How to Lead (and Succeed) Tanzanian-Style

Just back from my second trip to Tanzania.  It was a memorable experience on all fronts, including close encounters with lions and other ‘big five’ species: elephants, giraffe, zebra, and hippos (OK, not so close with the hippos). We trekked through the bush, accompanied by Maasai warriors carrying bows and arrows and spears—our security detail. When we weren’t hiking, we were jostling around in Land Rovers, crossing through herds of Wildebeest and Impala, and caking up with African savannah dust, which only brought us closer to the land, in all its gritty beauty, power and mystery.

For all the power and beauty I experienced on this trip, what has stuck with me most is something I didn’t expect at all—learning how Tanzania came to be, and how its first president, Julius Nyerere, led the country in innovative ways that helped establish a self-sufficient nation; this, despite many political, economic and social challenges. The most interesting idea Nyerere invoked was something called people-centered leadership. It’s an idea that holds intriguing possibilities for leaders of all stripes.

In short, people-centered leadership calls for inviting those you lead to tell you, collectively, where they want to go and, by extension, how that direction will benefit everyone.

From Egypt to Yemen, Bahrain, Iran and Libya, protesters — young and old — are calling for changes in leadership, for a voice in how their nations are governed and, by extension, where they’re going. These uprisings underscore the enormous sea change in where the power really lies these days: As counter-intuitive as this may sound in conventional, corporate terms, it lies increasingly with the many, not the few.

We have technology to thank (or blame) for this sea change. From the web and texting, to ever-expanding social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, change is being fomented overnight. This dynamic isn’t limited to nations. It’s permeating the world of business.

As a management practice, people-centered leadership is an idea whose time may be now. The aim isn’t to abdicate leadership at the top; it’s to liberate the extraordinary knowledge, deep experience and diverse ideas that reside across the company. The aim is to engage people in answering a vital, strategic question: What’s possible? Is people-centered leadership the key to 21st century innovation, writ large?

Have a view on people-centered leadership and what it means for managing organizations? Speak here!


Flickr photo courtesy of David Berkowitz

  • Claude Singer

    Very well presented, Larry. People-centered leadership, as you celebrate it, is a marvelous new model.

    At the same time, I’ll set down, for the record, a sadly predictable but nevertheless valid concern that, in extremis, the mob might rule impetuously—and not wisely. Your case might presuppose a society with established institutions to mitigate the thunder of the human herd – which can trample individual speech and action.

    But yes, after allowing for this predictably Anglo-Saxon-oriented word of caution, I join you in crying, Power to the People-Centered Leader!

    November 3, 2011 at 8:09 pm
  • Jay Gronlund

    Fascinating and can’t agree more. Have been on a safari in Tanzania twice, most recently when also climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro with my son in 2006, and was always impressed with the positive, steady dispostion of the Tanzanian people. And yes, definitely some worthy principles for business. As you point out, building relationships with employees and customers, the heart of branding, is essential not only for strengthening loyalty and getting good feedback, but also for motivating them. Great blog – thanks. Jay

    November 3, 2011 at 8:09 pm
  • Daniel Rosentreter

    A nice idea indeed. It is about channeling all the energy that people have in themselves in the right direction to affect changes. And technology allows you now to do it.
    I think we are heading to a world of participatory democracies where a lot of people contribute ideas and take part in the process of creation of their own future.
    A little sad to see that this great country is exploiting that process at the moment. I feel people here are cleverly being manipulated by politicians, special interest groups and the media and marketing machines surrounding them to use their energy for causes that are really not in their own interests or drive the world forward in any way.
    I am afraid this might happen in other countries too so in the end people-centric leadership yet again depend on the types of leaders a nation has and if they these leaders use their powers for the good of the country or to manipulated the massed for their own radical causes…

    November 3, 2011 at 8:10 pm
  • Steve Newman

    This is a lovely article about a man who is largely forgotten, but whose ideas were noble and largely misconstrued in his time. Still, Nyrere was all for self-sufficiengy and Tanzania could not live off of that idea then and cannot now. As much as leaders need to be accountable and resonsible and hold the best interest of their people at heart, they also need to find ways to strengthen their countries’ prospects or else countries with more resources will find ways to exploit them, as we are seeing with Tanzania in this century.

    November 3, 2011 at 8:11 pm
  • Tom Richards

    Nice job of tying Nyerere’s leadership with what’s going on in the Middle East. Scary, fascinating and hopeful, all at once. Your transition to businesses is so “right on.” The “rock star” CEO has been paid way beyond his/her results, and underutilized the power and wisdom of his people. It’ll be interesting to watch you bring this to the marketplace, along with those compelling survey results about how people view the lack of intellectual integrity in their firms. Keep up the good thoughts and work!

    November 3, 2011 at 8:12 pm
  • Deborah Lange

    I wholeheartedly agree – someone coined the phrase the leadership dance once, I can not remember who, imagine the possibility of everyone being a leader and a follower at different times, for different purposes, leadership shared across the company, I mean everyone needs to be a leader of their own life – how soul destroying to then go into an organisation and not be able to talk about ideas and implement them – Managers want people to be innovative but then they don’t want them to talk!!! for an organisation to truly be in this dance their needs to a be a culture of non-defensiveness, learning, trust, the realisation that the more people are given freedom within the limits of being aligned to the core identity of the organisation the more creative and energised people are!

    November 3, 2011 at 8:13 pm

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