The People Paradox in Leadership

Leadership is about People. Yet if you need people to be a leader, then you will never be effective. The same thing that is the strength and center of leadership, is the same that can be it’s weakest link. In his HBR Article Aptly titled ” You’re a Leader Now. Not Everyone is Going to Like You.” Martin G Moore, states that as leaders, conflict aversion is not an option and that one of the most difficult psychological barriers to overcome as a leader is the ability to do things that are opposite to our primordial instinct of the desire to be liked. As someone in charge, almost everything you do will have the potential to trigger a conflict or resistance in one way or another.

“Bringing out the best in each person will require you to have countless direct, honest, and empathetic conversations. Some leaders never master this.”

Leadership before Friendship

My father recently reminded me of this statement he has always used when reprimanding me or any of my four brothers ” I am your parent, not your friend”. At the basic level of parenting this is a powerful statement. This he specifically uses to distinguish and reaffirm that to him, friendship is secondary to his role as a father , a similar approach should inform our leadership. We are first leaders before friends and the latter should never be a priority over the former.

“If you learn to put yourself in your people’s shoes, your duty of care to them will outweigh your fear of giving them critical feedback”

As a leader , your primary role is to bring out the best in your teams. There is no where this is more critical than when making difficult decisions and when giving critical but constructive feedback to those in our charge. High performing teams are made of high performing individuals and everyone deserves competent leadership.

Leadership like true friendship is about having a meaningful relationship. It is about tackling those difficult conversations while appreciating that avoiding them only serves to degrade the relationship and is to the disadvantage of those in it. But as leaders, your leadership responsibility must always take a precedence, both to the individual and to the team.

Respect before Popularity

The sooner you accept that as a leader you cannot please everyone, the better you start to lead. As a young manager, I struggled with this for a long time, I wanted to ensure that everyone is happy and I am liked, I was concerned with doing that which will not make me unpopular among my team members. This was even more challenging considering my first role was leading a team that I previously worked with as peers, but also a majority of which had much expertise in their domains of technology than I had.

 If You Want to Make Everyone Happy, Don’t Be A Leader, Sell Ice Cream.

The American President Harry S. Truman had a sign on his desk that said: ” The buck stops here”. This meant that as the Leader of the nation, he had to make all tough decisions and in addition accept to bear the full responsibilities of those decisions. The way to be able to make the RIGHT decisions is therefore ability to say NO when majority wants Yes and to say YES when a majority may prefer a NO, it is the ability of the leader to do that which is right and not necessarily that which is correct.

Correctness can be a bout politics but that which is right, is about prioritizing the good of the organization and the team over individual glory and expedience.  When people understand our values, they can more often than not predict how we would respond to given situations and this also gives them an assurance of the leader being consistent in her decisions. This earns us respect among our teams and understanding that we cannot please everybody clears the path for us to do that which is right and thus earns us respect as leaders.

Knowledge will give you power, but character respect. – Bruce Lee

As always, I am just a man. We keep learning.


Ouko Joseph is a Husband, Father, Son and a Leader in the making. A passionate student of leadership. Read more here

Lonely at the Top? You are hiker not a Leader

Everything rises and falls on Leadership. This is a famous quote attributed to John Maxwell, one of the most respected author on the science and art of leadership and a leader himself.

Leadership is about people, without whom, there is no leadership. People are at the centre of leadership and to be leaders we have to be passionate about people. We have to transition from me focus, to us/we focus.

“Empty the coins in your purse into your mind and your mind will fill your purse with gold”

In my leadership journey, both at a personal and at professional level, over the last couple of years, I have found these elements to be important towards ensuring I do not end up as a hiker and be lonely at the top of the mountain:

Listen, Learn and Lead

Listening, Learning (and especially Unlearning) and Leadership have one thing in common, they require humility. Humility is not about diminishing our strengths or denying them, but about being honest about and owning your weaknesses, more so as a leader.

As Adam Grant pointed out in his book “Think Again” the antidote to getting stuck on mount stupid is taking a regular dose of humility. Humility is like a sponge that is able to absorb life experiences and convert them to knowledge and wisdom. Arrogance on the contrary, is a rubber shield that simply bounces off the experiences, and not only prevents us from learning but also unlearning our own dogmas and long held beliefs.

