Strategic leadership amidst political uncertainty in Kenya

Photo credit to Averroes Business Advisory


Barely three weeks to the national elections in Kenya, and the decline in business is notable. The reduction of profits in many entities and in some cases the closure of entire business ventures is announcing the forthcoming politically induced comma of the business world. This is not a new phenomenon in Kenya; a report by Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) in 2013, just before the general election, revealed the same thing. Many SMEs were completely shut down in fear of a post-election crisis in major cities like Kisumu, leaving thousands of people out of employment (IRIN 2013).

Politics is a major environmental factor affecting businesses. “Historically, Kenya has also been vulnerable to election related shocks, and there will be increased attention on the conduct of the 2013 elections, given the post election violence of 2007-08,” noted World Bank in a 2013 report. The truth of this was resounded in the 2017 election period and it continues to characterize Kenya’s electoral landscape today.

The months leading up to, and after, elections have been the most turbulent seasons in Kenya’s post-independence history. As we draw near to the 2022 poll and adding on the hit of COVID-19 pandemic on the economy, it is safe to say that businesses are staring at a mound of unpredictability. To survive, businesses, have to respond to the environment strategically.

Beyond the threat of lack of peace and stability which undoubtedly interferes with the health of any business environment, there is also the issue brought in by political change. Political factors involve the decisions and laws that governments make primarily to do with tax and laws. The questions and conversations in business leaders’ circles in Kenya right now go something like: will the incoming government raise or lower corporation tax? Will it increase value-added tax on products or business rates? Will new laws like the National Minimum Wage be adopted? Will the discipline of law enforcement agencies prevail? Will the health and safety legislation policies change forcing us to change our structure and operations? According to a standard newspaper issue in the region (The Africa Report) countries like Uganda are already looking to Dares Salaam port as an alternative for Mombasa port, fearing any likely chaos that could disrupt flow of goods which includes more than 85% of the country’s, Uganda, imports and exports.

Now, businesses and organizations cannot control the external factors but they are affected by them and so they have to respond. What happens then? Is there a place for strategy in such times?

Strategic leadership as an anecdote to political ambivalence

Strategic leadership can be defined as a practice in which executives, using different styles of management, develop a vision for their organization that enables it to adapt to or remain competitive in a changing environment (Holak 2022). Functional strategic leadership involves innovation, perception, and planning, utilizing strategy in the management amidst issues that influence organizations externally. It requires the potential to foresee and comprehend the work environment. (Juneja 2022). According to a report by Harvard Business School (Andrews 2020), below are some of the key strategic leadership practices that help when faced by external threats such as political uncertainty:

  1. Communication
    In such times, many businesses and organizations do not know what to do or what will happen. The ‘normal’ terms of engagements do not seem to cope right with the political tension surrounding them. Balazs, in her book: Transforming the Mind-set of the Organization”, advises that it is important for leaders to over communicate to their teams (Kets De Vries & Balazs, 1999). Even when as a leader you are not clear on the direction to take, communicate with your team. Give all the contextual information you can to the employees so as to curb anxieties and misguided speculation. Lobby the employees though communication and motivation. In your communication be honest, consistent, professional, personal, and optimistic.
  2. There is no standard perfect response to business crisis
    The Fred Fiedler Contingency Model created in the mid-1960s, states that there is no one best style of leadership and instead the effectiveness of a leader is based on the situation at hand. In times of uncertainty, leaders and their teams ‘freeze’ unable to continue with status quo yet afraid to alter it. It is important as a strategic leader not to allow yourself to be avoidant of the upcoming situations. David Baldoni, a Management author says ‘Act promptly, not hurriedly. A leader must provide direction and respond to the situation in a timely fashion. But acting hurriedly only makes people nervous. You can act deliberately as well as speed’ (Baldoni 2011). There is no ‘abc’ procedure in response to environmental disruptions so leaders must be open to learning from different sets of ideas, experiment with them with the goal of adapting to new realities.
  3. Overcome common psychological traps.
    Business might significantly drop well and beyond 9th August, 2022.
    What does that information do to you as a leader? What is your default reaction? Where does your mind go to? Here are some of the most likely reactions from leaders (Andrews 2020):

    • Availability bias – going to and relying only on the information that is available and easy to retrieve.
    • Confirmation bias – looking for information that confirms what we already believe.
    • Hindsight bias or oversight bias – overestimating the likelihood of something happening.
    • This bias fosters mistakes in interpreting the information we receive during a crisis.
      These kinds of orientations can make you as a leader misinterpret situations due to either panic or overconfidence and thus react wrongly. Strategic leadership demand that you pause and interrogate the under lying motivation, to learn if it is right or wrong and so flexibly adapt.
  4. Restructuring organizations and businesses
    Hierarchical structures often hinder an organization’s ability to address new problems. The challenge of getting bureaucratic leaders to let go of controls and allow flexible coordination stalls or immobilizes the organization’s response to risks. Strategic leadership will consider restructuring in view of the fact that multiple agents leading together helps to spread decision-making risk, fosters creativity and starves off burn-outs. This gives more agents the chance to exercise their leadership muscle and be part of helping people through crisis (Moore 2020).
  5. Back to the drawing board- Again!
    Mark Moore, a management professor at Harvard Kennedy School says, ‘the idea that we can manage our way out of a crisis using plan and control is misplaced.’ (Andrews 2020). This connotes that mistakes are inevitable. It is impossible not to make mistakes in the face such political uncertainty. The aftermath of the political wave we are experiencing can swing either way; remarkably good or bad. So as leader you project the things you are able to from where to stand and start charting the way forward. When or if you get it wrong along the way, you simply identify your mistakes fast, change direction and keep going.