Becoming That Leader Others Wish They Were: Discussing Serving by Leading and Being Vulnerable

This is the third post in the series Becoming that Leader Others Wish They Were. You can read the first post on leaders having clarity and warmth here and the second one on influence and compassion here. This post will expound on great leaders serving by leading and being vulnerable.

Great leaders serve by leading

A leader must lead. Where others see obstacles, he must see opportunities. When others see problems, he must see possibilities…” David J. Vaughan, Give Me Liberty: The Uncompromising Statesmanship of Patrick Henry.

There is a time a leader needs to step up to the podium and lead. It is such a disservice to the followers when the one in charge does not command and give a bearing when the sitaution is tricky.

The leader needs to offer direction that is strategically driven.

She needs to make tough decisions and take responsibility for failures.

He needs to balance strength with grace.

She needs to instruct with integrity and intentionality.

He needs to assess a person’s past failure in light of lessons they’ve learned and their current faithfulness to the task at hand.

When leaders lead, they offer clarity and share their vision. They motivate their followers with their passion. They lead by example – do as I say and do, not just as I say. They make decisions and communicate expectations. They hold themselves to a high standard of excellence and are accountable to others. They are also servant leaders.


Great leaders are vulnerable

Vulnerability and leadership are not two words that are easily associated with one another. Most of us believe that to be a good leader you should never show any signs of weakness, which is what vulnerability is considered by many. Vulnerability can be defined as being completely and rawly open, unguarded with your heart, mind, and soul. Embracing vulnerability means having the courage to face your fears and the wild uncertainty of the future. A vulnerable leader decides that she will meet that uncertainty with an open heart, willing to experience all the ups and downs that come with it (Brené BrownDaring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead). 


Once a leader decides to be vulnerable several things happen:

  • A culture of openness and loyalty is fostered. Performance problems can be resolved once and for all. People relate more easily.
  • He or she becomes more authentic. This in turn builds trust. Authentic behaviors include admitting to your flaws and mistakes, showing emotion, asking for and receiving help, and not hiding behind a manufactured facade.
  • Stronger bonds and connections are built. When leaders are vulnerable, they are more open and emotionally available, which creates more bonding opportunities and improves team performance.

Being vulnerable is part of transformative leadership. Appropriate vulnerability in leaders—being open and guarded in the right ways—can bless both the people a leader works with and the organization as a whole.


Becoming That Leader Others Wish They Were: Discussing Influence and Compassion

In the previous post we introduced some traits of great leaders, and delved into two traits: great leaders having clarity and being warm. This post discusses how great leaders have influence and are compassionate.

Great leaders have influence

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines influence as the power to change or affect someone or somethingthe power to cause changes without directly forcing them to happen or a person or thing that affects someone or something in an important way.

To be a great leader, one must be influential. Influence, however, is not acquired in a day. It is a series of deliberate actions over time that allows the individual to eventually move into this position of influence. A leader can have influence in different forms, for example getting people to buy into an idea, challenging status quo, inspiring people, etc.


For one to become influential, there has to be an element of trust. Trust is that feeling that comes about when individuals believe that the leader is driven by something other than their own personal gain or is the authority in that particular space. Because people have an innate desire to believe in something/someone, they will look to a person who can offer them a cause (48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene). As a result, this leader will be able to influence behavior, performance, events, outcomes and create changes and improvements.

Great leaders are compassionate

The same dictionary also defines compassion as sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it. Beyond distress, compassion is the art of knowing and understanding the needs of others, understanding their emotional state, being empathetic, having selfless direction. Compassion is what moves a leader to help people, and helping people is the cornerstone of leadership. Compassion opens the individual’s eye to the needs of others so that he or she can provide leadership, security and relief, not just ensure projects are successfully exectued. Having compassion promotes healthy relationships and ensures positivity in an organization.

The Tibetan scholar Thupten Jinpa defines compassion as “a mental state endowed with a sense of concern for the suffering of others and aspiration to see that suffering relieved.” Specifically, he defines compassion as having three components:

  1. A cognitive component: “I understand you.”
  2. An affective component: “I feel for you.”
  3. A motivational component: “I want to help you.”


This enables the leader to move from an “I” mindset to a “We” mindset. This leader becomes a ‘Level 5 leader’ (Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t, Jim Collins).

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Becoming That Leader Others Wish They Were

In your capacity as a leader, do you think people follow you because they have to or because it is what is expected? This in itself is still effective, as things will get done, but you will never see them perform at the levels that will bring great results until they go beyond the above reasons. These reasons demonstrate an engaged employee at best, but never an inspired one.

