WANJURAH: My free advice to Matiang’i: Praise loudly, blame softly

I know the phrase has existed long before Fred Matiang’i popularised it in Kenya but I just can’t trace its origin on Google.

That is because “approaching every issue with an open mouth” has many claimants on the Internet going back to 1870. But when the Education Cabinet Secretary used the phrase in reference to critics of his reforms in the Ministry, he made it sound like an original insult.

To be fair to Matiang’i, he did not pretend to have authored the phrase. In telling off critics’ zealous condemnation of his prescribed antidote to exam cheating, the CS had a point. A lot of the criticisms, especially from MPs, betray more of mouth than mental exercise. While schools burn, politicians are preoccupied with his resignation as if that, of itself, will douse the flames.

You can argue that Matiang’i is sublimely talented in inviting trouble. He never seems to see a snake he does not wish to rattle. Because of his cantankerous tone and blunt speak, the CS can make normal greetings sound like a war cry. He adopts a take-no-prisoners disposition even in the most benign of ceremonies.

It would be interesting to listen to the CS praying in private. I imagine a fly on the wall would be forgiven for imagining he was in an animated quarrel with God. But this should be forgivable in appreciation that we are all, and that includes Matiang’i, made in His own image. That should extend to his voice!

I have heard it gossiped that he picked the habit from his training as a high school teacher at the Kenyatta University. A good teacher must speak to be heard. But the CS could benefit from communication finesse such as the power of calm locution and not shouting when he can whisper. That would entail him learning control of his volcanic temper. An angry man makes for a clumsy speaker!

Matiang’i must also be careful not to unnecessarily antagonise teachers even when he means well. Many teachers happen to be well educated and genuinely love their job. As a group, they are inclined to being prickly to perceived condescension. The flipside of this is that they take criticism badly even when well deserved.  They have a visceral dislike for those who upset their comfort zones by trying to change too many things too soon.

But that is not to say the CS should go easy with the education sector reforms. Neither should he shy away from speaking his mind on explosive issues such as school fires and exam-cheating. My free advise to him is to practice Catherine the Great mantra: praise loudly and blame softly. Or as Theodore Roosevelt, the former US President, advised, “speak softly and carry a big stick!”

It is not like Matiang’i needs a reminder of the big stick he needs to wield. For nobody can fairly accuse him of having doubts who is in charge in the Ministry. I think that is, arguably, his strongest point.

He knows the buck stops with him and he is evidently mindful of the limited time he has to stamp his authority and produce results. The country goes to elections next year and management of education is always a campaign issue. It can be the perfect Achilles heel for the incumbent government if only the Opposition wasn’t so clueless.

Where other CSs would elect to mollycoddle belligerent teachers unions and engage in bite-and-massage poker with stakeholders, Matiang’i would rather say it and be damned. That is decisive leadership.

Making hard, unpopular but right decisions is a trait that has been in short supply in the Education Ministry. Matiangi’s immediate predecessor, Jacob Kaimenyi, initial zeal for reforms tapered off in incessant duels with the unions. Whereas the Prof made all the right promises in typical lecturer mode, he lacked the sheer guts to walk the talk that his successor is demonstrating.

In fact, the only other person who seemed to have the boldness to shake up the education sector in recent years is Deputy President William Ruto. Then serving under the “nusu mkate” government, he seemed to have figured out some long overdue policy changes. Even then, not everybody sent him flowers for his zeal. Matiang’i should be encouraged to soldier on.

But he also needs help in helping himself. A good leader, as my boss is wont to preach, excels not by personally doing all the great things. Rather, the secret is to bring out the best in everyone under you. To do so effectively, there are a few verses from the management bible that Matiang’i needs to ingest.

One, he needs to drop the messiah complex. It is all good and proper to be clear in your mind that your job description is essentially a salvation mission; that your task is to redeem an important sector like education and urgently so. But your words and body language do not have to make it so blatantly obvious.

As Matiang’i is experiencing, human beings are wired to resist change. They hate it even more if the change-agent is an outsider because implicit in this is that insiders are not good enough. Rather than flying in noisily in know-it-all wings, tack would suggest a less-stormy entry and measured pace while of course remaining cognisant of time constraints.

Tied to this is learning the power of collective pronouns. The CS needs to drop his obsession with the “I” and adopt “we” when talking about the Ministry. “I have said the school calendar will not change…” or “I’m not going back on this” for instance, just sounds personal and wrong.

You almost imagine Matiang’i in his house, in a tee shirt and flip-flops, arguing with his wall calendar while circling dates like a man planning a family holiday. Only this time, he would be fixing and re-fixing the schools’ terms! That is what a first person singular speech does. It lends credence to critics’ claims that Matiang’i is often seized by bouts of himself.

The other problem with that kind of speech is that it makes everyone else feel like your slave. You will find in the Education ministry career officers who have never imagined working anywhere else. Besides Treasury, it is perhaps the only other ministry that encourages narrow but deep specialisation in a given field.

I don’t know for sure but I would not be surprised if there exists a schools’ calendar department. An officer with 30 years plus experience will probably be in charge. All that such an officer needs for job satisfaction is an occasional acknowledgement of his input by his seniors. That is lost whenever Matiang’i sticks to “I”!

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