In Nuru, we embrace a model of leadership called “servant leadership.” This style of leadership stands in contrast to many conventional leadership paradigms, because it characterizes leadership as a position of responsibility and service, not a symbol of privilege and power. In this month’s blog, a member of Nuru’s Kenyan Training Team, Francis Magige, gives his perspective on why Nuru strives to cultivate this specific kind of “servant leader” model.

According to Nuru International, servant leadership means a unique style of leadership based in the provision of service to the people, empowering them to be able to solve their own problems by themselves in a sustainable way.

Since Nuru’s mission is to end extreme poverty by involving poor folks using a “bottom-up” approach, “servant leadership” is an essential part of our model. This is in contrast to other NGOs who do not necessarily value this kind of leadership. When NGOs don’t involve the people, the people do not take ownership of the project that is being introduced from the top. As a result, the project often fails once the people in charge leave. In order for poverty solutions to be sustainable, people need to be approached and treated with humility, honesty, and truthfulness. They also need to be involved in whatever activity or decision making that affects them. Through servant leadership, Nuru is able to achieve this in places where leadership has a very different meaning.

Over time, the people of Kenya have since lost confidence with their leaders. Since [our country’s] independence about forty years ago, the gap between the rich and the poor has increasingly widened. People no longer see a need to vote to elect leaders because when leaders are elected or appointed they do not serve the people. Instead, they serve themselves, their friends, and closest relatives. The resources intended to develop communities are channeled through the powerful, such as the minister, the provincial commissioner, district commissioner, and the chief. The poor at the bottom rarely get anything. For example, funds designated to help the schools buy books and materials are pocketed by every level of office, from the “big fish” in the ministry down to the headmaster of the school. Little or nothing reaches the children in most need.

Corruption is everywhere. People buy all things official [from the government -] from identification cards to passports, birth and death documents, judiciary and police services, employment, business licenses and permits; the list is endless. One elects a leader and one has to bribe him to get a job or any service. Once a leader is appointed or elected, he or she is considered above the people who have elected him. In the case of members of parliament or ministers, that means going to live in Nairobi for the whole of five years (the period for which they are elected). The leader only makes cosmetic visits once after six or so months and pretends to be busy in the city the remainder of the time. Once “the cat” is not in the house, imagine how “the rats” molest everything. Agriculture extension officers, the nurses, teachers, chiefs, etc. are not available to help solve people’s problems. Without proper supervision, these lower-level officials abandon their responsibilities in favor of promoting their private businesses and increasing their wealth. The situation is desperate and one of losing hope.

Leaders in Nuru are visibly different from traditional Kenyan leaders. They do not have fat bellies, and they sacrifice their time and resources to serve the poorest of the poor. They are able to hear the poor man’s problems, unlike the government official who drives very expensive vehicles from the poor taxpayer’s pockets, but [who himself] do[es] not pay tax[es] to the government!

In serving the people, a Nuru leader has to recognize the following:

  • that his/her rank in the position of leadership is there for the purpose of serving
  • that the power belongs to the people he/she is serving
  • that his/her ability to lead depends on the support of the people

Unlike the government, Nuru trains [its staff in] servant leadership, which considers people as their equals. By empowering communities, Nuru leaders succeed in helping people to be able to solve their own problems and be sustainable. The kind of training Nuru leaders receive on servant leadership enables them to work with the people in a close partnership. The community listens to them and is willing to cooperate with these servant leaders because their approach is respectful and humble. Over time, the community acquires knowledge and skills that enable them to have major say in decisions that affect their lives. Hence, as servant leadership spreads, they would be able to differentiate the right leaders from those that are corrupt.

This gives me hope. When people living in poverty can elect the right leaders to lead them, the world would be at peace forever.