Around 10:35 am on August 7, 1998, al Qaeda operatives detonated a pick-up truck loaded with explosives next to the U.S. embassy building in Nairobi, Kenya. The explosion left over 200 dead and 5,000 injured. Inside the embassy, we suffered 50% casualties, including 46 dead. Kenya had no 911 and it took 36 hours for American rescue workers to arrive.
The people who crawled out of the embassy alive organized themselves and went back in as first responders. One team searched morgues and hospitals for missing co-workers. Another picked up the body parts of the dead. A third informed frantic family members of the death or injuries of loved ones. All of us had to confront the enormity of an international event.
Days turned into weeks and months and still our Kenyan and American colleagues persevered. As the senior-most leader of this community I had no choice but to adjust to their needs. I became a transformational leader without knowing the term.
Transformational and Transactional Leadership
Search “transformational leadership” on the internet today and nine million results appear in articles for scholars, businesses and professionals. According to a recent business magazine devoted to IT innovation, the transformational leader
- Encourages the motivation and positive development of followers
- Exemplifies moral standards within the organization and encourages the same of others
- Fosters an ethical work environment with clear values, priorities and standards.
- Builds company culture by encouraging employees to move from an attitude of self-interest to a mindset where they are working for the common good
- Holds an emphasis on authenticity, cooperation and open communication
- Provides coaching and mentoring but allowing employees to make decisions and take ownership of tasks[i]
The counterpart to this is “transactional” leadership. Bosses negotiate or hand down work goals and use extrinsic rewards tp motivate. In academic cultures, professors expect students to achieve established criteria to earn a passing grade. As an ambassador, I received instructions in a letter signed by the president and learned how well I was doing from performance evaluations Washington colleagues performed yearly.
From Leadership to Transformational Leadership
Unconcerned with its label, the leadership agenda I brought to Nairobi in 1996 focused on getting things done through teamwork and community. We set meaningful goals – like addressing corruption — and formed inter agency teams to carry them out. My husband and I opened the Residence to community events. Discussions about safety and well being were regular topics at weekly senior staff meetings for two years.
The day after the bombing, I had to decide whether I would visit our most badly wounded or attend a meeting the President of Kenya was calling. The advice of a mentor came into my head. ‘Take care of your people and the rest will take care of itself.” That became my strategy. Here is what I learned
Lessons about Practicing Transformational Leadership
The transformational leadership experience was a group not an individual effort.
No one performed heroic acts for external reward. Months after the bombing, I thought it would be a good idea to consider individual performance awards. Instead, we came apart as a community, second guessing and criticizing past actions. The focus needed to remain on group effort, not individual contributors.
To keep on course, ask powerful questions and listen to understand the answers
I understood that I could not take away wounds, pain, trauma, anger or sorrow, but I could enable a culture of healing. The only way I knew what that looked like was to ask questions of community members and experts and then listen. What I heard was this:
Put people first
Before the bombing our multi-agency mission goals focused on Department expectations. After the bombing, we set our own priorities. We knew best what needed to be done and had a sense of our capacity to carry on. We published mission priorities in the embassy newsletter so that the community could see that people came before policy. Over the following months, and with considerable outside help, we made astonishing progress. My own job was to make things happen.
Pay attention to the culture if you want to promote healing and accomplishment.
I had to push back people who wanted me to deal with minutia or make decisions for them. I also had to accurately represent the needs and views of the community to get the resources and attention we needed. That meant influencing colleagues in the Department to go beyond business as usual. I needed to bridge “we” and “they” attitudes as hundreds of people came from around the world to investigate the crime and support our efforts. I had to give feedback, hopefully hard on the problem and soft on the person. In return, I had to listen to feedback that was sometimes harsh and angry.
Dissent made a positive difference
Near the end of my tour some months after the bombing, I had to inform senior team members that we had lost the argument with Washington to create a park on the site of the bombed embassy. I tried hard to move this forward, but I was told “we don’t do parks.” Furthermore, the property belonged to the Kenyan government from whom we had a multi-decade lease. Tear down the building, grass over the land and hand it back to the government, were my instructions. I repeated the news at senior staff meeting.
“You can’t do that!” someone exclaimed. “Land grabbers will plant another building on the busy corner. Nothing will remain to commemorate what happened.” Everyone in the room knew instantly that he was right.
While colleagues found corporate and private sponsors to landscape and maintain a park, I lobbied every Kenyan cabinet minister to support my request that President Moi donate the land for a Peace Park. American officials who have since laid wreaths by the wall inscribed with names of the dead have no idea how it got there.
To take care of others I had to take care of myself
As a veteran of disasters from serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Africa Bureau, I understood burn-out. To avoid it meant taking care of my body, my mind and my spirit.
Persevere in your efforts and celebrate milestones. The transformation you seek may not come on your watch.
When I left ten months after the attack, recovery was still a work in progress. Later as ambassador in Guatemala and Dean of the Leadership and Management School at the Foreign Service Institute, I learned to practice “transformational” leadership in a “transactional” culture. It requires trust and resources from above and teamwork all around
As political leaders today grapple with the corona virus pandemic, we can see a variety of leadership styles. Modeling and calling for transformational leadership will increases the odds that the changes we are shaping are positive ones.
- What experience have you had with transformational leadership? What skills were involved? How did people stay motivated? What was the impact of success or failure?
- If you could apply transformational leadership to an aspect of our life now, what would you want to change? Who would be part of your team? What role would you play? What next step do you want to take?