I love this quote on change and especially speaks to unlearning from George Bernard Shaw:

“Progress is impossible without change: and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

As Leaders, being able to provide a listening ear to the needs of those in our charge is critical not only to treating them as individuals, but also provides an opportunity for us to learn from our interactions with them and be able to lead them in the most effective way.

Managers try to treat and lead everybody in the same way, but leadership is about being able to value and reach out to each person as an individual at the point which they are at. The only way to be able to do that, I believe is by listening intentionally to them, sharing and appreciating their experiences, to learn truly who they are and what they value, before leading them.

Goals to Growth

Improving myself, is the first step to improving everything else.

Goals are great, but as a leader , making that transition from goals to a growth mindset is critical. Goals help us to do better and achieve something clearly defined, they are finite and are critical for growth. However, as a leader, making that transition from doing better to becoming better is critical and that is what growth does for us. Growth helps us become better.

Goals help us to do better, Growth helps us BECOME better. ~ J.C Maxwell

As we climb that mountain to the top, constantly prioritising the progress of the team and people over our own perfection and accolades ensures we focus on growth. Creating an environment and fostering a culture that is not goal focused but rather growth focused ensures that everyone in the team strives for growth – whom we are becoming both at individual and team level.

Your level of success will never exceed your level of personal GROWTH.

In order to grow, as leaders and those in our charge or following us, we must always have the humility to desire to become better, to embrace our failures along the journey and to purpose to be better than the person we were yesterday, not whom someone else is today. Being Consistent is the key to growth, growth is not a one time event, it is a daily movement and commitment to the person we are becoming without fearing to fail.

Bringing It All Together

There are two types of people who climb mount Everest, one is a group of individuals who have been known for years for their prowess and abilities and deep respect for the mountain – the Sherpas; the other are the hundreds of individuals who pay thousand of dollars to attempt this fete and mark it as an accomplishment.

Leaders need to adopt the Sherpa’s attitude, to them the climb is to help people fulfil their dreams and in the process, they are able to accomplish their higher purpose in life. As a leader, you ultimately have the ability to change and impact people’s lives. Purpose to be someone who people “want to” follow and not have to follow. Ask yourself, how is it to be on the other side of my leadership?

When those who work for us see us as someone worth following, they have a spring in our step, and show up each day. But when they are forced to work for a hiker, they are drained and that is how we end up alone and lonely at the top of the mountain. As a leader, my job is to take people with me to the Top.

So stop the hike and start leading. Happy Huduma Day to my Kenyan peeps!


Ouko Joseph is a Father and a Leader in the making. A passionate student of leadership. Learn more about me here

Listening to the Silence

Silence in organizations can be a leaders greatest nightmare.

If you grew up in a traditional African household then you must be acutely aware of the paradox in these questions, during a disciplining session with your parents: “I am talking to you and you are quiet?” and then when you happen to respond back “I am talking to you and you are talking back at me?” 😊

Knowing when to respond and when not to respond most importantly, or when the appropriate response is silence can be a tricky affair, yet in organizations just like in the traditional African homes, silence can communicate much more than words can, especially in situations of heightened tension.

Although listening skills are critical for success in leadership, the value of listening to the silence can sometimes be underestimated by those in management and leadership positions a like. The sounds of silence can be a great source of information, and feedback, and just like Tim McClure I do believe “The biggest concern for any organization should be when their most passionate people become quiet”.

“The biggest concern for any organization should be when their most passionate people become quiet”. -Tim McClure

Passion is contagious, energy, be it negative or positive is also contagious. Passionate people in organizations and teams are highly motivated, they express their ideas, they are outspoken about key issues in the team, and the organization at large, they influence, both by actions and words, they are status quo challengers, they drive the organization’s culture. They may not hold formal titles, but they are influencers of culture, they are at the core of action and bring a long (or take aware), many people and get them involved. They essentially drive culture and the success of the organization no matter their formal positions.

What can make them go silent and how can Leaders create and build a culture that taps into their energy?

Command and Control Culture

I am an advocate for constructive conflict or disagreements within teams. I truly do believe that it is only by allowing my own ideas to be challenged that I can grow. It is never easy, but it is essential for growth. When leaders create an environment where people are alienated or treated differently because they challenge ideas or bring different view points, then they create one only focused on command, control and egos.

“An environment that is not safe to disagree is not an environment focused on growth—it’s an environment focused on control.” ~Wendi Jade

These kind of toxic environments do not only stifle growth, but they also result in malicious obedience among employees, as well as create loud silence especially among passionate employees. And as pointed out by Tim, when this happens, then organizations or teams, are well on their way to losing these people, but not only that, also demotivating the rest of the teams they interact with.

