. It could be the same game played in different fields. It all depends on what field the game is played ABG. If it is with artificial grass with a ground filled to the capacity, televised and sponsored of course the game must be result driven.

    Our brethren in private sector are artificial just like European game players. They survive on falsifying and alluring the poor majority with material world to lure them in their profit nets to survive.

    Imagine the adverts like here in Bongo. Sheer Hogwash to tantalize the poor majority to buy their products so that they can survive in the clash of the titans. We have this stuff now the Jay Millions, Jishindie IST [Win a Toyota IST] just to mention a few. Would you call this success in private sector ‘wizi mtupu’ organized robbery!!!

    To succeed in private sector you should do the following
    =Blind Fold the poor with luscious adverts and rob their hard earned income;
    = Give fish to the poor [you know like cars, smart phones and more gizmo’s] so that you become the modern oliver twist and ask for more. These gizmos are addictive and surely you will always go back to them and ask for more data bundles if you know what I mean.
    = Hood wink the state by corporate responsibilities to gain visibility and avoid taxes;
    = Detain talents and torture them tirelessly to come up with more tricks called strategies to rob the poor robless!!

    But the development industry is complete different and not opposite to private sector.

    = We open our brethren eyes and raise their awareness with powerful messages and not adverts
    = We teach them how to fish [I know it is a cliché] but worth using it here.
    = We encourage them with community responsibilities to pay taxes for their moral development and make physical development more visible.

    ABG Actually i was putting to test leaderaship charcterist Number six,

    Otherwise I am excited to have access to these discussions.


    • Mwl. Komba – I’m grateful to have you read my blog!

      Yes, private sector can be sharks indeed, but with caution, we can borrow some of their vices

      We don’t have to do what they do, but we can operate like them, and change our beloved industry. We have no choice but change the way we work and think, and that will take some BOLD leadership!


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