Think about the leaders in your past that you followed because you wanted to. What are some words you could use to describe them? They definitely must have had an impact on how you do some things to date and taught you a lot. You could even say they molded you. So, how do you lead people and help them become the best they can be?


I began reading a devotional series that speaks of leading like Jesus, which has inspired this series of leadership traits/skills that all great leaders must develop, not only for themselves, but also for the people they lead. These are:

  • Great leaders have clarity.
  • Great leaders are warm.
  • Great leaders have influence.
  • Great leaders are compassionate.
  • Great leaders serve by leading.
  • Great leaders are vulnerable.
  • Great leaders develop people.
  • Great leaders mentor.

One thing to note is that having the above traits is not necessarily tied to a certain personality. Anyone can cultivate the above and people will eagerly follow you.

Great leaders have clarity

Leaders are constantly expected to create clarity for themselves, the organization and the people around them. Clarity gives more security and confidence. Clarity allows for people to focus. Without organizational clarity, productivity suffers and turnover increases (Hamish Knox in Management & Leadership). A great leader must define the mission, vision, the game plan, and the expectations of each individual. In addition to the above, these great leaders must communicate the above, clearly of course. 

When there is clarity, a company’s vision can finally be executed on. Some time back, when I was working for a certain start-up in Nairobi, I was told that part of being in a start-up is that we have to be scrappy as we did not know the answers to many of the questions we had. In fact the saying was that, “We are building the plane as we are flying it.” And that was OK. I believe it was part of the attraction initially. However, many of us left because there was no clarity around where the plane was flying to, even if we were building it as we were flying. We felt that a lot of our activities were not informed by a vision, which meant that we were constantly changing directions in short spans of time. Lack of clarity can really cost an organization in many ways.

Clarity also allows for demystification of daily activities. When there is clarity in the leadership realm, a trickle-down effect is observed (of course if you have put in place the correct mechanisms, e.g. proper management). I have seen this in several successful organizations when executing the annual business strategy – the board and chiefs create the strategy for the year, which is then communicated to directors, who then communicate this to managers. Managers then implement this in their teams. All are held accountable with some form of performance management tool that all ties back to the overall business strategy. This increase the overall business productivity, as well as addresses the challenge of uncertainty in the new year.

Great leaders are warm

A person with a warm personality makes other people feel liked, cared for, embraced and accepted. This person is kind and connects with others. Warmth should not be confused with extroversion. Warmth is all about authenticity without narcissism. Warren Bennis says, “Good leaders make people feel that they’re at the very heart of things, not at the periphery. Everyone feels that he or she makes a difference to the success of the organization. When that happens people feel centered and that gives their work meaning.”

I once worked for the Nairobi office of a company whose headquarters were in South Africa. We in the Nairobi office did not get to interact with our CEO often as he was based in the SA office. However, one thing that we all agreed on regarding our CEO is that you never forgot your encounters with him, however few. Our CEO was a very introverted person. However, whenever he was with other people, he would really connect and engage with each person. I remember meeting him during my orientation session, and felt that he was truly interested in getting to know me better. He had this thing where he could shut out the rest of the world and focus on you and only you for ten minutes. When a situation required compassion, you could feel that he was being genuine in his compassion. In other words, he was authentic in his interaction with people, and was honest about those flaws that made him human. You can bet that many people consider him their role model.

What are your thoughts around clarity and warmth in leaders?

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How I improved my productivity by changing my sleep habits

I’ve always admired people who can sleep less than five hours and seem to function. I’ve always thought that the people who have trained themselves to sleep for such few hours accomplished more than I possibly could, as I sleep for at least 7.5 hours daily. To be honest, I average 8.5-9 hours.


I’ve tried the whole I’m-gonna-sleep-for-four-hours-and-then-hit-the-ground-running thing, but it has never worked for me. Sure, on the first day I will feel like Superwoman, but by the second day I am a zombie. Even with the tons of coffee.

So what does research tell us about sleep? The National Sleep Foundation released the results of a study that took over two years to complete and offered the following recommendations:

For healthy individuals with normal sleep, the appropriate sleep duration for newborns is between 14 and 17 hours, infants between 12 and 15 hours, toddlers between 11 and 14 hours, preschoolers between 10 and 13 hours, and school-aged children between 9 and 11 hours. For teenagers, 8 to 10 hours was considered appropriate, 7 to 9 hours for young adults and adults, and 7 to 8 hours of sleep for older adults. (Excerpt from the National Sleep Foundation report published in the Sleep Journal. Read full report here.)

