This month I travelled to Nigeria to give a series of talks and workshops on Creativity and Innovation to the Young Presidents Organisation, a chief executive group in Lagos. Here are some conclusions about my trip.
All the business leaders I spoke to in Lagos were all under 50 and although many were Nigerian, some from 3rd generation families, non were indigenous Nigerians. Instead they had originated in India, the Lebanon, elsewhere in Asia and one from Europe. Were there any black Nigerian business leaders? Yes, I was told, but one of YPO’s recurring problems is to draft them into the organisation. Nigeria has a complicated and checkered recent history. It seems to have a slightly different attitude to some of it’s West African neighbours. Nigerians want things to be cheap and they don’t want to pay for things they don’t need. So much so that many people don’t have bank accounts, partly because they are so poor, but also because of a distrust of any system that costs them money. This gives rise to a very ingenious people. I was told a story about one man who wanted to send money to his daughter hundreds of miles away. He bought a phone card and told his daughter the activation code over the phone. She then sold this number, this transferring money without a bank. This innovative thinking, this entrepreneurial spirit is hard-wired in to the people. But there’s a dark side to it, that anyone who you mention ‘Nigeria’ to will be able to state straight away: scams and corruption.
We’re lucky in western Europe and the USA that corruption is rare enough to still shock us. Even with the ingrained greed and outrageous expenses claims from UK MPs that’s dominating the headlines at the moment, we still believe in honesty and that somehow all will be put right, and if it isn’t we can actually make a fuss about it. African countries often don’t have this luxury. In Nigeria there is corruption at the highest level where millions of gallons of oil (Nigeria has recently found itself rich in oil and other raw materials) just vanish. Individuals have individually stolen billions of dollars from the state. The problem is when this happens at the very top of a country (or an organisation), somehow it filters down, unconsciously to people at every level.
In the mythology of King Arthur this concept is called ‘One Land, One King’ – when the King is sick, the land and people are sick. A friend of mine has toured hundreds of schools in the UK over the past 15 years. He has collected a vast amount of data that shows that if the head of a school is present, positive and engaged in their school, the children he performs his environmental comedy shows to will be well behaved and engaged. If the opposite is true, the children will be unruly. Somehow, large groups of people will take on some of the characteristics of their leaders. This is why we must always lead by example as business leaders, managers and parents with the moral behaviour we want duplicated by others.
Nigeria seemed to personify this theory. Corruption is rarely just at the top. Scamming permeates all levels of society. So many people are out to get what they can get while they can get it. I was only in Nigeria for a very short time and may seem unjustifiable to make sweeping statements on so little evidence, but it seems to me that it is a country that has fantastic potential that for some reason, is not being realised.
What seems to have happened is that the innovative entrepreneurial spirit that lives within many of the people is sometimes powered by the ‘dark side of the Force’ – by purely self-centred motivation – to get what I can get for myself without regard for anyone else. This is what corruption is and what scamming is. Entrepreneurship is different: it also benefits others, by employing people or by providing things people want. True and long lasting successful business has a two-way flow of benefits. Selfishness, akin to ‘the dark side’ may appear more powerful in the moment than altruism and good deeds, but in the long run it is self limiting.
The businesses I met discussed the problems they had overcoming this lack of shared goal mentality when recruiting labour, at every level, for their organisations. They talked of how some Nigerians often mistrusted foreigners, mistrusted immigrants and mistrusted each other. This mistrust and lack of self-esteem resulted in superstitious behaviour such as the belief that anything made in Nigeria was no good, no matter what the quality appeared to be (and even if the price was less than foreign imports.) Even when vast oil deposits were found which could offer the nation real wealth and a way out of the chains of history, this lack of confidence in their country and themselves disappointingly continues the cycle of mistrust and corruption.
When I was being driven through the ‘centre’ of Lagos, there was not much that was recognisably ‘the centre’. Unlike every other city I’ve seen it appeared to have no recognisable focal point. No shops collected together, no municipal buildings, cathedrals or temples. There were no apparent public spaces or parks that I could see. This to me is a microcosm of the problem: there is not much of consequence shared. I asked my hosts if there were any national heroes in sport, entertainment or even politics or religion. There seemed to be nobody of consequence. No-one that everyone could get behind. Anyone who was a possible hero was always able to be split up into tribal delineations: being from the north or the south, black or white, Christian or Muslim and within those further subdivisions. The only thing everyone agreed on was a love of English football (and Manchester United in particular).
There are warning signs here for nations like the UK: have we lost pride in our country and what it produces? Does the corruption with some MPs mean that many of us think it’s ok to steal pens from our employers, or charge our mobile phones at work?
Obviously I’ve over simplified it here, but to me, this lack of shared vision, of having a big picture to look at is why the city was made from an array of individual concrete block buildings with no central focus. With no shared goals coming from leadership that serves everyone, the message of working together is just not getting through. We need to ask ourselves these questions. As a business leader, manager or parent, am I clear in my vision and goals and have I communicated it in a sharing, giving way to those whom I have sway over? Do I dictate rules that I rarely follow? Do I give orders without sharing the purpose and meaning of the task? Do I share and endeavour to make clearer, the big picture?
These are all right-brain thinking skills and this is how you motivate people to awaken their innate creativity. It was what I was over in Nigeria to talk about.
I really enjoyed my brief stay and my hosts were very welcoming and generous. There’s work to be done there, and the leaders I met are doing a great job in making it happen. If you get a chance, you should go too. I’d love to go back and learn more.
(Photos: From top to bottom: Me and Ali, my host. The ‘centre’ of Lagos. Most of the city was ‘under construction. Houses by the coast.)