To resolve this, focus on growth, build and create a growth culture where people not only find joy in being wrong, but also enjoy having good fight – The Fight Club Story – with each other fully aware that great ideas do not have a bias to specific people or positions but can and should always surface from anywhere within the organization.

Create and environment where TRUST forms the foundation of all interactions.

Inconsistent and illegitimate Leadership

Leaders need legitimacy. Giving people a voice, being compassionate, listening and Trust are key issues that give leadership legitimacy. However, one of the most important element that gives true legitimacy to those in leadership is being consistent. Consistency and predictability of actions either towards reward or reprimanding should be in place. People need to have an idea of or know that the rules by which they play are largely the same.

“Consistency is the true foundation of trust. Either keep your promises or do not make them.” ― Roy T. Bennett

This doesn’t mean lack of agility or dynamic changes depending on the situation, it simply means that the fundamental rules or values upon which the organization operates are clear to all.

Bringing it Together 

In Summary, leaders have access to great sources of information, but with this comes the paradox that sometimes the information that reaches them is largely filtered and is what people believe the leader wants to hear, and not what they really need to hear or what is actually happening.

Create a culture of Trust, that not only encourages and values growth and ideas, over the individuals who the ideas come from, but also one that those within the teams feel safe enough to voice their opinions and view points.

Ensure that those charged with leadership have legitimacy within the whole organization and particularly those that they lead.


Ouko Joseph is a Father and a Leader in the making. A passionate student of leadership. Read more here

|The Eagle – A leadership Tapestry

As a committed life student on leadership, I like to ask myself every time I see a natural phenomenon what lessons can I draw on leadership. When the eagle spreads its wings, it is a sight to behold. From tip to tip the eagle’s wings measure about 1.8 – 2.3 Meters on average. This majestic bird was built to soar high. It was built for the sky. The eagle flies into the storm, as other birds run for shelter, the eagle literally flies into the storm and uses that to be lifted up high. Amazing. The eagle has many lessons that we can learn on leadership. These can be on Leading with Love, Maintaining the right attitude, focus and always flying at the right altitude.

But what lessons can we learn from this bird on leadership?

 Eagles Make Love at high altitude

We do not know how they do that, but this is true. Eagles actually make love in the air. From a leadership perspective what does this mean? Eagles Love at a high level (High Altitude), as a leader, your love and passion first for the people you lead must be on genuine and true, secondly the love for the mission and vision must also be at true. People you lead are able to read genuine love from the leader as well as a love for the mission. This act of love also means that while making love in the air – they actually do a love dance; the eagle knows for sure that it is not reproducing with a chicken 🙂 . Second, Leaders have to maintain the right relationships both privately and in their teams – dance with other eagles, fly with other eagles at high altitude, make love in the air.

 Maintain Focus and Relish Challenges

In flight, the eagle maintains a sharp vision. Looking out for both the prey and predators a like. The focus is up to about 5KM on a prey, once the eagle narrows its focus, it sets out for the challenge. As leaders, we must retain focus, cleverly avoiding distractions on our path to achieving excellence and influence. Like an eagle, we must relish challenges. No matter the obstacle, the eagle will not move its focus from prey until he grabs it.

On challenges, the eagle is the only bird that loves the storm, it uses the storm to push itself to greater heights. Once the eagle finds the storm wings, it stops to flap its wings and uses the pressure of the raging storm to soar whilst resting its wings – Operational efficiency, the rest of the birds hide in the bush 🙂 . In leadership, we need to constantly see opportunities in challenges. Use our troubles to energize our teams to rise to greater heights. Leaders relish challenges and use them profitably.

Eagles prepare themselves for the next generation, discard the worthless and renew themselves

The male eagle collects twigs, thorns and soft grass. However, the most amazing thing is that he plucks his own feathers for the female to lay eggs! This is a very important role of a leader, as a leader, we must prepare our followers into leaders, we must make sacrifices for the people we influence, we need to prepare our followers to take up the mantle of leadership. True leadership is about bringing up leaders. We ought to prepare the next generation. While at it, a leader must be able to discard the worthless and renew ourselves always.

