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Models and contrasts of responsive leadership

Canute Thompson

Sunday, March 18, 2018

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Sometime in the 1990s, a customer service manager for a utility company told me that when she hears people complaining about her company she “jus tun off di radio or change di station”. While I could appreciate the stress that her work may have imposed on her, I was quite taken aback by her position. I have often used this story as an example of where not to begin when I discuss responsive leadership with leaders of organisations. The customer service manager's perspective may have been a reflection of the organisation's culture for, to date, the company is not known for excellence in the way it serves its customers.

NCB's display of responsive leadership

Sometime in 2017 I wrote what many described as a scathing column on National Commercial Bank (NCB) concerning weaknesses in some of its systems which had, among other things, resulted in inaccurate information on my accounts. The very day the piece was published the supervisor for customer compliments and complaints sent me an e-mail apologising. Soon after the chief operating officer (COO) called. He, too, apologised for the situation and committed to having each issue rectified in short order. The COO also thanked me for offering the company, what he called, “solid consultancy advice”, gave me his number, and invited me to call him whenever I had a problem or a need. In short, the company took my concerns seriously, responded with humility, acted with urgency, and in a few days rectified the issues completely.

Lest anyone thinks otherwise, let me be declare: My two cents are infinitesimal in a company that makes nearly $20 billion in profits. A magnifying glass could not pick up my financial relevance to the bank. The company could, therefore, have told me tell me to go to hell after it had addressed my concerns. My public criticisms would likely have had no serious impact on the company's profitability.

A few weeks later I had an urgent, complex, business transaction which needed to be executed in a short time frame. I contacted the COO and outlined what I needed and the urgency. I was referred to the person with direct responsibility for the type of transaction who assigned my case to an officer at the UWI Branch. My case was addressed with adroit precision and urgency. If the management were small-minded they could have taken a different attitude, given that my earlier public comments about the company were by no means complimentary. But the leadership of the bank understands the meaning of listening to customers.

Minister Montague responsive and willing to listen

Readers would be aware that I have been critical of the Minister of National Security Robert “Bobby” Montague. In addition to calling for his resignation or reassignment I have raised questions about the used car purchase with O'Brien's. (It must be noted, however, that my call for the resignation or reassignment of Montague had nothing to do with the murder rate, which I regard as partly social and systemic and for which the Government generally, not the Minister exclusively, should take responsibility.)

Some Jamaica Labour Party supporters believe I have been tough on Montague. For his part, however, the minister has shown responsive leadership and graciousness. The minister has sought to engage, considered ideas shared, and responded to questions raised. Many issues remain to be resolved, not only in the major area of crime, but the used car matter which should not be put to rest until the remainder of the $213 million is recovered given that all the vehicles have not been delivered. The recovery of the performance bond, as reported in the media earlier this year, and confirmed by the minister, is an important first step.

I found curious two themes in reading the minister's statement which was made in Parliament last December. The first relates to the origin of the policy. Montague made it clear that the decision to purchase used cars was part of the party's manifesto. The second theme concerns the ministry's apparent sensitivity to the potential dangers of the transaction. As I have said before, the prime minister needs to give the country certain assurances about this transaction and the policy of used cars. I remain of the view that more needs to be disclosed about this deal.

The real lesson I wish to highlight, however, is that despite being severely criticised, Montague has remained open to engage. He has also shown that he has the capacity to back down when the situation warrants. He recognised that his “obeah man uncle” comment was inappropriate and he withdrew it. Montague also recognised that his public spat with former Commissioner of Police George Quallo was improper and he publicly sought to mend fences.

Minister Chuck might learn from Montague

The Ministry of Justice can learn a thing or two from NCB and Montague. The Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative (CLRI) has taken an interest in the performance of the justice system. It has sought to stage a symposium on the justice system from as far back as October 2016, but it was put off due to the unavailability of invited officials from the Ministry of Justice. At least three postponements were made in order to facilitate the attendance of the minister or the permanent secretary, or some senior person. In the end, the event was held in April 2017 without the ministry present. A report on the proceedings of the symposium made some specific recommendations for improving certain areas of the justice system and strengthening accountability. This report was sent to the minister followed by several attempts to secure a conversation on same with him or his permanent secretary. There was no success.

Given that it was apparent that the CLRI was being snubbed, help was sought from an intermediary, who is a consultant on justice issues and works with the ministry. The consultant reviewed the report and advised that at least three recommendations addressed areas that should get the ministry's support. The consultant then offered to meet with the ministry to discuss the recommendations. The meeting was facilitated but the consultant reported that the reception had been cold.

When the recent furore over the acting appointment of the chief justice erupted, a senior partner at the CLRI suggested that the report of symposium be shared with the prime minister. This was done and copied to the Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck and his permanent secretary as well as members of the media. The commitment of the CLRI to work with the ministry to advance the goal of an improved justice system was reiterated. The permanent secretary responded in part, as follows:

“We are of the mind that based on Dr [so and so's] public posture on justice reform he could add no value or bring no new thinking to an already systematic and holistic justice reform programme… We have the external help that is required and where there are gaps we continue to engage with donors to provide support.”

The takeaway, in short, is that an individual who is critical of the Government can “add no value or bring new thinking”. This posture is not unlike that of the customer service manager of the utility company, and quite unlike the attitude of NCB and that of Minister Montague. The irony of the belligerence of the response of the permanent secretary could not be any more self-contradictory given that:

(a) It is coming from the Ministry of Justice.

(b) There is public record of the many deficiencies in the justice system.

(c) The prime minister has repeatedly stated his “commitment to work with all Jamaicans”.

I urge the minister of justice to tell the country the following:

(1) The specific targets and timelines for effecting the various reforms to the justice system;

(2) The measures of success of these reforms;

(3) What the reforms will mean for users of the justice system; and

(4) The cost of the reforms and how they are being funded.

I urge the prime minister, the minister of justice, and the permanent secretary to ponder this quote from the CLRI report that was sent to them: “The CLRI's doctrine of mutual accountability posits that the truly effective leader will at all times submit him/herself for critique and scrutiny by stakeholders and will see him/herself as being answerable to those whom he/she serves and leads.”

Dr Canute Thompson is head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning, lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of three books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.

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