Monday, 21 February 2011

Prof. C.O.E Onwuliri and the art of leadership

Joachim Ezeji

I have always emphasized it severally that there are two main kinds of approach to sustainability – ‘top down’ and ‘inside out’.

While Top –down approaches emphasize management, measurement and control. Inside – out approaches on the other hand stresses the importance of change and innovation. It may not be entirely possible to predict what you will do, but you can bet the process will be exciting! Innovation allows new systems and methods to be tried and may facilitate quantum leap towards a higher, and more sustainable level of operation.

The later is synonymous with the art of leadership of Professor COE Onwuliri, the current Vice Chancellor of the Federal University of Technology (FUTO) Owerri. Though I have heard his name over and over again in the years past, I never really met him. But all that soon became history, when I met this humble man of great virtue, an irrefutable 21st Century administrator, a few weeks ago.

On the invitation of Engr. Dr. Remy Uche, I had attended a church programme at the Federal University of Technology, Owerri. Remy Uche is currently the Dean, Student Affairs of FUTO, and for the event I attended, the Chairman of the Organising Committee. Remy Uche is also a member of the Rotary Club of Owerri, where I have known him for the past 10 years or even more.

The event of Sunday, 30th of January 2011 was a worthy one. It was the Feast Day of ST. Thomas Aquinas, the patron saint of the ST. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Chaplaincy, (STACC), of the Federal University of Technology Owerri (FUTO). ST. Thomas Aquinas is renowned in the Catholic Church as a hardworking and intelligent model teacher for young people especially those studying for the priesthood. He is fondly remembered by the Catholic faithful as one of the Church’s greatest theologians, philosophers and writers and was consequently named an Angelic Doctor of the Church.

That the leadership of the Catholic Church in FUTO named their church after this great Angelic Doctor of the Church is a thing of great inspiration. This is particularly so, for the many young people in that institution who are in most need of direction. No doubt ST. Thomas Aquinas provides even much more through his noble roles and teachings in the church.

However, beyond the church and its patron saint –ST. Thomas Aquinas; was the warm and most accessible presence of the university’s Chief Executive Officer at the event. I was deeply bowled over by the most humble disposition of Professor COE Onwuliri at that event. The man was so deeply connected with the university community, especially, his students at that ceremony that I imagined a scenario of the future of Nigerian universities with other Vice Chancellors doing exactly as he did.

When shall University Vice Chancellors come down from their Olympian heights to freely interact and associate with their students? During my time as an undergraduate at the University of Calabar, Vice Chancellors were rarely seen nor met. You only struggle to see them only on special occasions, and those were during matriculation and convocation ceremonies.

Vice Chancellors in most Nigerian universities are more like thin gods. They are more or less myths, and are rarely seen; but not Prof. COE Onwuliri. He is a unique breed compared with most of his colleagues elsewhere who keep aloof and only issue instructions.

I said as much, and in fact did confess how impressed I was with Professor Onwuliri when I had a second chance to use the microphone at that ceremony. I did say that his level of humility and accessibility are unequalled in the history of Nigerian Universities. Can you imagine; the man even knows most of his students by their names! He even moderates a major programme himself, playing the role of a Master of Ceremony (MC), and he even does that with panache and competence!

In profiling Prof. COE Onwuliri, a great academic and administrator on my column this week, I would emphasize that one great streak of his’ that enamours me so greatly is his high level of connectedness to the university community. It is also apposite to stress that going inside-out is about relationships and ‘connectedness’. Being connected and responsive to staffs, students, host communities and other stakeholders is the foundation of sustainability. Prof. COE Onwuliri is currently leading the role in building befitting temples of worship for God. One of such is the magnificent ST. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Chaplaincy, (STACC). The others possibly include those of the Anglican Church.

For aspiring managers and administrators, I will advise never to underestimate the power of building relationships with people before asking them to follow you. If you’ve ever studied the lives of notable military commanders, you have probably noticed that the best ones practiced the law of connection.

The erudite author John C. Maxwell in his seminal book The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership told the story of General Douglas MacArthur of the World War 1 in France, who told a battalion commander before a daring charge, ‘’Major, when the signal comes to go over the top, I want you to go first, before your men. If you do, they’ll follow’’. Then MacArthur removed the Distinguished Service Cross from his uniform and pinned it on the major. He had, in effect, awarded him for heroism before asking him to exhibit it. And of course, the major led his men, they followed him over the top, and they achieved their objective.

When a leader has done the work to connect with his people, you can see it in the way the organisation functions. Among employees there are incredible loyalty and a strong work ethic. The vision of the leader becomes the aspiration of the people. The impact is incredible. In FUTO, these are all evident, a microscopic example is Professor Onwuliri’s laudable leadership in the building of ST. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Chaplaincy, (STACC).

You can also see the results in other ways as buttressed by John C. Maxwell; who further told this story: ‘’ On the Boss’s Day in 1994, a full-page advert appeared in USA today. It was contracted and paid for by the employees of Southwest Airlines, and it was addressed to Herb Kelleher, the company’s CEO:

Thanks, Herb
For remembering every one of our names.
For supporting the Ronald McDonald House.
For Helping load baggage von thanksgiving.
For giving everyone a kiss (and we mean everyone).
For listening.
For running the only profitable major airline.
For singing only once a year.
For letting us wear shorts and sneakers to work.
For golfing at The LUV Classic with only one club.
For outtalking Sam Donaldson.
For ridding your Harley Davidson into Southwest Headquarters.
For being a friend, not just a boss.
Happy Boss’s Day from Each One of Your 16,000 Employers’’.

A display of affection like that occurs only when a leader has worked hard to connect with his people. Don’t ever underestimate the importance of building relational bridges between yourself and the people you lead. There’s an old saying : To lead yourself, use your head; to lead others, use your heart. That’s the nature of the Law of Connection. Always touch a person’s heart before you ask for a hand.

This scenario has also been the order for Prof. COE Onwuliri as prayer requests has remained the order at the Maria Assumpta Catholic Cathedral Church. His friends and subjects are always booking masses for him, praying God to grant him wisdom as he pilots the affairs of FUTO.

May God bless you Prof!

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