One of the most remarkable thing about eagles is that at the age of about 40, it undergoes a painful renewal that takes about 150 days, failure to undergo this means death – read this online. As leaders, transformation is not an option, we must constantly evolve, change and transform to adapt to the dynamics of life. In order to survive, we must start a change process. Only by freeing ourselves from old dogmas do we can take advantage of the present and future opportunities.

Bringing it all together

The Eagle presents Leaders with a great tapestry of the intricacies of leadership, like an eagle, leaders need to have both the right attitude and altitude. Leaders must ensure that they surround themselves with other leaders – Eagles fly with Eagles not chicken. Finally, leaders must evolve, constantly scouting the horizon for big picture dynamics ,failure to which leadership will die. “Leadership transformation is a matter of life and death.

In Search of Progress over Perfection

You don’t need to be perfect to inspire people. 

A great number of those I interact with know that I am passionate about two things watches 😊 and leadership. I will however be quick also to state that I am not the Mona Lisa of Leadership and neither do I own or pick out the best master time pieces yet. My blog site is aptly named just to constantly remind myself that I am incomplete and in constant search. This is a name I derived partly from inspiration I received from reading two books, One is – Jordan B Peterson’s, 12 Rules For Life; An Antidote to Chaos. In which the 4th Rule states “ Compare yourself to who you were yesterday not to who someone else is today” and HBR’s Collection, On Leadership, an article titled “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader” by Deborah Ancona 

Like others who do the same in various other disciplines, be it offering Financial advice or relationship advice, more often than not you receive your fair share of the judgment. Many believe and falsely expect that because you openly and constantly share and study, in your area, you embody the picture of perfection in the respective area. Although only fair though that once you declare such interest and go public about it, then you strive to gain moral and or intellectual authority not only through theory but also practical application of the said knowledge and or skills, it can be a heavy burden to bear. 

Like any other skill, Leadership can be learned and, for me, it is an area that I purposely strive to learn and improve in both through theoretical study and practical use of that knowledge and skill. To grow in this area, I have used two mantras in this journey. First, Progress over perfection, and secondly, curiosity over judgment. 

Progress over perfection

As we journey through our areas of mastery, we learn and encounter new ideas some of which are aligned to what we already know and believe to be true and others that are either incomplete or partial conflict with our deeply held convictions. It is through the latter that we make great progress. And it is only when we chase progress that we can have a chance at perfection. 

By constantly opening up ourselves to challenge those ideas or concepts we have held to be true, we open up our minds to the possibility of progress. 

“Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to whom someone else is today”

In order it Progress we have both to learn and unlearn, 

Curiosity over judgment 

Many times I have suffered from and continue to suffer from what is known in Decision-making circles as The Dunning-Kruger effect

“A type of cognitive bias in which we believe that we are smarter and more capable than we are. The combination of poor self-awareness and low cognitive ability leading to overestimate our capabilities.”

But as I become more informed about leadership I pray I constantly remind myself of the need to choose curiosity over judgment. 

For it is only through maintaining a curious mind, that we can realize how little we know about a subject. This is especially true when we interact with others. Resist the temptation to think you have it figured out, you must not fool yourself, the easiest person to fool is you, but also the hardest person to lead is you. 

Bringing it Together 

So yes, people will expect perfection from you, you will be judged more harshly when you fail or make a mistake. Take it with stride, have confidence but stay humble. Great leaders don’t doubt themselves because they are imperfect, they doubt themselves because they know they are incomplete and are on a journey. 

The greatest mark of lifelong learners is that they maintain curiosity, they know that their views may constantly be challenged and that is when they learn. They also understand that each answer results in a new question, and each question presents a chance to re-examine the answers. 

So, No I don’t need to be perfect to inspire people, let them be inspired by how I deal with my imperfections. 

Yours truly,

The Imperfect Leader.

Leaders are comfortable with not knowing

Leadership is tough, being a Leader is difficult.

This is a simple yet universal truth that most if not all leaders have always known. Some accept it, some are intentionally blind to it and yet some still think leadership is a walk in the park. It is easy for us to point a finger to the leader and say He or she is not great, He is doing a bad job, he doesn’t know how to lead a team….” Theodore Roosevelt captured this very well in his “The Man in the Arena” or if you like “Citizenship in a Republic” speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, on April 23, 1910.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again.

