Here in Uganda, Labour Day is the only public holiday in the month of May and like most people, for me, Labour Day is one of the two bookends that contain the chapters of summer. Memorial Day demarks the starting line, and it seems we race to get all we can under our belts before we cross the finish line at Labour Day, and be ready for the final race into the Holidays and finally across the finish line and into the New Year. I know it horrible, and maybe even a little disturbing to be rushing to the end of a year before the summer is even technically over. But so many people seem to be looking forward to putting 2024 behind us – hoping that by next year, perhaps things might be more “normal” again.

I can’t help but feel that the normal we might be looking forward too might not look exactly like the normal that was unexpectedly interrupted. Instead I imagine that what we all really yearn for is a sense of the control we have lost.

Regardless of how directly or indirectly we were touched by the fallout from COVID – we have all had to come to grips with an undeniable uncertainty that has for a quarter a decade impacted the plans and the decisions we make – and the predictability we work so hard to find in the world.

I like to think that the conditions and situation we find ourselves in is actually ripe with opportunity. Change can be good, when we realize that the loss we fear is either not as painful as we imagined – or even nonexistent.

As human beings we have the distinct benefit of being able to imagine a better future. And more importantly, we have the means to create it.

So this year 2024, I found myself thinking of Labour Day as more of a commencement – than an end to the season. Why not make this the start of something really meaningful and worthwhile?

What if we could put an end to the dysfunction we see all around us? What if we could replace the mediocrity that defines so many things with a sense that something better, larger is possible? And what if we looked around and imagined all that is possible and make a commitment to one and other to make it all necessary? What could change? What would change?

The ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development describes Labour Day as being “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of Ugandan workers.

It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. It’s a nice thought – but is celebrating workers with a long weekend and backyard barbecues going to change Uganda?

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Labour Day actually was actually born out of The Labour Movement – which was led by workers who revolted against dangerous working conditions and unfair labor practices. Movements are always about leaders and followers – and ultimately about disrupting the status quo. The Labour movement drew battle line between workers and management in what at time escalated to actual bloody battles.

Yet one of the more interesting and I think significant advocates of Labour was not the work of a union organizer or a sympathetic politician. It was the owner of a meat processing company – who learned that applying real leadership is how you solve real problems. And that solving the most critical problems was equally beneficial to companies and their workers.

In 1990, The Harvard Business Review published piece by Ralph Stayer, titled “How I Learned to Let My Workers Lead.” Stayer was the CEO of Johnsonville Sausage – successful second-generation business. But as he noted at the start of the piece, “in n 1980, I was the head of a successful family business—Johnsonville Sausage—that was in great shape and required radical change.

He describes the frustration that every one of us who has ever run a company has experienced.

Dysfunction becomes institutionalized and mediocrity is normalized to the point of being perfectly acceptable.
You might not want to admit that your organization struggles with the foibles and deficiencies that Ralph Stayer experienced – but in my five to six years of working with CEOs and their organizations – I have yet to meet a single one that was any different. Some are worse than others, some are wildly successful despite their problems – and some have wreaked such havoc on the lives of their owners and managers that all the money in the world hardly seems worth the headaches and worse.

Part of Stayer’s journey was a matter of happenstance. He attended a program led by a professor at the University of Wisconsin named Lee Thayer. He would work with Thayer for many years – and Ralph Credited Lee Thayer for challenging him through the changes that he successfully led for over a decade. The results were so profound that Tom Peters wrote that the case of Johnsonville Sausage was one of the greatest business turn-around he had ever seen.

The sustainable growth that Johnsonville maintained through the years is not the most significant thing about the story. It is how that success was founded.

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Lee argued that it is the organization that makes the leader successful, not the other way around. He helped Stayer find ways to be an effective leader and create a standard for exceptional performance that not only served to benefit the company – but did so by directly benefiting the workers in meaningful ways.

How I Learned to Let My People Lead – is not a recipe for empowering or training employees, but insight into the kind of thinking that a leader must employ in order to get your workers to think about their performance and understand their own value and potential.
If you want to take something away from Labour Day of this year, it might be that you also need to learn to let your workers develop the sense of self-direction and self-worth that differentiates mediocre teams from those who help drive their companies to be High-Performance Organizations.

It is not what you do, per-se, that makes this happen. To make such a feat possible – and have your workers feel that their performance is not only valuable, but necessary, involves making yourself into someone who can do this.

As Lee Thayer would point out, you must learn how to think in order to understand the kind of person you must be – and then learn to perform at a virtuoso level in order to have any hope of making the kind of changes that Ralph Stayer become legendary for.

So beyond maybe celebrating with brats on the grill – I urge Ugandan employers and employees to read the article – and share it with their teams.

I have spent years studying Museveni’s style of leadership and through his work – and know that this is not just possible – but how the country really ought to work.

If you want next year to be better than this one, you begin by making tomorrow better than today. And you continue to do that every single day for the rest of your life.

If that sounds like too much work to you – it is. But if you are ready for the challenge – you will find that it is the least you can do. Besides, no weekend barbecue that I have ever attended ever came close to the experience of seeing what a team of competent, purpose-driven people can accomplish.

Lukanga Samuel
+256 785 717379

The writer is a Social Development Enthusiast and an Ambassador of Humanity

The post LUKANGA SAMUEL: Reflecting on this year’s labour day differently can make you a better leader appeared first on Watchdog Uganda.


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