How to be a Good Leader – Listen – Value Diversity – Avoid Prejudice

Good leadership often involves good listening skills. Listening involves a number of key skills including reserving ones own judgement, not jumping to conclusions and  avoiding prejudging individuals and situations. Good leaders when facing difficult situations are able to put to one side preconceived ideas and find a number of solutions by using the skills and experiences of those around them.

In the late eighties I learned a valuable lesson from a very young man in Zambia. I was travelling in the copperbelt of Zambia with Chris my then Sales Director. We were in Zambia as I had been given the responsibility for sales development in the country and Chris was handing over the reigns. We had just spent a productive day in Chingola  and  were on the way back to Kitwe, our resting place for the evening.

Thirty minutes into the journey we heard a loud bang and the car started to sway from side to side. Our driver managed to bring the car safely to a halt. We climbed out of the car to find the rear passenger side tyre was as flat as a pancake. Our driver quickly moved to reassure us by saying.

No worries Bwana, Have spare tyre. Will change now now.

As the driver opened the boot to get tools and the spare tyre, a number of locals, no older than seven years of age came out of the bush offering to sell us all kinds of things. We politely refused most of the trinkets but very happily bought a couple of Cokes to cool us down in the heat of the African summer.

As we watched the driver slowly raise the car via the jack we heard an almighty crack. The jack broke and the car fell heavily back onto the road. What were we to do now? There we were in the middle of nowhere, with a car on three wheels with no way to change a tyre. At this point the engineer in Chris and I kicked into gear. We were working out the best way to change the tyre as quickly as possible. After all we did not want to be on the road in the dark. Many locals had died in crashes on the roads at night. We only had around thirty minutes of daylight left so needed to act quickly.

We went into the bush and collected some stones that we could use as a support. We then used manpower to lift the car via the wheel arch and put the stones under the vehicle as a substitute for the jack. Sadly the travel in the shock absorber meant that we could not gain sufficient height to remove the wheel. We then had a flash of brilliance – let the air out of the tyre. We confirmed with the driver that he had an air pump. We quickly started to let the air out of the tyre at which point a young barefooted boy wearing only a loincloth came toward us with hand-held out palm side up and said.

Can do Dollar

Chris and I both looked at each other. We wondered how someone in the bush with little or no clothes can do a better job than two engineers with more combined qualifications than a Nobel peace prize winner. We brushed aside the young boy and forged ahead. As we slowly removed the air from the tyre we eventually realised that we still did not have enough clearance to replace the tyre.

Again the boy approached.

Can do, Dollar

Once again we brushed him aside despite having around 200 dollars in my pocket. Chris and I went into a sweaty and flustered huddle. Time was now passing us by. We now had quite a crowd of locals gathered around somewhat bemused by the failed efforts of these two wise and worldly men’s attempts to change a tyre. Chris spotted that one of the observers had a machete. We asked if we could borrow it and went into the bush to cut some bamboo to use as a lever.

Again the young boy came across and hand-held out said,

Can do Bwana, Dollar!

Again we chose to go with our training and instinct. We tried to use the bamboo as a lever but the car shifted and came crashing to the ground with the stones scattering in all directions. We were now in a worse position than when we started. To make things worse we had consumed much time meaning we would now be travelling on the road at night with all the risk that entailed. Not a great result.

At this point Chris and I looked at each other and admitted defeat. Exhausted by the heat and frustration of our failed attempts We beckoned the young boy towards us and handed him one of the dollars that till now had been kept safely in my pocket. We was greeted by a warm and beautiful smile and instant action.

The boy called a number of his friends from the bush. They lifted the vehicle up a few inches and placed stones under the wheel axel. They then began to dig down into the road with their bare hands! One thing we had not thought of was digging down! Why would we? Roads in the UK are made of tarmac – not clay. Three minutes later the wheel was changed and we were on our way.

On our way back we began to reflect on our performance as educated and wise men! What would we do differently in future. After all our actions had put us at risk as we were now travelling on roads where many dangers lurked in the dark of the night. Thankfully we reached Kitwe safely.

On the way back home we agreed we had learnt many a lesson that day in Zambia. Here are a few of them.

  1. We do not always have all the right answers (despite our qualifications and experience). Others with different points of view given the chance can and often do come up with answers that we would never think about.
  2. Listen. If someone says they can do something then let them do it. You might be pleasantly surprised.
  3. Learn not to prejudice a situation or an individual. I am not proud to say that at this time I did brush the boy aside as I felt that someone of that age and background could not offer me anything. How wrong I was!
  4. Judge people by what they say and do. Not by how they look!

Now when I find myself jumping to conclusions or prejuding individuals or situations, I remind myself about my Zambian experience.  This life experience has taught me how to be a better leader of both myself and others.

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