Ralph Lewis on “What can we learn from Uganda about putting people first?”

HiBL final logo with strapline

For us to learn we must acquire new information and become able to see the same thing from a different perspective. As individuals with certain cultural maps about how the world works and how business operates, we need to experience contrasts to those views and confront our beliefs and assumptions. Without such contrasts that lead to confronting our traditional way of seeing or doing, there can be no change. Mendenhall et al, Global Leadership, 2012


Working in Uganda for a UK based Charity – Pepal to help develop leadership skills in the health sector has been a humbling experience. The commitment of the people in the clinics, their dedication, their care and their level of intellectual rigour has been outstanding. This is not to suggest that Uganda is better or worse than the UK but there is much we can learn from the Ugandans (and of course vice versa). And we share the same issues with regard to people even though the context is different.


The leadership skills in the clinics that are being developed build on modules of communication, teamwork and time management. (The latter is a source of much amusement to Ugandans who refer to African time – it not mattering to be exactly on time!) After a lengthy input session on communication the Ugandans summed up the whole by: “So this is all about saying what you mean and listening to others!” True and perhaps if this was adopted universally there would be no need for communication workshops!


This links in to the focus on people. Relationships are very important to Ugandans and they spend a long time greeting and acknowledging the other person and establishing contact before moving on to business or tasks. Sometimes this is frustrating to an “mzungu” (white Westerner) but it does ensure that people get to know and trust each other. And business is all about relationship anyway – something it is too easy to forget when faced with an overwhelming set of systems and numbers.

This extends to the “patients” in the clinics. They are referred to as “clients” because as explained the word patient suggests that the person relinquishes control to the clinical staff whereas a client has equal responsibility and equal status with the doctors – an interesting point of view for the NHS!


There is also a strong emphasis on service. In Mbale, a town in the east of Uganda is a sign for the Rotary Park Club. It has a four way test of “things we think, say or do”. These are:


  • Is it the truth?
  • Is it fair to all concerned?
  • Will it build good will and better friendships?
  • Will it be beneficial to all concerned?


And below these questions is the slogan “Service above Self” – not a bad start for any business that wants to develop its “heart”. And in Uganda, as in the UK, Nelson Mandela is held up as the ideal leader because of his approach to service (with Julius Nyerere of Tanzania coming second)


Again this is not to suggest that Uganda is perfect – far from it, but we can learn much from it and other developing countries – reverse innovation is the term whereby organisations modify their goods or services for a different market and then realise the modifications would enhance their offerings in the home market. So it is with leadership and putting heart back into business…


Ralph Lewis

The Greenleaf Centre for Servant-Leadership UK