Being deliberate about leadership transformation

DG Joe Otin’s Speech at Installation of Dan Awendo as the President of the Rotary Club of Nairobi-East

6th July 2019

I joined the Nairobi-East Rotary Club when I was still wet behind the ears. I was running my first small business and I must admit that I felt intimidated sitting among the established corporate executives, professionals and business men who were members at the time. I remember when I was asked to present my first job-talk a few weeks after I had joined their ranks.

Sonia Raja had called me the previous day with what she believed to be good news. She told me that the administration committee had graciously selected me to be the guest speaker at the clubs regular meeting the following day and that they believed that it would give the members a chance to get to know me a little better.

Her words rung in my ears because it felt as if Mike Tyson had jumped out of the receiver and lavishly planted a right hook in my ear. Boom.

I only had a few hours to prepare before speaking to this audience of distinguished men and women, which was certainly not enough to develop a compelling presentation. Until then, my experience in public speaking was limited to secondary school house plays, but poor acting in front of teenagers who are picking their noses and scratching their body parts is a very different proposition from presenting a coherent speech before a group of people with international exposure.

I literally got a pounding headache, my appetite vanished, and I got a cold sweat as she replaced the receiver. I cancelled my afternoon and got down to composing my first speech ever, which I had to write entirely by hand and then rewrite in fine print several times to eliminate any mistakes, which was quite a painstaking process.

When I got to the meeting the next day, I could hardly follow the proceedings as all I could hear was the sound of blood pumping in and out of my aching head, and the butterflies were vigorously swarming around my empty stomach and I could hardly stand straight. After staring at my meal for a long stretch without touching it, I heard someone mention my name as they run through a sketchy introduction, and now it was time to make my debut in public speaking.

My body had generated so much heat that my glasses fogged up which made it absolutely impossible to read the speech that I had spent the entire night writing, and even if I could see the words my hands were shaking so much that the sheets of paper I was clutching were waving like flags in a windstorm. Occasionally I could hear myself speaking, and perhaps there was a chuckle here and there from the audience, and I knew it was over when there was a light but hesitant applause from the members.

It took me a long time to get over those feelings of apprehension that occurred whenever I was asked to speak in public. I particularly hated being asked to say something impromptu, like when you leave the office, happy to have lunch and listen to a good speaker without having any duties on that day, only to arrive at the meeting where the club president asks you to give a vote of thanks because the member assigned to it cancelled at the last minute. Anything but the vote of thanks, because it comes right at the end, and the indigestion that I suffer after being asked to speak without preparation lasts a little longer than an hour, and thus my meal is wasted.

I know several lapsed members who have bolted from the club never to be seen again after a few requests of this sort; they were not prepared to deal with that type of anxiety.

I began a new journey on that day one that lead me onto the path of self-discovery and emotional intelligence, and I realized that every challenge, however great or small, changed me in some way. When I was elected club president years later, the man that made the valedictory speech at the end of the term, was very different from the man that made the acceptance speech on the first day of office.

Every opportunity in leadership transforms you. Whether it is Kofi Annan, who presided over the United Nations for 10 years, the man that was sworn in was different from the man that bowed out gracefully. Whether it’s the opportunity to be a class prefect, the girl that takes on the responsibility is different after one year, because leadership gives her new perspectives of society and herself, and it generally makes her want to be a better person. You can imagine how the journeys of people like Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, or Angela Merkel have changed their character and disposition.

However, the outcome of the transformation is entirely up to you. After going through a number of interesting changes at every stage of leadership, and having watched others go through their own experiences, I have come to appreciate that it is important to be deliberate about the transformation that would be of benefit to you and your community.

Nairobi-East Rotary Club took its coolness credentials to the highest level when you led 39 people on an excursion to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. It has been the club’s greatest achievement as you raised over $35,000 dollars for polio in that event alone and congratulations to Past President Carole Kimutai who was then at the helm.

I was part of that expedition and it is categorically the hardest thing I have ever done. When I got to the top, I recalled a fact I had read on Google, that the stage before death on the mountain is hallucination. So, when I began to see Micky Mouse in snow, or mythical and legendary creatures in the clouds, I was convinced that my time here on earth was coming to a chilly end.

Thank heavens it was not to be, but I can tell you that the man that went up the mountain is not the same man that returned. I came back with a renewed appreciation for the sacredness of life, the value of friendship and the importance of seeing Micky Mouse in the snow; which told me that even on the face of death, my mind wasn’t without a sense of humor.

The Oracle in The Matrix says that you can’t see past the choices you haven’t made, and it is indeed difficult to determine how leadership will affect your character. However, we can review our past experiences and draw up a road map that might make the journey worthwhile and lay the foundations to advance your capabilities.

My first observation is that when transformation is happening it is frightening, mostly because it is unfamiliar, but also because the prospect of failure is apparent. We seem to learn the most when we are going through our toughest times and that is when wisdom and understanding sink in. So remember that 50 percent of the things you do in your year will not be things that you have planned for, but will be surprising challenges approaching from blind spots. And as a motivational speaker once said, “If you want to fulfil your potential, do something that scares you every day.”

The second thing I learned was not to take anything for granted. I’ve learned that every mountain I climb and every hill that I hike over has its own challenges and that none can be classified as easy; and so it is for every task, initiative or worthwhile endeavor that requires planning, skill and commitment. Every time we are overconfident about our ability, or underestimate the resources required for a certain task, we are often found unprepared and face great difficulty or failure.

Lastly these experiences help to focus the mind. Success depends on the ability of the leader to bring the combined thinking, capabilities and aspirations into a focused set of actions and outcomes. The process of staying focused throughout your term, despite the unexpected trials that disrupt your systems, helps to build your leadership muscle and set a formidable temperament. If you stay present to every experience, take one step at a time, give each task the concentration it deserves and pay close attention to your team members, then your outcomes will be great, and your legacy will be established.

I believe it was Steven Covey that said, “Obstacles are those scary things that you see when you look away from your goals.”

President Dan, you have been elected to serve at the pinnacle of the Nairobi-East Rotary Club and it is a sign of the team’s confidence in you. As you prepare to elevate your game, I ask the board and the members of the club to take these thoughts and apply them to support you and the greater goals.

The four cardinal virtues are fortitude, prudence, temperance and justice. Addressing the things that scare you builds your fortitude; the ability to take things as they are and not for granted sharpens your prudence; focusing your mind strengthens your temperance; and paying attention to your members establishes your justice.

May God bless the vision on your mind, the love in your heart and the work of your hands, and may he bestow you, your family and your club members with good fortune, sound health and abundant love now and forever.

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