Person of the Year 2016: Fred Matiang'i - The man who said no to monkey business

With North America keeping out of the fray and the German blitzkrieg sweeping across Europe like a tornado, it was left to the tiny island nation of Britain and its wartime minister, Sir Winston Churchill, to save the world from Hitler’s ‘abyss of a new Dark Age’.

When he roared that “we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,” Churchill would never have guessed that over a century later, Dr Fred Matiang’i, a ‘native’ in the British Protectorate of Kenya would stare down cartels who reaped millions by subverting the integrity of national exams and win.

That Kenya’s education system is in shambles is not in doubt. Shackled by a cumbersome curriculum, crowded classrooms, inadequate teachers and a dearth of teaching and learning resources, it has in recent years become a pipeline for shovelling mediocrity into a shrinking job market.

And through this mound of decay, the worm of exam cheating wriggled free, abetted by crooked teachers, parents, entrepreneurs and an inefficient and conniving exam council that stood twiddling its thumbs in the quagmire. We were helpless and at the mercy of cartels and a bad system that had turned education into a bazaar. We lacked leadership and direction.

Enter Dr Fred Matiang’i.

“I want to tell children in all candidate classes that they had better prepare for the exams. That monkey business (of cheating) that has been going on shall never happen again,” he growled, his face set in a Churchillsque scowl.

To those who have studied management, salvation of our education sector lay in emotionally intelligent leadership. The Ministry of Education needed someone whose personal vision was aligned to his role and the organisation, a leader who could clarify expected results so that there is no ambiguity around goals and results.

From clarified vision, goals and expected outcomes, we needed an effective leader who would make the choice to take the lead in creating the results he wants. A strong leader who would roll up his sleeves and get down to work, forming and driving teams and shoving obstacles out of the way.

The Ministry needed a leader who understands how others perceive them, one who would use that knowledge to shape perception and enhance greater ownership (among Ministry officials) of their leader and their desired and collective results. A leader who could clarify everyone’s individual role to build the courage to make the requisite changes to get the results.

In Dr Matiang’i, Kenyans – and the Ministry of Education – got that leader. Matiang’i stood up for what he believes in and took action as necessary, being appropriately swayed or affected by the well-being of those around him, but not avoiding the tough decisions that needed to be made. He considered the input of others, and factored them in his decision-making process, but stood firm when the need arose.

Matiang’i accepted that not every decision he made would be popular, or correct, but he pushed on stubbornly, his eyes firmly on the goal. But one suspects that he reflected back on each and every decision he made to determine whether it should have been different, and what could be learned to elevate his work to a new level of effectiveness.

Effective, that is Dr Fred Matiang’i. When he took up his new job after a stint as Information, Communication and Technology CS, Kenyans hoped that he would turn things around but feared that they would be treated to the usual circus of unending mediocrity.

But his delivery of credible examination results this year has shown the importance of clarity of vision, action and consistency. Cartels tried to derail the vision, but its bearer was firm and well aware of potential pitfalls. The vision bearer prevailed because he focused on results and refused to be distracted.

Now, if Winston Churchill’s strongest ally against the Germans and Hitler was American President Franklin D Roosevelt, Matiangi’s wingman was Prof George Magoha, the equally able and emotionally intelligent Chairman of the National Exams Council. Gentlemen, to paraphrase Churchill, this was your finest hour.

Never was so much owed by so many to so few. An emotionally intelligent leadership is one that yields results and brings hope and optimism where there was despair. Kenyans now know that it can be done, that the demons that bring us down – from corruption, nepotism, insecurity and incompetence in the public service - can be slayed with the right leadership.

For this, ladies and gentlemen, Dr Matiang’i is The Nairobian Person of the Year.