Leadership, like greatness is a meal not for all men. It is especially difficult for leaders in the information and digital age to deliver on their mandate. As the man in the arena, and as the person whom the back stops with, what are some of those three critical things that you need to be aware of when you do not know the answers? Here are some:

Be comfortable and confident in NOT Knowing

Those we lead usually expect us to Know, however, the reality is that as leaders and indeed as humans, we are not able to know it all. It is especially difficult and takes a lot of courage and confidence for a leader to admit and say these words “….I do not know. ” when asked something. In my leadership journey, I have often had dissonance in delivering this feedback to my team while simultaneously having the need to provide guidance and solutions to my team. Admitting to the fact that as a leader you do not have all the answers does two main things in my view: First, shows that you are human and are deeply SELF-AWARE of your limitations (both technically or otherwise) at that particular time , Secondly, it builds TRUST among your team members and gives them the confidence to put forward their solutions and shows them that it is alright NOT Knowing.

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” — Robert Kennedy

In the digital world where information and by extension knowledge is increasingly becoming pervasive and ubiquitous, leaders must learn that there is no room for “fake it, till you make it”. By having the confidence and comfort to openly declare that at that point you do not have the answers, you open up yourself to accepting new knowledge and continuous learning as a leader. The first step to learning in my view is having the humility to admit our own ignorance, the second step, to seek out that which you do not know.

Delegate and TRUST the Team

One of the most important tasks of a leader, is to assemble and bring on board the RIGHT team. The right team is one that not only is able to deliver on its mandate, but most importantly where there is deep trust of each other. When team members KNOW and trust that each and everyone of them is looking out for their success, they deliver.

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to to , We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” – Steve Jobs

As a leader, it is particularly important that you not only TRUST your team, but also build their trust in you. First, that you will not get into their way to do what they are in the team to do and secondly, that you will support the team in their effort to deliver on their mandate. Not only is trusting the team important for their and your success, it is especially important that you are SEEN to be the chief advocate of your team. As seen in the article I wrote some time last week on taking responsibility (There is enough success for all) of the team, leaders can only drive the right behavior by emulating the behavior they would like to see.

As a leader, create the right culture, clearly define the goal, then have the confidence and trust to delegate. As pointed out by Steve Jobs, hire smart people so that they tell you what to do, especially when you utter those four words of confidence – “I do not Know”.

Bringing it all together

Leadership is a life long journey. The first step to becoming a better leader is being SELF-AWARE of our own limitations, and having the humility to acknowledge them. When we become confident and comfortable in not knowing, we open ourselves to learning, and we show those we are leading that we TRUST them and that it is okay not to have all the answers. Secondly, as leadership is about bringing out the best in those we lead. Getting the right people and ensuring they are playing in the right positions and then getting out of their way is important for both their success and ours as leaders. In the end:

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly”;

The coin and the Rubber band story 

I like to have off the cuff discussions with members of my Team. On most ocassions, I use these to gather feedback and to genuinely empathise with my team and Listen to them.

Of great interest to me has always been in moments we don’t agree on issues from how to design and address a client’s needs with our technical solutions to where whether we need to hire someone else. As the leader of this highly intelligent crop of individuals  ( I have a CCIE, MBA , Two First Class Honours Engineering Graduates in my team ) as expected,  they have their own views with regards to Why, How and what stuff we need to do.

The two sided coin

However,  I have come to learn that in order to be effective both as a leader and manager of this great team, I must be able to be comfortable with the fact that we can disagree but that doesn’t mean they are not with me – we may have two sides head and tail but we are still a single coin.

Are you leader enough to understand that somebody can disagree with you and still be with you?  For instance, on the issue of hiring,  they looked at the fact that we would reduce the workload greatly if we brought another team member but I looked at the fact that we may not currently have enough business to sustain the wage bill.So bringing someone in is a great idea however it means we need enough business to sustain the additional overhead. 

As a leader, I ought to be able to understand that disagreement doesn’t mean betrayal. 

The rubber band story

Do you know your limits and that of your team members?  In assigning duties to my team mates and taking up duties myself, one of the key things I do is keep in mind both their individual capabilities and team abilities. See,  the rubber band is designed to stretch so whenever you are stretching it you are using it in the way it is designed but if you over stretch it it breaks.

As a leader, you want to be challenged and stretched same for your team however you don’t wanna pop them or yourself. Learn your limitations and those of your team both individually and as a unit. Do not let people push you beyond your competence, instead be patient with yourself and your team and challenge them.

The coin has two sides,  they are not the same however, both make what is known as a coin. The rubber band is designed to stretch not to pop!