Servant Leadership for Education Program in Rural Kenya

My understanding of success for Nuru in Kenya is if, when the Western staff exits in five years, Nuru Kenya will continue to function and scale to other parts of the country eradicating extreme poverty along the way. Many international NGOs have worked in developing countries, producing great impact at first but once the NGO leaves, the local people are left with health clinics that have no nurses or doctors, classrooms that have no teaching materials or effective teachers, wells that are broken and do not pump water, etc. In other words the programs started by these well-meaning NGOs were not sustainable, including many that have come and gone through Kuria. That is the reason I had such reservations about the classrooms we built at St. Joseph Academy as described in my blog several weeks ago. Such programs could be good and they lift up communities but there is no sustained impact, no sustained development.

I believe one of the reasons for this failure of development organizations is that the balance and idea of power is skewed in developing countries. There are few who control the majority of wealth and therefore power, and often lord it over the rest of the citizens. Having only these kinds of leaders means that if a poor person somehow lucks out due to interventions or even hard work to be lifted out of poverty, that person would tend to use their wealth to become the kind of leader that they have been exposed to all their lives – ones who use their wealth and power to lord over others. These kinds of leaders do not uplift the poor but only themselves.

If Nuru is not proactive in combating such tendencies, we may leave behind Nuru Kenya that keeps wealth for only its members and leaves behind the majority of the population in extreme poverty. Typical leaders will act to keep their own powers and limit the upward potential of the rest and Nuru leaders could follow this path. Proactive combating of these tendencies comes in our model as “servant leadership”. We teach a different kind of leadership than what people here have encountered in the past. Instead of leaders who take more and more for themselves, we teach our leaders to truly be servants, to serve the communities whom we are working to help. It goes against everything people understand about having wealth and power. It is a paradigm shift that we are promoting and something extremely important to the success of our organization. It has been ingrained in the Foundation Teams and we are trying to help our CDC managers, not only to learn it but to live it.

I was extremely encouraged this week when Francis, the Education CDC Manager, practiced servant leadership. Two of the Education Coordinators (EC), Francis and I visited a local school to speak with the head mistress about her school. When we arrived, the head mistress explained how busy she was and expressed her desire for us to make an appointment. We made an appointment with her for the following week and left. During our weekly EC meeting that afternoon, Francis apologized to the EC for wasting their mornings. He explained that it was his fault for not scheduling with the head mistress ahead of time and apologized for having them come to a meeting that never happened. It seems like such a simple gesture, yet I was extremely touched. Leaders here don’t apologize to their subordinates. Leaders here don’t express regret for wasting the time of others. Leaders here don’t admit their mistakes. Yet servant leaders do all of the above. Francis is internalizing the lessons he has been taught and offered a genuine apology. He is becoming a servant leader, so crucial to the success of our sustained efforts in Kuria and the rest of Kenya.

About Thomas Hong

Leadership Program Director — Thomas has worked in education and leadership development in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Mongolia and Uzbekistan. He holds a B.A. in Economics and master’s degree in teaching from the University of Virginia and an MBA in international organizations from the University of Geneva.

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