Basically, as an adult, I need to spend a third of my day asleep (validation of my sleep!).

Reseach also shows that some of the costs of insufficient sleep include:

  • Physical maladies such as obesity, headaches and migraines, gastrointestinal issues, liver disorders, slowed metabolism, among others;
  • Occupational injuries such as crashing motor vehicles or having near-misses;
  • Reduced productivity in the form of impaired cognitive and motor skills, making unsound decisions, giving muddled presentations, trouble learning, easily distracted, weakened social skills, missed work days due to health concerns, among others.

Some say that a sleep deprived person (one getting 5 or less hours of sleep) are akin to those who drink and drive above the legal limit.

So, what are some things that one can do to encourage better sleeping patterns?

  • Set a bedtime routine and stick to it. This includes winding down at least one hour before your bedtime by switching off all electronics. You could drink a cup of herbal tea while listening to some soft music.
  • Create an environment that encourages sleep – basically comfortable, quiet and dark.
  • Exercise for 20 minutes daily to ensure good fatigue, which contributes to deep sleep.

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Someone once told me that you will forever be in a situation until you learn the lesson in it. I look back at my life and try to reflect whether I have learnt all my lessons, as there is nothing as frustrating as feeling as though you are stuck in a senseless rut. As I ponder, I remember some of my trying moments in life and wonder how I even managed to get out alive. Situations in which you wish you could curl up and die. Betrayals and lies that run so deep you feel like you could never possibly recover from that blow.

The process seems to be the same. The shock, anger, and pain. The screaming and fighting. The disbelief and absolute denial that someone you love could ever hurt you in such a manner. Then the tears come. You weep like your heart would break. The apologies and self-absolution. “Oh my God” and “It wasn’t me”.

The tears finally run dry, and there you are. Spent, but no closer to the truth. Your brain begins its feeble attempt at rationalizing the whole issue. Your heart cowers every time the mind speaks, afraid of getting hurt again. It’s at this point you look in front of you and realize that you are at a junction. To your left lies the truth. Investigations, so to speak. Harsh words exchanged. The truth must out, so help me God. “Silence, dear heart of mine! You are too biased to be involved.” I find out the truth. But what do I do with it?

The other road, the one to my right, looks less trodden. Why? I ask myself. It is the road of blind faith; the road that lets go with no question. It is the path that demands of you absolute faith – sometimes more than that the mind can have. It speaks to the heart, and the heart listens. The mind rejects all notions that the road suggests; it is, after all, contrary to what it believes. The heart responds gladly, for it believes in the goodness of mankind. And after contemplating, after fighting the battle between mind and heart, I am walking down the road. Some look at me and think I am foolish or naive for making this choice, but the road less traveled gives me peace.


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To join a startup or not?


I’ve been asked severally what my thoughts are on working for/with a startup. In the course of my (relatively) short professional career, I have worked more for startups than the so-called established institutions. Both types of institutions provide their merits: startups offer an environment where innovation is key for success in every aspect of the operation, partly due to limited resources. You have an opportunity for making substantial impact, and greater appreciation all round. The work environment tends to be more relaxed. The learning curve is steep. Flexibility. Stock options. The list goes on. Established institutions work better and more smoothly due to structures having been put in place. The pay tends to be better. There is more job security. Time to productivity is usually less rigid compared to a startup. There are more perks offered.

That being said, if you are considering a job in a startup, I believe the following are some pertinent questions to ask before making the leap:

  1. Start with why: According to Simon Sinek, Your Why is the purpose, cause, or belief that inspires you to do What you do.  If your reasons do not align with the opportunity, it is likely that you will not be happy. Check your motivation also against your personal values. Your core values will determine whether joining a startup, or a particular startup, would be a great move.
  2. Who are the founders and what is their story? Learning more about the founder(s) of a startup can go a long way in cluing you on the motivation behind the company. Check for past work history, successes and failures, education background, awards won, check out their web presence, follow them on social media, learn more about the history of the startup itself and any other strategy you may employ to learn more about the startup. All these will be very helpful when you need to make a decision on whether to take the leap or not.
  3. Where is the money coming from and how long can it sustain the business? What business model is in play? Are they donor-funded? If there is funding in place, what type is it? How much runway does the organization have before it runs out of money? What is the plan for that? What is the current monthly revenue?
  4. Do they offer stock options and what is their vesting schedule? Many startups are using stock options as a way to attract, retain and motivate employees. Many individuals have become millionaires through stock options in companies like Facebook, Google, and Whatsapp. The concept of stock options is that it is attractive, not just for the perceived monetary value, but also for the sense of ownership it gives an employee. Of course for this to make sense, you must believe that the company will succeed.
  5. What is my role in this startup? Due to the nature of startups being an all-hands-on-deck kind of place, your exact role can blur with time. It is very important to establish what you are expected to deliver on early enough. A startup, as I mentioned earlier, is a place that allows for great impact and great appreciation. The downside of this is that you not delivering on your mandate (whether you even know your mandate or not) is glaring.

At the end of the day, no amount of due diligence will guarantee a startup’s success or failure. I believe a startup is an incredible place to learn, grow and diversify your experiences in ways that an established company may not allow, and present you with opportunities down the line.

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My favorite productivity tools: 2017

As a fan of productivity, I try to research and experiment with tools that I come across, in the hopes of learning more and upping my game. There are those which I instantly fell in love with; others exhausted me for various reasons. Without much further ado, here are my top 3.

  1. Todoist: I am still not sure how I managed to survive without this simple, minimalist, task manager that packs quite a number of features. I mean, I was so hooked onto it after three days of experimenting that I immediately upgraded to the premium version (USD 28.99 per annum)! It is available across a number of platforms (something that is very important to me), it has great features at the basic level and its premium version is very competitive among other similar apps.
    Todoist lets you create projects, in which you have your tasks and sub-tasks. These project s can be color-coded for visual reference. The tasks and sub-tasks can have due dates, and you can assign task priorities on four levels for each of them. The basic version offers up to 80 projects with a maximum of 5 collaborators in each project.
    The premium version, in addition to the above features, offers task labels and reminders, comments and file uploads, the ability to add tasks via email, iCal synchronization, notifications and project templates. The projects available are up to 200 with up to 25 users in each.
    These are just a few of the features available on Todoist. For me, though, my favorite feature is the short-cuts available on Todoist. Once you understand them, they make life so simple. For example you can type “#” to bring up your projects, “q” to input a task, “@” tags an individual in a project, or writing catch phrases like “tomorrow” or “every 2nd Monday” which Todoist will translate as due dates and file them accordingly. So to remind my colleague to send the budgeting report next week on Wednesday I could hit the letter Q on my keyboard to bring up the Quick Add Task, type something like “#Work (to add it to the Work project or ‘folder’) @Michael to send budget report Wednesday 9.30 am”, and Michael will see the assignment in his work folder and the reminder set.
    Once you have added your tasks, you can choose to view them in different ways, like Today, Tomorrow, or By Project. You can also customize how to view by searching in the quick find bar “overdue” or “next 10 days”.
    As you check-off your tasks, you gain Karma points (premium feature). Karma points basically show you how productive you are. These are awarded based on how many tasks you complete daily and weekly (target can be adjusted in the settings). The more Karma you gain, the higher you progress through the levels.
  2. RescueTime: This is by far one of the best tools for productivity (in my humble opinion). On the website, it is described as a tool that “helps you understand your daily habits so you can focus and be more productive”. RescueTime runs quietly in the background, tracking the time spent on various applications. It then gives daily and weekly dashboards on how your time was spent, ranging from very distracted to very productive. RescueTime can be customized; for example, I changed my email to distracting to minimize the amount of time I spend dealing with emails and I track my productivity between 8 am and 6 pm.
    Each week, I receive a summary of how my time was spent, with a productivity score and how many hours have been logged in total. I can also set daily goals to help improve my productivity and keep me on track. I also have downloaded the app onto my phone and use it to track my mobile usage.
    Premium features ( include the ability to turn off distracting websites for periods of time, receive daily highlights, create notifications and track offline activities. The premium version also offers more robust reports that are unlimited (the basic version offers three month reports). This, however, comes at a (pricey) tag of USD 72 per year or USD 9 per month.
  3. IFTTT: IFTTT simply means “If This, Then That” and is pronounced “Ift” (like lift, but without the l). Their slogan is “Do more with the services you love.” IFTTT has recipes, which are basic instructions that trigger an event if a certain action takes place. For example you can activate a recipe that sends certain emails to your OneNote. Or you could save your exercise data from your Fitbit to your OneNote. Or save photos that you are tagged on Facebook. There are so many recipes that you could activate and use, or your could make your own. I so far have never had the need to make any.

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